Australian Labor Party Elects a New Leader! Bill Shorten

| by Laksiri Fernando

( October 13, 2013, Sydney, Sri Lanka Guardian) Just before the public announcement this afternoon, I received the email signed by Chris Bowen, Acting Leader of the Australian Labor Party (ALP), saying, “With a Caucus vote of 63.95% and membership vote of 40.08% which totals 52.02%, the new Leader is Bill Shorten.” I received this email not as ALP member, but as a Labor supporter.

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I write this news to mainly a Sri Lankan audience not to compare ‘apples and oranges,’ as some might argue, but because of the unresolved leadership crisis within the United National Party (UNP) and also to highlight the importance of internal party democracy of all political parties for a properly functioning democracy in the country. Of course, a party should not change the leader for the sake of changing him/her or otherwise it would be like a typical Kotta Maruwa (changing the pillow). However, it was not the case in Australia.

After the defeat of the Labor Party at the last Parliamentary election on 21 September, Kevin Rudd gracefully resigned from his leadership position. He knew that there are many capable people to lead the party and the circulation of leadership is in fact a good thing for a dynamic political party. Of course in addition, there had been several factional struggles within the party, and no party or country is immune to these problems. But the difference perhaps is about how one resolves them in a decent and a democratic manner. Well before he resigned, and even before the election, Rudd proposed and the party accepted a new formula to select the party leader. That is what worked today.

It was a broad democratic process where both the elected MPs and ordinary party members equally participated. As the email I received further said “This historic vote which combines the votes of Labor Caucus with the votes of 30,426 Labor Party members - a 74% turnout - has changed our great Party forever and is already making us stronger.”

The reason to say that was “since the leadership campaign started more than 4,500 people have said they want to join Labor.” I am again quoting from the email. This is the merit of internal democracy of any modern political party. It might be the case that a ‘complicated democratic formula’ cannot be implemented in the Sri Lankan case or in the case of the UNP. In that context, the proposed Leadership Council might be the best or the transitional option, until other matters are settled. But the move should be towards democracy, respect for others’ views, and the involvement of grass roots and settling of disputes with utmost civility.

I have followed the leadership campaign very closely and both Anthony Albanese and Bill Shorten campaigned on principles and campaigned with respect for each other. There were no ‘demonstrations’ or harsh words, let alone ‘shooting in the campaign trails.’

I have just now received another email form the newly elected leader Bill Shorten, announcing his intentions. It begins saying “Today is an historic day for the Australian Labor Party. For the first time in our long and proud history, members have been involved in selecting a new Labor Leader.” Then he went onto appreciating his contender saying “I want to congratulate Anthony Albanese on his campaign. Anthony is a good and decent Labor man and we are lucky to have a man of his formidable talents in our Parliamentary ranks. He will continue to make a strong contribution to the Labor team.” It further said in bold “This leadership ballot represents a new beginning. It was inspiring. It was democratic. And it was a privilege to be a part of it.”

Political parties in Sri Lanka, particularly the UNP at this juncture may or may not willing to take examples from ‘foreign countries’ like Australia. But there are examples from our own history. Let me digress somewhat a bit from the main theme of the Labor Party to make this point.

When Senarat was the King of Kandy in early part of the 17th century and when he was not well to carry forward his duties, he opted to call the Royal Assembly. He could not handover the leadership to his son, Rajasingha II, as he was still small. When the Assembly assembled, he said “I first of all desire you to forgive me all miscarriages I may have committed or the same having been done without my knowledge.” (Philip Baldaeus, Description of Ceylon, p. 693). He then asked them to elect a new King to take care of the affairs of the country until his son matures. But they were humbly reluctant to do so or to come forward. Then he asked his little son to come and select two from the Assembly. In fact, Rajasingha selected three and they became a kind of a Leadership Council!

The quotation is from Baldaeus to show that even the Kings (at least some) were very humble when there were miscarriages of affairs of the country, not to speak of a political party. Baldaeus also records that even the King was crying. I am sure when the wise monks proposed a Leadership Council to the UNP, they were well aware of these good traditions of the country (besides the horrible ones). It is also possible that King Senarat was suitably cunning to avoid a violent competition between the different princes to the throne or to divide the territory among them and through this devise of the ‘Leadership Council’ that predicament was avoided until Rajasingha II came of age. It is interesting to note that an envoy from the King of Jafnapatanam was also there. It is possible that I must have massaged the story a little bit to suit the occasion, except the last fact, and even Baldaeus must have done the same.

However the contemporary lesson is clear. Whatever the difficulties or problems in countries or political parties, the issues should best be resolved through democracy, possible dialogue and decency. The Australian Labor Party might be the best example to device some ways of resolving internal party matters for the best interests of the parties and the country.