Tony Abbott looks badly shaken. John Menadue

Tony Abbott is obviously shaken by Kevin Rudd’s return. The coalition had been expecting to win by default and chose quite deliberately to provide as small a target as possible and release few policies. What “policies” there were were usually reduced to one liners. Tony Abbott left the dead wood in his shadow cabinet. He refused three debates with Kevin Rudd, something which opposition leaders would normally seize with both hands. And he refused to debate the three issues on which he has been staking so much, deficits, boats and the carbon tax. Then there was Kevin Rudd’s intervention in the NSW ALP branch. Then there was the agreement with President Yudhoyono to host a regional conference on asylum seekers in Indonesia. And to top that off the Indonesian President gave Tony Abbott a backhander about taking “unilateral” action on turning boats back to Indonesia. Then there was Kevin Rudd’s proposal to commence democratic renewal in elections for the leader of the parliamentary ALP. Through all this the opinion polls are trending very much in Kevin Rudd’s favour. Much is promised but can Kevin Rudd follow up and deliver?. Implementation is always the hard part. But it has all clearly unsettled Tony Abbott.

Kevin Rudd’s action on ALP reform is in my view the most important of all. In my blog of June 25 headed ‘Julia Gillard’s greatest failure’, I referred to her unwillingness to lead the reform of the sclerotic ALP structure.

She had her chance at the ALP federal conference in 2011 with the report prepared by John Faulkner, Bob Carr and Steve Bracks on ALP party reform. The proposed reforms were quite modest but Julia Gillard didn’t provide the leadership needed to really start the reform process. That failure stemmed from her dependence on the ALP machine and the factions which chose her as leader in 2010. Kevin Rudd then blasted the ALP Federal Conference for failing to “take some giant leaps forward” He was criticized by the union heavies and faction bosses. They did not want democratic renewal

Kevin Rudd is not dependent on those machine people and factions, and it is not surprising that one of the first things he did was to intervene in the parlous state of the NSW branch of the ALP. The Federal Executive has set out an eight-point plan for reform.  With an election only weeks or months away, the ALP could scarcely sack the whole NSW branch, although I hope that down the track it will do so. Kevin Rudd has followed this up with a proposal that ALP members as well as members of the Parliamentary Labor Party should choose the leader. I don’t think unions should have a role in this.

But a key issue ahead will be the role of unions at party conferences. Obviously their influence must be reduced particularly as their membership has declined to only about 18% of the workforce today. Rodd Cavalier suggests union representation at federal and state conference should be reduced from 50% to 15%. I am not sure what the figure should be. The unions do provide stability for the ALP. They provide significant financial and hands-on support. They are the largest and most significant group in Australia committed to social justice. Their influence has prevented Australia going down the path of economic and social inequality that is so appalling now in the US. Working people in that country are paying a very heavy price for the neutering of the trade union movement. Unions may be annoying from time to time but if Australia faced a major crisis I would rather be in their corner than with any other group.

As the reform process gets under way particularly after the federal election, the role of unions, the participation of the rank-and-file in conferences and the selection of the parliamentary leader will be critical.

Julia Gillard wouldn’t start the process. Kevin Rudd is making encouraging progress.  Tony Abbott looks flat footed. He and his coalition colleagues expected a cake walk. They didn’t really prepare.  They now look ill at ease with a new and energised Rudd Government

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