ALP Leadership Contest, Factional Divisions and the Spectre of International Crises

Posted on February 24, 2012 by


The current Gillard-Rudd confrontation highlights the problems that Australia’s 20th century political parties face in dealing with 21st century policy problems.

The Gillard-Rudd rivalry is a story of ambition, bitterness and betrayal.  The current confrontation has been inevitable since Gillard deposed Rudd as Prime Minister in 2010.

Gillard should have the numbers to see off Rudd’s challenge.  That she has waited so long to bring the confrontation to a head may have been an error.  The Prime Minister is a master of negotiation and compromise, both important skills for a politician.  Until now, however, she has not demonstrated the ruthless streak necessary to kill off Rudd’s ongoing challenge to her leadership.

Yet there is a broader dimension to the ALP leadership crisis that is more complicated.

Much has been made of the factional divisions within the ALP.  All large organisations have factional divisions.  The question is, how have the Labor Party’s factional divisions led to this particular outcome at this particular time?

In the post-World War Two era, both the Labor and Liberal parties have transformed into catch-all parties who attempt to attract universal support.  Because of their broad base both parties have significant factional divisions.  These divisions get exposed when the parties are forced to confront complicated, big-ticket policy problems that aggravate the philosophical differences between party factions.

Labor’s 2010 leadership change was a consequence of Rudd’s failure to deal with one of these immense policy issues, climate change, after he walked away from the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme.  The climate change debate also claimed two Liberal Party leaders, Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull.

After decades of relative political and economic stability, local political leaders have to confront enormous international policy problems like the global debt crisis, energy and food insecurity, and climate change, intractable challenges for which there are no easy solutions.  Regardless of where you stand on these issues, they are policy time bombs for broad-based political parties.

The Coalition should beware.  The same pressures driving the ALP’s self-destruction are also likely to expose the deepening division between conservatives and small-L liberals in the Liberal Party.  As leaders across the world are discovering, winning government at the present time can be a poisoned chalice.

***NOTE: A version of this article was published in the Border Mail under the title ‘Poisoned chalice of the big issues,’ 24th February 2012, p. 3.


Dr. Benjamin Habib is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at La Trobe University, Albury-Wodonga. Ben’s research project projects include North Korea’s motivations for nuclear proliferation, East Asian security, international politics of climate change, and undergraduate teaching pedagogy. Ben undertook his PhD candidature at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, and has worked previously for the Department of Immigration and Citizenship.  He has spent time teaching English in Dandong, China, has studied at Keimyung University in Daegu, South Korea, and has extensive field experience in Northeast Asia.  Ben is involved with local community groups Wodonga and Albury Toward Climate Health (WATCH) and Transition Albury-Wodonga.

Ben welcomes constructive feedback.  Please comment below, or contact Ben at

The views in this story are those of the author and not necessarily those of Our Voice: Politics Albury-Wodonga.