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Month: February, 2012

Kevenge! How Not To Choose a Political Party Leader

The revolving door at the top of the Australian Labor Party continues to spin, with ex-Foreign (and Prime) Minister, Kevin Rudd, challenging the current Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, for her job on Monday morning. Three things are notable about this challenge: its speed (Rudd formally announced his intention to stand on 24th February and the ballot will be held on the 27th); its ferocity (military metaphors like ‘mutually assured destruction’ scarcely seem overblown); and the fact that Rudd was ousted from the PM job only twenty months ago.

Ms Gillard should win convincingly.  Although 58% of Australians think that Rudd would make a better leader, Gillard’s parliamentary colleagues support her by a ratio of two to one.   Mr Rudd’s deep unpopularity amongst his closest colleagues speaks to the reason he was ousted in the first place: he is is, apparently, almost impossible to work with. This raises some interesting questions about how parties choose their leaders.

Under the caucus system, used by both the Labour and Liberal parties in Australia, launching a leadership challenge is straightforward.  MPs put their names forward, and their Senate and House colleagues hold a vote.  Under this method, the Australian Labor Party has had five leaders in the last ten years, despite having governed the country for half of this time.  The opposition Liberal Party has burned through four different leaders during the same short period.

Since the ALP caucus chooses its leader behind closed doors, there should be no need to wash the party’s dirty linen in public. However, as any Australian who has dared to switch on their television over the last few days will tell you, it doesn’t quite work that way.  The twenty-four hour news media has been been dominated by deeply personal attacks from both sides, roughly summarised as:

Rudd camp about Gillard – “She’s a loser.”

Gillard camp about Rudd – “He’s a disorganised megalomaniac.”

Meanwhile, the Queensland Labor Party looks on, astonished that Rudd, a ‘native son’, could not postpone his long-planned revenge against Gillard until after their state election campaign.  Despite Australia’s high level of political decentralisation, no-one outside the caucus in Canberra has any say in the Federal leadership contest.  Many wonder if there is not a better way of selecting, and then sticking with, a leader.

In other advanced democracies, parties typically adopt more inclusive ways of choosing their leaders.  For example, major parties in the United Kingdom involve their members in leadership votes.  To avoid choosing a leader that is unacceptable to the parliamentary party, members are presented with a ‘shortlist’ of candidates nominated by MPs.  The process of choosing a new leader usually takes a couple of months, and may involve public unpleasantness.  However, the end result is almost always regarded as legitimate, and the cumbersome nature of the process discourages frequent leadership challenges.  It is not uncommon for UK party leaders to remain in their posts for ten years.

The United States’ presidential system has a very different dynamic.  Through a gruelling set of public primaries and caucuses, presidential candidates are chosen according to a set timetable.  This ensures that candidates are tested to destruction before they take the top job and, having won that position, they are almost never deposed until they have either served two presidential terms or lost a presidential election.  However, the selection process is expensive and time consuming, involving a prolonged period of ‘friendly fire’ before attention is finally turned to the opposition.

There is no foolproof way to choose a party leader, and what really matters is that vanquished candidates accept their defeat under the current rules.   This seems unlikely in Kevin Rudd’s case.  He claims legitimacy as the man who led Labor to a convincing victory in 2007 under the highly personalised slogan ‘Kevin 07′.  Lacking the self-awareness to acknowledge that he was a better campaigner (and, indeed Foreign Minister) than Prime Minister, he even refers to his 2010 overthrow as ‘the coup’.  The ALP caucus was probably too quick to remove Rudd back in 2010 – deposing him so ruthlessly was bound to cause bitterness, and this has dogged the Gillard administration from the start – but the clock cannot be turned back.

Rudd has sought to turn Monday’s leadership contest into an American style primary by asking the general public to contact their elected representatives in support of his comeback. In doing so, he highlights the paradox of the current system, which is that popularity amongst his close colleagues matters more than public opinion.  Ironically, anecdotal evidence suggests that, bemused by Rudd’s lack of team spirit, many Labor supporters have contacted their MPs in support of Gillard.

Regardless of who wins on Monday, leadership instability is a problem that both of Australia’s main parties must resolve.  It is, perhaps, time to re-write the rules of leadership contests, widening participation to make them more cumbersome and, as a result, more decisive.

A Long Battle for the Truth: Haemophilia, Contaminated Blood and the Five Year Anniversary of the Archer Inquiry

Yesterday, I was working on a briefing for MPs, updating the Haemophilia Society’s objectives to take account of a parliamentary debate a few weeks ago, when I realised that it was exactly five years since Lord Archer announced his Independent Public Inquiry into the Contaminated Blood Disaster.  I paused for a minute and realised that it was time to reflect on the last five years of our campaign: the progress that we have made, the fights that lie ahead, and the inspirational campaigners that battled for the truth, too many of whom we have lost along the way.

When I was hired to write the Haemophilia Society’s submission to the Archer Inquiry, almost five years ago, I had only a cursory understanding of the tragedy that left almost 5,000 people with haemophilia infected with HIV and/or hepatitis C.  I knew that haemophilia treatment used to be manufactured from human blood donations, and that patients had become infected with HIV and hepatitis C as a result.  But I didn’t realise that the victims of this disaster, the worst in the history of the NHS, had been neglected by successive governments and were living in poverty.

Soon after starting the job, I was told that thousands of relevant documents had mysteriously disappeared, from Department of Health files to individuals’ private medical records.  And sifting through dusty box files, I discovered that many people were not told of their HIV positive status for years after they were infected, even though (in some cases) their  clinician had described the progression of their illness in the Lancet.  I was shocked, too, by evidence that people with haemophilia had routinely been treated with medicines manufactured from the blood of prisoners and paid ‘skid row’ donors, even though it was known that such donations carried a high risk of blood-borne viruses.  It soon became clear that many elements of this disaster were avoidable.

Despite their understandable distrust, people with haemophilia remained reliant on the NHS for their treatment.  The psychological toll of the disaster was worsened by the fact that successive governments preferred to sweep the tragedy under the carpet rather than learn from past mistakes.  It was as if they thought that acknowledging the disaster automatically meant taking the blame. Although the Archer Inquiry wasn’t ‘official’ (i.e. government sponsored), it was cathartic because it allowed the haemophilia community to come together, for the first time, in a public forum, to share stories of loss, illness, poverty, stigma and betrayal.

Following Lord Archer’s recommendations, some progress has been made towards improving the financial situation of those with HIV and late-stage hepatitis C.  More needs to be done, particularly for hepatitis C widows and those with chronic hepatitis C who do not yet qualify for Skipton 2 payments (there is little financial help until liver cirrhosis sets in). The Penrose Inquiry is currently carrying out a forensic examination of the circumstances that led to the contaminated blood disaster in Scotland.  Although the fight continues, both the Scottish and Westmister Parliaments are much more engaged in the debate than they were five years ago, which is an achievement in itself.

It has been a privilege to work with the haemophilia community, a kind, passionate group of people who have suffered so much.  For twenty-five years, they never gave up trying to right this historic wrong, no matter how many doors were slammed in their faces.  Whenever our campaign takes a tiny step forward, it is impossible not to feel the loss of those who saw the start of Archer but didn’t live to see its end.

On this day, I also reflect on the hundreds of victims and campaigners who perished before Archer even began.  Many suffered the intense stigma of AIDS in the 1980s without ever living to see an effective treatment, let alone an inquiry.  Those with hepatitis C (or non-A non-B hepatitis, as it was formerly known) were often told by doctors that their illness was caused by drinking too much, when they had not touched alcohol for years and knew themselves that their liver had been attacked and destroyed by a virus.

Lord Archer’s hearings gave the infected and bereaved a chance to share their tragic stories, which will stay with me forever.

Alison Smith authored the Haemophilia Society’s submissions to the Archer Inquiry and the Penrose Inquiry.  She continues to assist with communications and Parliamentary lobbying.  These are personal reflections.

Follow Alison on Twitter @AliFionaSmith.

End of the Line for Russia’s ‘Locomotives’

Russia’s out-going president, Dmitry Medvedev, has submitted a bill to the State Duma proposing that parties should be banned from fielding ‘fake’ candidates at the top of regional lists for Duma elections. These candidates, usually well-known or popular figures, are referred to in Russian as parovozy (locomotives), and have no intention of taking up seats in the Duma. They appear on the ballot paper solely to attract voters. Following the election, they cede their seats to lesser-known candidates further down the list.

Medvedev’s proposals are part of a wider programme of electoral reform, including the re-introduction of gubernatorial elections, which were abolished in 2005. Directly appointed governors had become a liability to the Kremlin in recent years: as an unintended consequence of its refusal to devolve authority, the Kremlin was blamed for all manner of regional problems. Furthermore, many governors disappointed in their role as ‘locomotives’ during the December 2011 election, failing to meet their United Russia vote quotas while being indiscreet in their attempts at electoral manipulation.

United Russia’s insistence on fielding ‘locomotive’ candidates was a testament to farcical nature of Russia’s ‘virtual politics‘. Unsurprisingly, the practice has long attracted criticism from the OSCE. Medvedev’s proposals for reform are welcome, but they will not necessarily improve the quality of Russia’s democracy. Until the Kremlin ceases using its ‘administrative resource’ to control which candidates can stand for election, it will be impossible for genuine opposition to gain a foothold.

The Myth of the ‘Mighty Minnows’

Nationalist movements often argue that small countries are more economically successful than big ones.  The Scottish Nationalist Party claims that independence would allow Scotland to advance from ‘its subordinate position within the UK, and generate a new prosperity for Scotland.’  And former Plaid Cymru MP, Adam Price, who is currently taking a career break at Harvard University, goes further,wrapping the ‘small equals rich’ argument in a cloak of pseudo-academic jargon.

Price’s article, published in an on-line student journal, is entitled ‘Small is Cute, Sexy and Successful’.  He argues that smaller countries grow faster because they are more open to trade, more socially cohesive and more adaptable.  Rather optimistically, Price even argues that differences in population size alone account for ‘mighty minnows’ outperforming the big five (UK, Italy, Germany, France and Spain) between 1997 and 2007.  Furthermore, he argues that small countries did no worse than large countries when financial catastrophe hit in 2008, concluding that a ‘rising tide lifts small boats faster, it seems, but they are no more likely to sink in a storm.’

Although ‘Small is Cute’ is littered with academic terminology, Price’s analysis lacks any pretence of scholarly rigour. He jumps between different sets of countries and different time frames, cherry-picking examples from the six original Coal and Steel Community states, the EU15 and the EU27.  Sometimes he presents data from 1979-2007, and sometimes he presents figures from 1996-2009.  He is rarely clear about which data set is being referenced.

His arguments are also weak.  The Bosnians and the Belgians may be interested to hear that small countries are more cohesive than big ones. But Price’s most naïve contention of all is that small, export-driven countries fare no worse than larger countries in hard times.  In reality, the very reliance of small countries on trade, much vaunted by Price, leaves them particularly vulnerable to downturns in the global economy.

Latvia’s GDP plummeted by 18% in 2009.

The Lithuanian economy shrank by 15% in 2009.

Estonia’s economy contracted by 13.9% in 2009.

In the same year, Slovenia lost 7.3% of its GDP, Ireland’s economy shrank by 7%, Iceland’s by 6.8% and Hungary’s by 6.7%.

Unable to access credit on bond markets, many of these countries were forced to accept IMF bailouts in exchange for blistering austerity measures.  Far from enjoying prosperity, these countries are still straining for any glimpse of recovery on the horizon.

So, Adam Price’s article is nine parts polemic and one part academic, and talk of ‘mighty minnows’ is mere wishful thinking.

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