The Sydney Morning Herald

by Murray Goot

For the first time a campaigner and communications expert has taken leave of a party in the middle of a campaign to manage the campaign of someone running against the party leader - though in this case Bruce Hawker, chief executive of the Campaigns and Communications Group, has left the Labor campaign in Queensland to work for Kevin Rudd, who is seeking the top job nationally. Whether he left with Anna Bligh's blessing is unclear. Bligh is widely reported as thinking a Rudd victory in the leadership ballot would boost her chances, so she may have accepted the trade-off. After the ballot, apparently, he'll be back.

What does Hawker's move signify? Rudd's decision to use Hawker represents a move to an American style of campaign management where candidates from the main parties hire their own professionals to help them win the right, via caucuses and primaries, to contest the next election as the party's nomination. In previous leadership contests, the protagonists have depended on the organisational skills of their parliamentary colleagues.

The US model assumes not only campaign consultants who might move from one candidate to another; it assumes candidates with deep pockets or the ability to raise money from personal supporters. In Rudd's case, apparently, Hawker is not taking a fee.

Instead, he'll work for Rudd if Rudd wins office. This is a variation on the standard model: a success fee, paid not by the candidate but by the state.

It is true that, in Australia, voters don't choose leaders directly. But Rudd has framed this, understandably, as a contest in which the main question his colleagues need to ask is whether he or the Prime Minister is more likely to win Labor another term.

Rudd's move is well suited to a public sphere in which opinion polls - not least polls about the leaders - have become enormously important; it is doubtful that polls are as prominently reported or as widely discussed anywhere outside election periods as they are in Australia.

His move is especially well suited to a situation in which the candidate's poll numbers are high and their meaning largely uncontested; the two don't necessarily go together but, in the media, they generally do. And it is well suited to a circumstance in which his other credentials are under attack. Julia Gillard has framed the questions her colleagues have to answer in terms other than the polls - collegiality, judgment and the ability to get things done.

Rudd's move also reflects the fact Labor Party membership is low and getting lower. Stoushes like this probably don't help - notwithstanding Rudd's promise to increase the power of the rank and file. Rudd has not appealed to party members to contact Labor MPs; he's appealed to the wider public to do so. Among his conspicuous helpers mobilising mass support have not been party members but his wife, Therese, and daughter, Jessica.

Rudd's rhetoric feeds a long-standing appetite for populist explanations of Australian politics; in this case, the present state of Labor politics.

In his view, Labor is dominated by factions; factions are led by ''faceless'' operators, whether inside the parliament or outside; and factions are self-interested, happy to subordinate the interests of the party, not to mention good policy, to their own particular ends. The party, in short, is not what it purports to be. The ''people's candidate'', therefore, is appealing over the party to ''the people''.

This view wouldn't have much purchase if there weren't some truth to it and if others in the party didn't share it. Rudd is happy to cite what happened to him in 2010 as a prime example. Many voters not only objected to the parliamentary party removing Kevin 07, the man they had voted for; they were angered by the sense that ''faceless men'' had organised it. The language tells its own story. Rudd's removal wasn't a legitimate exercise of caucus authority, they insist; it was a ''coup'', an ''assassination'', a ''beheading''.

If Rudd wins today, there may well be others, given independent means and the right circumstances, tempted to tread a similar path. On the other hand, if Rudd loses by a large margin, we will have learnt something about how far this path might take leadership candidates in Australian politics.

Murray Goot is a visiting professor at the United States States Studies, University of Sydney.