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This weekend at the NSW Labor State Conference, the party is set to replace pre-selection panels with a US-style primary system for their pre-selections. This would make it the first Australian State branch to trial this innovative method for pre-selecting candidates on a State-wide basis, and I whole-heartedly embrace the idea. Primaries could be a way to reinvigorate the party base, make it easier to push for excellent policy reform and return the Labor Party to a more ethical stance on immigration policy. Or, it could make the ALP even more poll-driven and unable to make the hard decisions on climate change and microeconomic reform.

That is why I am writing a series of blog posts on the more serious implications of having a primary system. It shall not argue for a primary system, but it shall ask what is the best way to design that system. In fact, in thinking about these questions, I’ve become less enthusiastic about primaries. I’ve asked my friend Steve to co-author later posts, and I’m cross-posting this on my own blog and on Hansen’s blog, Really where it’ll get more reception from other ALP members. Really is a new blog, but Hansen has done a sterling effort in promoting it.

This is a constitutional change of the highest order and deserves to be treated as such. We must not only ask ourselves whether we should adopt a primary system, but what form that primary system should take. The Bracks Review has already recommended a structure, but it has not filled in all the details.

In times past, we would have had a constitutional convention to debate such weighty matters, where portly men with ghastly beards would have been locked in a room to discuss Locke and Montesequi. But in these less enlightened days, shaving one’s beard and losing weight is a sign that one is ready to take leadership and debate is synonymous with dissent. Dissent. is. very. bad.

I’m not sure how deeply the Labor Party has thought through all the consequences of having primary elections. The Bracks Review spends a single page on the issue. But people like Sam Dastyari have written eloquently as to why it should be adopted.

For example, any analogy with the US Presidential Primaries (which is what most people think of) is completely misleading. As I described in a previous post, the US primaries are a test of strength, requiring candidates to spend half a year fund-raising and building networks of volunteers across the entire United States before primaries even begin. Each State holds their primaries on different days, so candidates can gain political momentum as they win more and more delegates. But the candidates for the seat of Grayndler won’t need to build a national network of volunteers because they’re only campaigning in a seat which spans several suburbs. They will have to win over several branches within the electorate of Grayndler but that’s hardly equivalent to gaining political momentum.

A better analogy is with primaries for Senate positions. Moderates like Arlen Specter have been challenged by more radical Republicans and Democrats, which pushes candidates away from the political centre towards the fringes of the party. Australia, by contrast, has been marked by both parties moving towards the centre. It is too soon to tell whether instituting a primary system will cause the parties to differentiate themselves from each other.

In this first post, I just want to throw out some questions for you to think about. I’ll answer them in a later post.

What happens if only the ALP has an open and democratic process for pre-selecting its candidates but the Liberal Party does not? Does that party get an advantage, or will it become even more poll-driven because it has twice as many elections to care about? Will it make it harder for the ALP to make hard decisions? The Constitution mandates that we have federal elections every three years. If we have a primary season lasting for a year, and a general election season lasting for a year we barely have any time to breathe between elections! What other consequences will this democratic asymmetry have?

How many of you know who your local councillor is and what their policies are? If you don’t, how will a no-name candidate get his message out to potential primary voters. There might not be any local media focussing on that particular electorate, and there will, at most, be a single local newspaper (probably owned by the Murdoch press). My answer is that we should adopt the US caucus system, where a candidate’s supporters try to woo undecided voters on the election night itself.

What will candidates campaign on? Currently, the parliamentary caucus sets party policy. All ALP candidates must follow the policy which the Labor leader sets out. If that is maintained, then candidates can’t campaign on policy! Does it become a popularity contest? Or do change the system and let candidates campaign on policies?

Is instituting a primary election constitutional? The answer is yes. But is it legal? Will it require legislation (e.g. so the ALP has access to electoral rolls)? Who will pay for it – the ALP, or the taxpayer? What will the effect be on constitutional principles like Cabinet solidarity and responsible government?

Will the primary system upset the current factional balance? Currently, the Labor Left is given X ministerial positions and Y seats under an agreement with the Labor Right. If the number of left-aligned candidates is constantly changing, could it throw the whole arrangement into jeopardy?

Then there are the technical details. Will these primaries be open to ALP members only? Will the election process be made open to the media? Will we hold the primaries on the same day, or stagger them (like the US). Will we only elect candidates for each seat, or will we also elect the party president and even the Prime Minister? (Electing the PM is possible under the Constitution, but it may cause problems).

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2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] As I said in part I of this series, the proposed primary system for NSW is only a trial. It may or may not be expanded. And, as I also said, there are many details left to be filled in. For example, how will these primaries be funded? Will all the branches in the electorate hold their primaries on the same night, or different nights? […]

  2. […] As I said in Part I of this series, the proposed primary system for NSW is only a trial. It may or may not be expanded. And, as I also said, there are many details left to be filled in. For example, how will these primaries be funded? Will all the branches in the electorate hold their primaries on the same night, or different nights? […]

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