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The Labor Party has a historic chance for genuine renewal of its party membership and an opportunity to bring more innovative policy to the table. These reforms could make the ALP more competitive against the Liberal Party and against the Greens if they are done properly. Introducing primaries as a tokenistic attempt to become more ‘democratic’ will not inspire the party faithful if the process leaves them cynical and disillusioned. A primary must not be an opinion poll writ large, but a genuine consultation that lets party members shape the future of their party and their country.

If the ALP has learnt one thing from Paul Keating, and the dismal Rudd-Gillard transition, it must have a clear goal in sight. It should not fumble about searching for abstract notions like an ‘Education Revolution’ that are not backed by firm and well-articulated policies. The NSW branch must not adopt primaries under some delusion that catch-all phrases like ‘democracy’ and ‘consultation’ will save it from itself. The Labor Party should only adopt primaries if it can genuinely harness the power of democracy to make the Party stronger, more representative and more competitive against other political parties.

Where will this reform take us? And what is the existing process for pre-selecting candidates?

The Current NSW Pre-Selection System
Currently, NSW pre-selections are decided by the Federal Electorate Council for each electorate. The FEC is composed of delegates from each of the Labor branches in that electorate and are elected at the AGMs of those branches. Because the Labor Party is organised by State branches, these branches are usually formed along State electoral lines. The number of delegates allocated to each branch differs based on the number of members in that branch who live in the federal electorate and other obscure criteria. As a disclaimer, I am a former delegate to Warringah FEC from the Kuringai branch of the ALP. Not the most prestigious position, seeing as Warringah is one of the most anti-Labor seats in the nation and held by Mr Tony Abbott.

That process can be overridden by the controversial N40 rule, where Head Office can overrule the decisions of local branches and appoint its own candidate. As a matter of obscure historical fact, the N40 rule began as an affirmative action mechanism, but now mainly operates to parachute star candidates into seats at the expense of the democratic process or to defeat votes tainted by branch-stacking. So, although controversial, N40 does play a valuable role in defeating branch-stacking. But one imagines there are better ways of stopping stacks.

So under the current pre-selection system, ordinary ALP members can indirectly select their candidates by selecting the delegates to their local FEC. So party members can pick a delegate with the personality and political biases who would pick the candidate they want. I personally have no experience with contentious delegate elections, but I imagine these AGM elections can get quite feisty. Yes, that’s a good word. Feisty. It’s an indirect form of democracy, but it all boils down to voting for someone from your faction or sub-faction and doesn’t truly invigorate the party base.

The Proposed Primary System

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?

Here is what the Bracks Review said:

8.9 The Review Committee has also been convinced by the arguments put forward in relation to moving towards a system of primaries for the preselection of endorsed Labor candidates. The Review Committee is impressed by the trial conducted in Victoria which contributed to a significant increase in interest in local Party membership in the region. The committee is also convinced by the ability of a system of primaries to lead to greater participation by members of affiliated unions and our many supporters.

8.10 For a primary system to be successful a number of checks-and-balances would need to be put in place, particularly in relation to candidate expenditure. It will be critical to ensure that no primary system is open to abuse.

Recommendation 26: That the Party nationally implement a tiered system of Party primaries for the selection of candidates. That this commence in open and non-held lower house seats and be considered for held seats in the future. That a system with three weighted components be established comprising a 60 per cent component drawn from local Party members, 20 per cent from members participating from affiliated trade unions, and 20 per cent from registered Labor supporters in the community. That safeguards to prevent any corruption of this system be put in place such as:

– the principle of one vote, one value be enshrined to ensure that double or triple-voting not occur

– there be minimum participation requirements in the union and community components of a primary to ensure that low participation does not distort results

– that all participants be enrolled to vote for a minimum of three months and have a verifiable address within the electorate.

And Sam Dastyari, the General Secretary of NSW Labor, accepted that recommendation:

At the NSW ALP conference on July 9-10, I will be proposing a series of significant party reforms to challenge our inward-looking focus and to engage directly with the community. It will also begin the path towards creating a stronger organisation where promotion through patronage is a thing of the past. At the heart of these proposals will be shifting our candidate selection process towards a US-style primary model. Under these changes, the local community will have a direct say in deciding who the Labor candidate will be for their area. Beginning with some local government elections in NSW next year and five winnable state seats at the 2015 state election, voters who are prepared to identify themselves as Labor supporters will be able to participate and vote for who they think should be the Labor candidate for their area. Primaries are a logical progression of the principles the founders of the party espoused; that our representatives should be chosen by a large cross-section of our members and supporters.

The solution is a party prepared to reach out and engage with the community, a party not afraid to open itself to new ideas and new people. If party reform simply makes us more inwardly focused, then we have failed.

So Dastyari has made this a more limited trial (only five seats, as opposed to all marginal seats – but extending to some local council elections before 2015) but he has affirmed the general structure recommended by Bracks, Faulkner and Carr in the 2010 National Review.

A primary election for the future

The State Conference is only voting for a trial of primary elections in a few selected electorates. It will not debate how primaries will be implemented after the 2015 elections. After all the NSW trial follows an earlier trial in a single Victorian electorate, Kilsyth. That trial had 260 registered supporters, which surprised party insiders who describe the outer east as ”politically apathetic”. Despite that success, the Liberals gained a 10% swing in that seat compared to a 6% swing State-wide. The neighbouring seats of Warrandyte and Bayswater experienced a 4.9% and 7.7% swing against the ALP respectively. I’m not familiar with Victorian State politics, so I can’t comment too much on this, but Kilsyth does appear to be a more conservative seat anyway. It just shows that a democratic mandate amongst party supporters will not necessarily translate into support amongst the general electorate.

But, if the trial is successful, a State-wide primary system may look quite different to the trial. The targeted seats are likely to be ones where the factional balance is predictable and where the ALP already has certain candidates in mind. They are likely to be marginal seats. Different considerations come into play when you are running primaries for 48 federal electorates in NSW, each of which will have multiple branches voting. It costs more. It’s harder to monitor and stop branch-stacking and other dodgy tactics.

When there are only five electorates, during the inaugural primary there will be a lot of Statewide and national media attention. But after 2015, how will candidates for the electorate of Grayndler explain their policies to all the potential voters in the Labor primary? The local media might not run any stories on it (especially since the Cumberland News Group owns most local papers, and it is a subsidiary of News Corp). Even if they did, most people don’t read the local newspaper.

When most people think of a primary election, they imagine that everyone will shuffle into a small booth and vote in a secret ballot. Or they can imagine everyone shuffling into a room, raising their hands and being counted. But this can be a costly procedure. A full federal election costs $160m. It cost around $800,000 to run a by-election in a single electorate. (Source: AEC, 2010 election and Bradfield/Higgins by-elections in 2009) The cost will be lower in a Labor internal primary, since there will not be compulsory voting, since there won’t be advertising costs, since you won’t need to pay unbiased scrutineers and since you can relax the very tough safeguards. But it will be expensive. Does the ALP really expect to pay this cost out of donations? Public funding is out of the question unless the Liberal Party also runs primaries.

I would argue that a better model is the ‘caucus’ system used in some US States. For example, the famous Iowa presidential primaries use the caucus system and it works quite well on a State-wide basis. Iowa has a population of around 3m (half the size of NSW) and an area of 145,700km2 (compared to NSW: 800,642 km2).

In caucuses, voters gather together in groups by their preferred candidate. Undecided voters stand in the middle and each candidate’s group woos the undecided voters to join their group.

The Labor Party can hire out school halls, libraries or any place large enough to hold about 200-300 people. Candidates can then give a speech, explaining their position to voters. There might be a Q&A session. Voters then split into groups, and candidates focus on pitching to the remaining undecided voters. Those voters can ask probing questions – what is your stance on refugee policy? Or, will you push for more humane treatment of refugees in the party room? The moderator would then permit the candidate an opportunity to respond with a reasoned argument. If the candidate gives a meaningless slogan, the voter will hardly be persuaded. Both candidates would be asked the same questions, so no one can take unjustifiable or unreasoned positions because they will be exposed.

The details will still need to be fleshed out. You might hold several caucuses – one for each branch in the electorate. Branch meetings usually occur on different days of the week, so the candidate can meet all members in a more personal setting. We still have to decide whether we invite in the media (or not). Although Part II of this series is quite positive on the idea of caucus elections, I am in no way saying that they solve all the problems identified in Part I. A caucus election system could cause a fundamental shift in Australian politics. Currently, candidates must support party policy – a caucus system may encourage candidates to depart from controversial policies.

A caucus system kills two birds with one stone. It’s far cheaper than holding a proper election. It’s a reasonably transparent process. And it resolves the problem of a lack of media infrastructure at the electorate level. Candidates can make their pitch directly to voters.

Why do we want to create primary elections? To engage and excite the party faithful, to return control to the local branches and the rank and file. A caucus system truly returns control to the faithful – they can ask probing questions and force their candidates to answer them. Candidates are given a proper opportunity to respond in person, rather than with weasel words to journalists. Supporters of candidates have the opportunity to personally persuade the undecided and feel engaged themselves.

The system captures the very spirit of democracy – the free exchange and debate of ideas that has disappeared from our political discourse. It returns the human element to politics that was so mercilessly extracted from it by relentless polling. Ultimately, the NSW branch wants to deliver a policy that can return the disillusioned into the Labor Party and return the Light to the Hill. A yes-or-no primary gives voters the same choice they have at the general election. It is little different from a glorified opinion poll. A caucus primary widens the field of options for voters.

In short, Sam Dastyari can deliver a clear vision of democracy, rather than using it as a slogan. It would be fitting that defeating sloganeering within the ALP could also defeat the human slogan, Tony Abbott, Leader Of the Opposition (LOOP).


Edit: I missed this article which stated that Dastyari has primaries with 50% to members, 50% to non-members, and no specific quotas for union members, ie he’s modifying the structure set up by the Bracks Review.

I’ve never hid the fact I dislike unions. They’ve ceased to represent the workers, and are now filled with machine men and factionalism. What they represent are ideologies – so why should we institutionalise the power these lobby groups have over the Labor Party?

If the unions genuinely had that much support, then they get a chance to vote as ALP members or as supporters.


One Comment

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