16 July 2008

Open and transparent

This piece by Julian Leeser, a former Paddington Young Liberal and hopefully a future Liberal MP, is well meant but wrong.
Perhaps party structures prevent quality candidates from putting their names forward. Status and pay alone do not explain why it has been almost two decades since the party selected a practising Queen's Counsel, having once boasted four silks in its federal parliamentary ranks.

On the other hand, perhaps they don't. This is a weak hook for an article.

Perhaps party structures are the least of your worries when becoming an MP. The preselections for the 1993 election were held during John Hewson's peak of popularity, when he was beating Mr Recession-we-Had-To-Have by 10-20% - a margin almost equal to mortgage interest rates at the time. Being an MP is a dreadful life, demeaning busywork and frequent travel and public scrutiny and treating unimportant people with a respect they just don't warrant. If you're a high-income earner - a QC/SC or whatever, your overseas business/holiday trips are your business. You can fly first class and stay at the Ritz or the Plaza or the Orient and nobody need know - you can even yell at the staff. Not so if you pay The Daily Murdoch-Tabloid more credit than it deserves.

The only QC/SC in Federal Parliament today is Labor's Mark Dreyfus. The ethos of modern politics, where senior staffers and political machine operators have conspired to rework the expectations of backbenchers to simple shut-up-and-vote bums-in-seats is a position up with which no senior barrister would put. A QC/SC backbencher would take the urgings of lobbyists, senior Prime Ministerial staffers and machine operators as mere advice, which would make their ongoing role as an MP untenable.

To show you how untenable: among the four QCs Julian refers to was Billy Snedden (who came last in his law class at UWA and almost failed; he appointed himself a QC, probably out of sheer boredom as Menzies was pretty much his own Attorney General) and Edward St John (a prig who helped bring down a Liberal Prime Minister and then took a safe Liberal seat to the cross-benches). In a tight election in 1972, did these lions of the bar come through for the Liberal Party? St John didn't, Tom Hughes took his wig and went home, and Nigel Bowen was such a party warrior he was offered, and accepted, a job from a Labor government (led, as it happens, by a QC).
There is a trend towards greater participation in preselections in both parties through member plebiscites. While this is a step in the right direction, more can be done, including considering United States-style primaries for lower-house seats.

After such a weak case, I now feel railroaded into the whole primaries thing. Note the passive construction "There is a trend" - you can see why conservatives rail against "trendies", can't you. This is another case of "we've got to do something, this is something so let's do this".
Primaries were introduced in the US as a way of removing control of candidate selection from party bosses.

Yeah, but I think the bosses have twigged to the whole primary thing by now. Full-time professionals working on an issue will work their way around whatever rules well-meaning part-time amateurs will put up, or will co-opt said part-timers. The 2008 US elections have proved the exception to the rule, but this does not excuse them for generally delivering mediocre political outcomes to that country's voters.
Most important US elected officials are selected by a primary.

Indeed they are, and thanks for undermining your own case Julian. No party hacks in US politics, noooooooo.
The British Conservative Party has also begun using primaries, resulting in the selection of Boris Johnson as a candidate in the London mayoral elections. In that primary about 20,000 Londoners voted.

Given Johnson's poor choice of advisor and deputy, this is nothing to shout about. Given that London has roughly the population of Australia, that figure reveals a fairly low base vote - much like the membership of the Liberal Party, really - combined with a sizeable number of piss-takers.
In Australia we could adapt a primary system to our circumstances. Here is how it might work. After being nominated by a prescribed number of branch members, a candidate would be scrutinised by the party executive.

If you're going to propose a system that takes power out of the hands of party bosses, don't then immediately propose that party bosses have this sort of power.
There should be very few reasons for not allowing a candidate to contest a primary. Those reasons might include that his or her candidacy would bring the reputation of the party into disrepute or that the candidate was not a genuine party supporter.

Party bosses shouldn't be bloody-minded, but they often are. They will knock out a candidate just because one of their favoured sons copped it in the neck. They can claim "disrepute" behind closed doors without having to substantiate it. Party bosses favour time-servers; a talented outsider who has voted Liberal all their lives can be shunted aside for a talentless hack in the name of "genuine party support". Julian Leeser has no excuse for not knowing this, it would be stunning if he'd never witnessed it.

It's true that party bosses are accountable to members. It's also true that this accountability comes some time after preselections, and that having played a dirty game in excluding a talented candidate is no disqualification for holding party office (besides which, such an accusation can be countered with a counter-smear at executive election time, and so it goes, etc.).
On primary election day voters would arrive at the polling station and have their name and address checked against the electoral roll and party membership lists. If the voter is a party member, they would be given their ballot paper. If the voter is not a party member, they would pay a fee to vote. The fee would act as a disincentive for members of other parties to vote strategically, as well as encouraging party membership and recouping the cost of running the primary.

Bullshit! The disincentive might apply to individuals only if they didn't have to use their own money. If the ALP had this system, the Liberal Party could raise tens of thousands of dollars in order to keep Belinda Neal as that party's candidate for Robertson. If the WA Liberals had this system in place, Brian Burke would raise millions to entrench the chair-sniffer for all time. Individuals aren't the problem here - well-funded interest groups throwing the process is what you have to watch out for, fringe religious groups and companies afraid of sensible people who might put the public interest ahead of theirs. This is also a means by which the Liberal Party can expand its marketing database.
Primaries have many advantages. They are open and transparent. Increased transparency removes the mystery of preselections and would reduce the number of media stories about internal party issues, misinformed by the selective and strategic leaking of aggrieved parties.

Having just proposed a system whereby faceless party hacks act as unaccountable gatekeepers, you can't seriously suggest that media interest in internal party machinations would disappear. When I was in the Liberal Party there was a rule whereby voting tallies in preselections were never released; factional heavies always had the figures thanks to scrutineers, feeding (mis)information campaigns. If you're going to be open and transparent, cut out bullshit rules like that.
A primary system also indicates that the party is prepared to be outward-looking. It provides potential outreach for the party to the broader community. If individuals can have a direct say in choosing the candidate, they may take a greater interest in the activities of the party.

Primaries create a level playing field. They treat the conscientious campaign worker, the community stalwart and the successful businessperson equally.

Such a system makes for a facade of openness without the reality. Primaries make politics more expensive, which diminishes parties' claims to being representative of a broader community.
Primaries simulate electoral conditions and allow parties to properly test candidates. They may also help a candidate gain a deeper connection with, and higher profile in, the community.

Practice exercises for elections generate money for political consultants but do nothing for the candidates themselves: Andrew Peacock and Kim Beazley both embraced simulated election campaigns, to their political detriment. Money, the efforts of volunteers and staff, and other resources spent on a primary is not spent on putting the Liberal Party ahead of others at general elections - unless, of course, Julian is angling for public funding for primaries (but surely he would have been open and transparent about that).

If a primary had been held in Bradfield before the 1996 election, well-entrenched MP David Connolly would have trounced flashy but insubstantial Brendan Nelson. It was party bosses that got Nelson preselected, Howard as party boss put him into cabinet once the backroom boys had vetted him as Someone Who Does What He's Told, and party bosses like Minchin who put him in as leader. Why do you hate you own party's leader, Julian?

Besides, you don't have time for all this palaver during byelections. Tell me that party bosses would not suspend a primary in a particularly intense byelection, e.g. Gippsland.
By opening itself to community and public scrutiny ...

Is the community different from/to the public, Julian, and if so how?
... the party that trials them first may have an advantage. If successful, a primary system should lead to better candidates, better parliaments and a stronger Australia.

Doesn't do much for the quality of party bosses though. Doesn't really address upper-house preselections either. Or was that the idea? Primaries are a mug's game, a waste of resources, political dress-ups by those unconvinced about widespread apathy and resentment toward political machines. Julian Leeser is a promising Liberal but he has disgraced himself by championing such a poor idea, and doing so poorly.

1 comment:

  1. Duncan Kerr and George Brandis are both SCs, I believe.