Features Australia

The game’s up. Or is it?

29 July 2017

9:00 AM

29 July 2017

9:00 AM

A state division of the Liberal Party will have a State Conference on 2-3 September 2017 to debate the introduction of democratic reform around the process of nominating candidates for parliament. The ruling faction is against and everyone else in favour. No, it’s not NSW  –  it’s the Western Australian Liberal Party. Contrary to popular belief NSW is not the only party that doesn’t use plebiscites to elect candidates. WA is also unreformed.

WA Liberals are controlled by the right-wing faction. That controlling interest seems to make the WA right deep sceptics of democracy. Leading the fight against reform is Senator Matthias Corman who last weekend curated the election of his favourite office staffer to the Australian Senate. Corman’s chief collaborators in resisting reform are two members of the WA Upper House – Peter Collier and Nick Goiran.

As in NSW, this battle is not about Left versus Right. It’s about factions versus members, insiders versus outsiders.  The common denominator between those advocating democratic reform in WA and NSW is not ideology – it’s just a bewilderment and disgust when 1 per cent of party members is invited to choose our senate candidates. It has been more civilised in the west. No-one has been expelled for promoting reform and the WA Supreme Court hasn’t been forced to decree that even a debate about reforms must proceed. The intensity in WA is lower because, unlike NSW, lobbyists don’t moonlight as factional bosses.

Last weekend the rank and file members of the NSW Liberal Party spoke emphatically in favour of democratic reform – 61 per cent on the first Warringah motion, 66 per cent on the second. Every motion supporting democracy passed, every motion limiting democracy failed.  It was a historic milestone – but the process of ratification begins now.

Allow me to attempt to spell out what needs to happen between last weekend’s ‘democratic revolution’ and the party rules officially changing. I apologise in advance for the Byzantine logic of the 234-page rule book.

The party’s event at Rosehill Racecourse last weekend was overseen by a Convention Committee. This committee consists of about 22 party members with around 19 fighting for their faction and three supporting the wisdom of ordinary members. The Convention Committee will at some point get around to formally sending the Warringah Motions to the State Executive, the all supreme two dozen ‘board of directors’

Lobbyists are now banned from being on the executives of political parties, but so far there’s no provision against lobbyist puppets. There is only one member of the State Executive who is in support of democratic reform. The prime minister’s representative on the State Executive is the member for Bradfield, Paul Fletcher, who gave a keynote address to the convention last weekend against democratic reform.

The State Executive then needs to refer the Warringah Motions to the Constitutional Standing Committee (CSC).  This is a six-member body. The CSC’s role is to correctly draft proposed changes to the party rules so that they are slotted into the party constitution in the right place and in the right way. If the CSC doesn’t like proposed changes they simply sit on them for the maximum 90 days and then make sneaky edits to change their effect. At least five of the six members of the CSC oppose democratic reform.  Natalie Ward is the wife of Michael Photios’ principal business partner and is a key member and former chair. Nicholas Campbell is the Photios man in Canberra who’s also a member, notwithstanding his zero legal qualifications.

The CSC then sends their draft to the Warringah FEC which consists of around 100 leading local party figures in that electorate. Warringah will no doubt disagree with what the CSC has drafted and then the Warringah FEC has to call a meeting to officially debate and pass a motion of disagreement which is sent back to the CSC. The CSC now has another 90 days to respond. This process will go back and forth until the CSC just can’t get away with it anymore.

Finally, the agreed motions will be sent back to the State Executive who then need to call a State Council meeting.  This is a forum of around 600 party members and they do two important things – elect the State Executive and approve new party rules if 60 per cent agree. The lobbyists have a reasonable majority on State Council.

When you factor in the coming state and federal elections (when the party will insist on a pause relating to party reform) we are looking at a process that will take us well into the next decade. By that point last weekend will be ancient history.

One faction or another has had an iron grip control for decades over the NSW party. They have mastered the art of delay, but what’s different this time is that it’s no longer anecdotal that most of us want a vote. At the largest meeting in the party in decades the membership voted for reform in the full gaze of the press and the public. Of the 476 votes against reform on the weekend around 450 are in one way or another financially dependent on the factional empire remaining intact – so they will fight. If, however reform is delayed yet again the party will simply have no donors or volunteers. You cannot win marginal seats without a fired- up party membership. With tight elections not too far away, Gladys and Malcolm will get nervous at some point.

I suspect the standoff will be resolved by the Federal Executive intervening in the NSW Division. It won’t be too dramatic.  The Federal Executive will simply declare the democratic reforms supported by the membership last weekend are adopted as rules. The lobbyists may at that point consider legal action to prevent the intervention – the federal party rules are grey on this point. It would however be big news and a dreadful look for the individuals clinging to power. They fear scrutiny and at this point will come out with their hands in the air.

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