Features Australia

It’s time for primaries

2 June 2018

9:00 AM

2 June 2018

9:00 AM

Political class failure undermines the standing of our governments. Every ignored voter concern, project failure and moment of spin leaves our rulers with less legitimacy. They may be elected legitimately, but they don’t behave to maintain legitimacy.

We can see it in immigration policy, where for decades voter polls have differed wildly from ruling class norms. It also applies where other political class fads rule: education, housing, energy, environment, free expression, sex and gender, and petty controls over aspects of daily life.

Such failure is only possible because party machines and voting methods insulate our political class from voter accountability. Senior MPs are insulated from party members, and from the community who vote for them. They are safe under a blanket of factional connection and influence, whether they win elections or not.

At the federal level, parties don’t have to acknowledge their own voters’ concerns because compulsory preferencing returns votes to them regardless. Voters can’t reject a party position without voting for a party they support even less.

Careers are made by party advancement, and candidate preselection is controlled by factional warlords rather than by people who vote for that party.

But political parties are a wafer-thin slice of party voters. In 2016, 6.8 million people preferred the Coalition to the ALP. If total Coalition membership hit 30-40,000 – half of one per cent of their voters – they’d be lucky. Party members with real influence on preselections are an even thinner slice, regardless of preselection method. State parties remain the playground of a few hundred factional hacks.

The upshot is that there is no need for our politicos to recognise the interests of the people. Rather, they seek to constrain and ignore them when they conflict with political class prejudices that determine their advancement. Politicos don’t even acknowledge those concerns as valid, let alone address or resolve them. Their real audience is their political peers.

Voter discontent is no longer managed well by Australia’s political system. Without a political class willing to adapt and absorb voter policy responses, there is no way for voters to change policy presumptions or political culture.


As a result, despairing voters have turned to ‘screw you’ candidates that create dysfunctional parliaments.

Such despair among voters threatens a polity. When voters see no likelihood of their interests being represented, disillusion grows to anger and a sense of illegitimate rule. A safety valve is needed.

The one, maddingly inadequate, safety valve for voter disdain is third party voting in the upper house.

Even that is under threat. At a recent Centre for Independent Studies event, journalist Paul Kelly answered questions about declining primary votes and the increase in Senate cross-benchers by lamenting the major parties’ inability to change the Constitution. He then suggested changing the voting system – without reference to the voters – to ensure the major parties can get a Senate majority.

That suggestion reveals exactly how the bipartisan ruling class wants to ignore rather than adapt to the people.

Similar discontent has emerged before. In the United States at the end of the 19th Century contempt for preselections in the original ‘smoke-filled rooms’ threatened government legitimacy. That threat drove a reform movement that gave voters – not party members – the ability to select party candidates.

Across the US, primary voting was established in two waves – the first starting in 1901 and then again in the 1960s. A variety of systems allow ordinary people to select party candidates. Those primary systems give US voters real teeth in the fight with party bosses who ignore voter concerns, especially since the systems are often mandated by State legislation.

Two recent events highlight how primaries can hold politicians to account and provide that safety valve. In 2014 Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was primaried in his seat and lost. And in 2016, against the influence of all party bosses, Donald Trump was selected as Republican Presidential candidate.

Regardless of how you view either outcome, the US primary system has allowed voters who aren’t party members to reject insider candidates who have a history of ignoring or demonising their concerns.

At state and federal level, Australia is long past where the US was in 1899 when primaries were first floated. There have been attempted primary-like reforms, all half-hearted, mostly focused on party members rather than voters, and all about managing perceptions rather than creating real accountability.

At an intra-party level, the Victorian Liberals have had member plebiscites for preselection since 2008, with no meaningful change. In 2017 the NSW Liberal Right attempted the same, not to address member engagement, but as part of factional warfare. It failed firstly on factional lines, and then due to a cross-factional leadership stitch-up.

The ALP has used open primaries for limited preselection in NSW and Victoria. And the Nationals have run two ‘Community Preselections’ in NSW, which were open primaries for approved National candidates. Tellingly, the NSW Nationals Constitution makes it clear that ‘Community Preselections’ are a tool of the Central Council, which retains discretionary control. They provide no opportunity for Nationals voters to disrupt the party machine in any way. The Central Council can veto primaries and candidates, and can run a primary without any branch wanting it.

The takeaway? None were serious attempts to give real power to either voters or members. Paycheck-Liberals use them to create factional advantage, and Paycheck-Nats use them to generate publicity for unknown candidates, or counter perceptions that the party is full of urban types focused on career advancement. The plebiscites and community preselections haven’t stopped stacking and won’t address the need for a voter safety valve for unresponsive political leadership.

Too often writers conclude articles with a toothless call for change. I merely state that if a polite and temperate request to address voter concerns and provide political accountability is ignored, it will re-emerge in an impolite and intemperate way. All those hand-wringing establishment types fretting over rising populism have a ready-made solution in front of them. They won’t use it.

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