I first saw John Ruddick speak about party reform in 2011 as part of his quixotic run for NSW State Liberal president. Seven years later he has tweaked his agenda and presented it in Make the Liberal Party Great Again. He is nothing if not persistent.
Ruddick isn’t your average political player. He’s a genuine bloke with a real love of the institution and tribe that is the Liberal party, and desperately wants to see it reconnected to the Australian people. He has also produced an odd book.
The back cover blurb calls it a manifesto, but it’s more eclectic than that. It is in turn an introduction to party bureaucracy, factions and dysfunction; a cross-country comparison; a political history, and an informal party constitution.
Its positive agenda mirrors his speech (included as an appendix) and is a call to democratise party structures through a few substantial reforms. Among them: party member elections for parliamentary leaders; state-wide member plebiscites for senate and upper house candidates; and conventions in each electorate to select executives, rather than by the manipulable branch delegate system.
The standout change from the speech is his belief lower house candidates should be chosen in primaries open to Liberal supporters, rather than by party members only.
Ruddick’s overt motivation is laudable: to reinvigorate the party and its membership. He aims to eliminate factional patronage driven by the branch delegate system and to provide rank and file members a real vote with real impact.
The keystone reform is member election of parliamentary leaders at conventions every three years, midway through a term. He believes all reforms will flow from that. Nomination would be open to any member with broad-based support and a substantial cash deposit. Notably, as in Canada, this would include people from outside Parliament. Such a vote will attract members, remove ‘ministry-for-votes payback schemes’, stop personality-based spills, and broaden the leadership pool.
Ruddick has done his homework to convince that all his reforms are feasible and consistent with the Westminster tradition. In particular, members select leaders across the Anglosphere. He spends much of the book describing reform structures in detail and proposing how they would work in Australia. And they are certainly timely after Rudd-Gillard-Rudd-Turnbull-Abbott-Turnbull-ScoMo.
However, what is less clear is that the assumed consequences of these reforms will eventuate as planned. Or that those reforms are achievable without factional games that would undermine them.
For most of the reform steps there are only weak connections to their assumed consequences. It’s like that famous Sidney Harris cartoon of a mathematician looking at a board full of algebra, where sitting between the beginning and end of the equation is a box labelled ‘Then a Miracle Occurs’.
A member vote for leader – a membership explosion, better leaders, a united party room, more electability. One hundred thousand members – reforms. Member democracy – sound policy. Conventions – policy contest rather than controlled spinfest.
The resilience of political class culture – and all its horrors of advancement by patronage and mating – will mean getting the benefit from every reform will be a dogfight. Like tax lawyers, hacks are made to find loopholes.
Given this issue, it is strange that Ruddick glosses over the accountability benefits of primaries compared with the headline reform of parliamentary leadership voting. Personnel is policy, and preselection power is the guts of factional influence.
Practical circularity also poses a problem. By his own argument Ruddick needs to change party structures to attract members to join; but he needs members to join to be able to change them. ‘Nothing will inspire Liberal party supporters to become Liberal party members more than the right to vote for our parliamentary leaders’ and yet, ‘We must assume the reform agenda will be driven by the membership’. So the book reduces to an argument for a new party constitution – an attractive one which would be a vast improvement – and an exhortation for people to join and change the party from the inside to make that constitution real. While it is still a broken batch of factional fiefdoms.
A cynic might see this as a call to stack for control. An optimist might see it as a call for ordinary people to get the political party they want. No doubt the view taken will stem from whether your state faction is currently in charge.
Which brings us to the poison of faction. The book stands on its own and should be independent of factional or policy position. But in NSW these reforms are tightly associated with the Right, as were the plebiscite reforms of 2017. The NSW Liberal Left viscerally opposes the agenda. So factional warfare seems the prerequisite for reforms, but it is factional warfare that repels members and empowers careerist hacks.
Which might explain Ruddick’s suggested first step: put reformists into Federal Council and change party rules to allow members to elect the parliamentary leader. It may just be the only thing achievable any time soon.
No-one could say Make the Liberal Party Great Again is a rollicking read. Its eclectic nature makes it a bit jerky, and Ruddick hasn’t quite integrated it into a coherent flow or delivered a consistent tone. But he writes plainly and is never livelier than when he vents on factionalism, Young Liberals, campus groups or the generic party hack ‘driven by a desire for social status, a penchant for intrigue and the need for a taxpayer-funded salary because, frankly, he is unemployable outside politics’.
And so, as we must, to the title. Its strict meaning is precisely Ruddick’s intent. But its Trumpian and Palmeresque connotations do it no favours at all. Ruddick’s reform agenda is structured and thoughtful. It deserves better. Brickbat to publishers Wilkinson.
As Ruddick says: ‘Democratic reform is not an end in itself – sound policy is’. He believes that sound policy emerges from the members of a democratic party, and is trying to save the Liberals without the cleansing of death and rebirth. Good luck to him. Never underestimate the impact of one individual committed to the point of obsession.
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