Primaries in Australia?

Ben Raue’s The Tally Room has drawn my attention to this article in The Australian:

“ON Thursday, NSW Nationals leader Andrew Stoner met the party’s state organisational chairman Christine Ferguson and state director Ben Franklin to agree on a radical US-style primary trial ahead of the March 2011 state election.

Under the scheme the party will pick a winnable seat not held by a Nationals MP (potentially Dubbo, Port Macquarie or Tamworth, the three most marginal electorates) and conduct an open primary contest in which any person eligible to vote in the chosen electorate can do so to select the party’s candidate for the general election. This would be instead of the usual internal party preselection.

If the trial for the state election in 2011 is successful, the NSW Nationals will move to widen the primary process to every seat not held by an incumbent for the 2015 election.”

Interesting. I’m unsure why this proposal hasn’t received more attention, as it has the potential to revolutionize Australian politics.

Ben notes:

MPs would be much less beholden to their parties and we would likely see a decline in party discipline. It could also have a serious impact on government ministers.

And then digresses into his usual ramblings on multi-member elections, which are responsible for the democratic farce of NZ and the ACT. Although he does make the rather salient point that:

” The rise of maverick Nationals who are more concerned with the party’s independence than its coalition relationship, such as Barnaby Joyce and Brendan Grylls, would be encouraged by the rise of open primary preselections”

Julian Leeser, Executive Director of the Menzies Research Center, and one of the greatest political minds in the country, presented a great paper on the matter at last years Australian Liberal Students’ Federation Federal Council. An edited extract was published by the SMH, which reads, in part:

“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. 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. All three candidate types have a real contribution to make to our Parliament and our national life. 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.”

Primaries will certainly break the party machine, and allow members more flexibility. In the current trend of openness and accountability, such things are defiantly necessary. Party loyalty is important, but perhaps more mavericks would be a good thing – and a primary might encourage people to be responsive to things like cutting the tax burden that will genuinely help constituents, as opposed to pushing a far-left agenda because of stacked out branches as currently seems to be the case. Indeed, political terrorists like  Petro who try to hold the party to ransom to achieve their own petty left-wing agenda would never survive an open process. Still, one feels that there are better ways of doing this than the uber-politicization that primaries shall bring.

Political Parties in Australia do need to become more responsive, more grassroots decentralized. The Liberal Party after all is founded on such principles, and two-way community engagement (whether it be through web 2.0 or the internet) is an important means (although note means, not end).

To be honest, I’ve been so steeped in party culture for the last 10 years that its difficult for me to fathom a different way, and to form an open mind on the topic. Thoughts/suggestions are welcome.

Update: You can read the NSW National’s Briefing Paper on the matter here.

Update 2: Thanks to Poll Bludger for the link!


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18 Responses to “Primaries in Australia?”

  1. Ben Raue Says:

    Ramblings! Tell that to almost every democratic country that uses proportional representation. Pretty much the only largeish countries still exclusively using single-member electorates are the UK, Canada, the US and Australia (France?).

  2. rachel Says:

    Yep, because branch stackings are almost always employed to push a far left agenda. I can only assume you’re not talking about the Liberal Party of Australia, Tim?

    Other than that, great post – thanks for drawing my attention to this article. I’d like to see Australia adopt a primaries approach – particularly in choosing party leaders – my main concern would only be the cost involved.

  3. Tim Says:

    Fair point – the US system of publicly funded primaries (aka welfare for politicians) is a rort.
    If done by the parties though…

  4. Ben Raue Says:

    You’ve got also remember, though, that US elections are expensive in general. Primaries are expensive but don’t compare to general elections. And just like how people without means can get ahead in Australian politics with the support of powerbrokers, the support of powerbrokers in the US can provide the funding of a political campaign. In both cases there are higher barriers to those without personal means to get ahead in politics, it’s just that they are manifested in different ways.

    Personally I don’t support primaries, but I support vigorously contested elections where all members living in the electorate get a vote. Hopefully this would also encourage more people to join, making it more like a primary-style election. The bigger the scale, the harder it becomes to stack.

  5. Jake the Muss Says:

    The ACT is a democratic farce how?

    The jurisdictions with parliaments that represent the vote are the democratic farces? I thought I was the cynic.

  6. jamesp Says:

    Caucuses maybe, primaries definitley not. The median voter who would participate in a primary election is almost certainly likely to be to the left of the median liberal party member. The only thing keeping the vast majority of our MPs in vaugely respectable territory is the fear of angry preselectors.

    Imagine what would happen in a policy area like free-trade with random voters participating?

  7. Kyle Says:

    Tim, this is a great idea. If Ben came up with this one, then kudos to him.

    i used to say it, even in my party days, that primaries were the only way to get real people elected to parliament.

    Less party discipline, so less poor legislation also gets passed simply because one dominant paradigm in the one party in government wants to have its own way. this just may re-inject some public faith in Australian politics.

    You are also correct though about the futility of the MMP system of elections. All it does is create instability. Ben Raue argues that the Westminster system is only followed in a small number of countries (mainly English speaking). yes, this is correct, but does it make it wrong? is it mere coincidence that these same countries (Australia, US & the UK) also have the most stable political systems in the world? methinks not.

    but of course you would expect a Green to argue that way. its the only way they can hope to achieve any real importance, eventhough only 5% of the population votes for them – most of whom are Communists and should be imprisoned anyway.

  8. Rob Says:

    Stability can be overrated.. see NSW Labor.

    As for the ACT, they seem to survive ok. Given the ALP leanings of the whole territory a westminster system would probably result in eternal ALP rule ( see Wollongong City Council, Shellharbour City Council and all the other very safe labor cities with corruption problems).

  9. MDMConnell Says:


    Ordinary people are not political junkies. They are more likely to choose someone who has a public profile, who they’ve heard of. This gives a huge advantage to people like sportsmen, entertainers, local government types, etc over people who are lower profile but might be better politicians. I’m sure popular, hard working marginal seat holders like Jim Snow or Jackie Kelly weren’t well known publicly before becoming MPs.

    Another problem is that voters for an opposing party will serve their own interests. Labor voters won’t want a strong conservative candidate and vice-versa- they will try to boost the vote for a weaker or less electable candidate. This obviously a worse, not better, outcome for the electorate.

  10. Tim Says:

    Both very fair points.

    There’s also the issue that it could lead to a lot more pork-barreling for local projects, as well perhaps as for targeted subsidies etc (which we certainly see in US agricultural districts).

  11. Tim Says:

    What other avenues exist out there to bring participatory democracies to political parties, and decrease the centrality of ‘party machines’ (with the obvious flexibility and other advantages) other than primaries?
    I’m sure there are some!

  12. Rob Says:

    Proportional representation is awful. Have a look at the six or more party coalitions that govern across europe. Any time a government wants to do any reform one of more of the parties threaten to pull out and the reform is scrapped. Have a look at Italy’s election history for a clear example of failed PR. PR should only be in upper houses. Ben Raue only likes it because the Greens can win seats.

  13. Justin Says:

    Leeser’s idea of making voters in primaries make a token contribution to the party makes sense and removes some of the problems that have been outlined above (e.g. there’s an active disincentive for ALP stooges to vote in these primaries).

  14. Ross Grove Says:

    I think you will find that this is a half-baked solution to a brand in crisis. The Nats have been trying on different acts ever since they ditched the name “Country Party.”

    They know that the family farm as a business structure is being replaced. They know about whats going on in “rural communities”and how the demographics of “towns” have historically paid less sympathy to their cause. They also know about the development of regional centres, the “sea change of Liberal/Labor city slickers to the electorates and they are trying desperately to keep their heads above water in a completely different ballgame.

    The state of Queensland is a case in point. As the state changed the people became increasingly reluctant to elect a premier with a vested interest in “the bush”. Liberals identified as culturally sophisticated and urbane in order to distinguish themselves from the yokels they did business with. The growth of the Liberal-Labor cities and the constant seniority of the Nats made it such that the only way to form government was through making a redundant brand redundant and looking forward to the future.

    The LNP. For a new Queensland.

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