I don’t need to sift through the Lan Choo dregs to tell you guys this: In November former Optus executive Paul Fletcher is going to be elected as the new Member for the North Shore seat of Bradfield. He’ll replace the departing Brendan Nelson, and either help the Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull by handing him a healthy winning margin, or trouble him with a closer scrape than a high profile Liberal in an ultra- safe seat should experience. That’s not very interesting.
What is more interesting is the process by which Fletcher received his party’s nomination, which the Sydney Morning Herald’s Phillip Coorey outlined last Friday:
There are 17 candidates vying for Liberal preselection for the safe north shore seat, vacated by the resignation of Brendan Nelson. Their winner will be chosen by 120 party members, of whom 72 are local members and the remainder party officials.
[Fletcher and another competitive candidate, David Coleman] are from south of the Harbour Bridge and tried for preselection for the Sutherland Shire seat of Cook in 2007.
The influence of factions is limited in Bradfield but the left, which has about 35 votes, is broadly lining up behind Mr Fletcher. It will support Mr Coleman as a second option.
The right, which is estimated to have about 30 votes, is scattered among local candidates including Julian Leeser, Tom Switzer, Sophie York, Simon Berger and John Hart, who is considered the dark horse.
There are around 90 000 voters in Bradfield, and their next Federal member was subject to the scrutiny of just 120 of them. Sure, he will have to face the electorate at a full election, but a north shore seat like this one is only going to vote for a Liberal, and this is the Liberal the party has told them they will vote for. Fletcher won this enviable position with a mere 60 votes, his closest challenger being local boy Julian Leeser, who received 51.
That’s not all bad. The Liberals, particularly in New South Wales, need an injection of new talent, and it is in the interests of voters in and outside of Bradfield to have talented politicians working in Parliament. But we should also remember the purpose of our representative system of government, and it isn’t to restock the ranks of the Liberal Party with people who don’t have to worry too hard about being re-elected. Fletcher’s job, first and foremost, will be to go to Canberra to represent the interests and concerns of the people of Bradfield — a place in which, currently, he does not even live. It would be nice if a few more than three twentieths of one per cent of the people he wishes to represent had a real say in whether he should do so.
Erin Riley over at Naysayers has a suggestion: Open Primaries!
Pre-selection battles typically involve a very small number of voters. Consequently, you have to very much toe the party line to be chosen to run in an election. Open up the process, and you may well find a broader range of candidates. Plus, it would go a long way toward discouraging some of the nepotism in Australian politics, and might convince political candidates to engage with a broader range of people.
There was a bit of chatter about this sort of thing last year amidst the excitement of the American Democratic primary battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton from Australians wishing for a homegrown version of the spectacle, not realising that kind of high profile leadership contest would be impossible in a Parliamentary system. But there’s no reason we couldn’t implement the less glamorous but more practical system of subjecting party candidates to the wider electorate, rather than the kind of highly-exclusive cabals that threw up Paul Fletcher for the people of Bradfield to rubber stamp.
Australians tend to be disengaged from our politics; as long our members aren’t doing anything egregiously noxious, we prefer not to think of them. That’s partly a result of our culture, but it’s also a result of a system that discourages us as much as possible from becoming involved.
Our experience is a marked contrast to the United States. Take a look at this New York Times article from the weekend, about the U.S. Republican Party choosing candidates for next year’s midterm elections.
“In New Hampshire, Florida, Colorado and other states, the push by Washington Republicans to identify preferred Senate candidates has stirred resentment and prompted competition from those not impressed by the Washington seal of approval.”
The problem in these states is not that the voters want a say in who is their candidate for the next election — they get that. These voters are upset that the national Republican organisation has favoured one candidate before the voters have even got a look, and as a result, many grassroots opponents are receiving a boost in support. These voters are troubled by a mere show of support from the Federal party; imagine how they would react if, like in Bradfield, they didn’t even get a say. And unlike Fletcher, the interloper is not a non-local high flyer the party has flown in to benefit its national organisation; all the candidates involved are locals.
The most striking example, for my money, is that of Charlie Crist, the well-liked Governor of Florida who hopes to stand for the Senate. Crist is local and popular, yet the quick seal of approval the National Republican Senatorial Committee gave him was enough to stir up some of the locals and force Crist to compete against Florida’s former House speaker Marco Rubio for the nomination. Crist is probably the better candidate, but it’s healthy to see voters engaged enough in their government that they see it as their right, and not select officials in the Republican Party, as to who gets to stand in an election.
Could we see a similar level of passion in Australia? Last month, the Victorian Premier John Brumby proposed the ALP adopt a primary system to select its candidates — within Victoria, anyway. He is candid about the difficulties of implementing the system, but he also understands the benefits:
Mr Brumby said the system would be complicated to implement because the party would need to identify regular ALP voters, whereas in the US they were registered to a party.
He said the system could be trialled before next year’s election, with preselections yet to take place in most of the opposition-held seats.
“It’s something that I think the party should examine. It’s really based on the US system and that is where registered voters for political parties can help pre-select the candidate,” Mr Brumby said.
“At the moment in our party you need to be a paid-up party member to participate in a preselection process and it’s normally a combination of people in the branches and people on the central office selection panel.”
This kind of thing is encouraging to see, and we should hope Victoria — and the rest of the country — does indeed implement a primary system, open or otherwise. It wouldn’t prevent candidates like Paul Fletcher receiving the nomination for their party, but it would require them to convince a few more than 60 voters that they’re up to the job.