Liberal primaries

Julian Leeser had an op-ed in the SMH yesterday calling for primaries to be introduced for Liberal Party preselections (his full paper is here). Party members could vote automatically in preselections, while other people could vote after paying a fee (to limit supporters of other parties voting for unelectable candidates).

I used to be against primaries, mostly on grounds of financial cost to the party and to the candidates, and the dangers of party divisions being on display during high-profile preselections. And thinking ahead to what would happen under a possible future presidential primary, we would not want the US system where the presidential campaign effectively runs for two years.

But overall I have changed my mind and think the Liberal Party should adopt primaries.

Both major parties need to increase their membership base, but particularly the Liberals who lack the institutional support Labor has through the union movement. The campaign against political donations is likely to have considerable success, at significant cost to Australian democracy in making politics even more one-sided. The Liberals have to tap into the 10% of the Australian electorate who say they strongly support the Liberal Party, plus the 20% who say their support is fairly strong (AES figures).

Making party membership (or perhaps a category of preselection registered supporter) more attractive by offering direct input into preselections is one obvious reform that would help find and motivate those who consistently vote Liberal, but don’t otherwise assist the party.

Though factions would still exist in a primary system, their influence would be diluted. Indeed, they may be converted into something useful, helping groom candidates without having the strength to impose mediocre candidates on the party or the public (as Julian points out in relation to undemocratic preselections in the ALP, if the result of the process if Belinda Neal MP, it is not a good process).

I’m not sure whether the factional heavies would vote to reduce their own power. But perhaps the party’s current sorry electoral circumstances will prompt some sacrifice.

8 thoughts on “Liberal primaries

  1. I agree that we need a wider community input – the state of the parliaments is proof of that. But perhaps we should keep some places (upper houses?) for parties to be able to get really good candidates into parliament without the bother and vulgarity of campaigning, which might put good people off.

    Disagree with the proposal that candidates can spend any amount of money in these ‘primaries’, having to go to polling places, involving the AEC etc. I would prefer that party members just get sent the candidates profiles (A4 page each? – maybe one side of the page could be for candidates to comment on each other’s pitch), and then you just post the ballot form back – like union elections!


  2. I think tactically primaries could be good for the Liberals.

    Ultimately the Liberals see themselves as closer to the mainstream than Labor, yet the elections of recent times indicate they are not.

    I guess the big question is how many seats do you use primaries in – only winnable, how many winnable ones, if you have say a cap on numbers – how do you choose the rest.

    Will primaries see more crossing of the floor in Parliament? I think it would do. Is that good or not. I think it could be.

    How does the party de-select a candidate if they are philosophically out of step? I think the party would need this ability.

    Ultimately the danger I suppose is that you could end up with such a variety of candidates that you lose coherence and a reason for being a party.

    This can be managed by limiting the number of candidates selected this way or giving the party office a weighted say. i.e. 65/35 primaries and executive might work …

    But the dangers are worth the risk!

    This is the same as differential school vouchers – it appears way-out at first – but would give people much more involvement in their communities


  3. I have sympathy for this but:
    1. $$ will count in primaries not a level playing field
    2. Would-be MPs may have to pledge to vote differently in accordance with (party) electorate wishes: is this compatible with responsible govt?
    3. might zealous party supporters who turn out to vote be out of touch with the middle ground and choose unelectable candidates? Some evidence of this with the Republicans in US. Dems seem to have learnt to be pragmatic.

    There was an earlier Aust equivalent of sorts when union members could vote in ALP preselections.


  4. Geoff Robinson, what happened in the last two years. I followed your link to your website and your post today and two years ago on this. Two years ago you though Leigh, McCarthy and co were loons who would ruin a centre ground contest among the main parties! now you hold sympathy …


  5. I’d support anything that prevents the liberal party from being taken over by a small group of right wing nutters. And this might do it.

    As for the funding, collective funding through the tax system is starting to look good.


  6. I disagree with primaries as I don’t think they will achieve their intended aims.

    As I’ve said elsewhere, primaries will be costly and will reward rather than inhibit factions and interest grops. When a Liberal does something that upsets a faction, this displeasure becomes known quickly and virulently: the silence surrounding Leeser’s proposal has been eerie to say the least, and pardon my cyncisim in doubting that a spirit of goodwill and common cause has broken out within that party.

    I’d suggest that “those who consistently vote Liberal, but don’t otherwise assist the party” don’t really need to be motivated, but that the Liberal Party should set its course by those who do, have and will support it rather than regard them as target practice for marketing campaigns. I still bristle at the idea that junk mail and political advertising is publicly funded – you can’t complain about any public funding decision so long as you support that.

    Russell, you show me someone who doesn’t want to deal with “bother and vulgarity”, and I’ll show you someone with a limited capacity and motivation to be effective in politics.


  7. Andrew E – While on balance I have shifted my view to favour primaries, there is no perfect system that reliably gets the best candidates at minimum cost, financial and political. The Liberal Party is a federation, so I would like to see a state division test this idea and see what happens.


  8. AE – I just typed Lord Norton into Google and up came the Wikipedia entry that cites the Daily Telegraph in 2007 as listing him as “59th most influential person on the right in British politics”.

    He writes a lot on “Lords of the Blog”(and it’s very good). See, that’s the kind of person you want to get into parliament who probably would never go through the bothersome and vulgar business of pre-selections/primaries.


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