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.