Are Primaries the Future for Labor?

Amy Smith (co-ordinating the City of Sydney community preselection for NSW Labor) and Paul Erickson (member of the Richmond branch of ALP in Victoria) debate the value and relevance of 'Community Preselections'.


Amy Smith

Community Preselections – You know it's worked when Sussex St doesn’t know the outcome

Following the 2010 Federal Election review, the debate about new candidate selection models continues to rage, with the NSW Branch currently holding its first ‘Community Preselection’ in the City of Sydney Local Government Area. Five candidates have entered the race to become Labor's candidate for Lord Mayor in the September Local Government elections.

The City of Sydney Community Preselection Trial has adopted a 50:50 model, with party members and community voters each making up half of the final result. Every household has been sent a ballot paper and instructions on how to vote online. Voters also have the opportunity to vote in person on 2 June 2012 at polling booths around the city. By the close of polls, we expect that over 4,000 residents will have voted.

Before commencing the trial, we took the important step of investigating the strengths and weaknesses of previous trials held in Australia. Both the Nationals' trial in Tamworth and the disappointing result of Victorian Labor’s trial in Kilsyth were analysed. Two lessons were immediately apparent:
1) Active steps must be taken to resource and advertise the process, and
2) Lowering the barriers to participation exponentially increases levels of community engagement.

At the outset, we knew we had to reduce barriers to participation as much as possible. Previous trials asked community supporters to pre-register. In the City of Sydney Community Preselection, we simply asked voters to declare that they were not a member of another political party. It was also decided that any party member would have the opportunity to vote in the preselection, no matter the length or continuity of their membership.

Through a purpose driven media strategy and the successful implementation of 'Operation Get Out The Vote', the message about Labor’s intent to engage with the community is cutting through. Despite the current tenuous political environment, there is strong evidence that ‘true democracy’ sits well with disillusioned voters and previous members who have walked away from the party.

This trial has been a success, however community preselections are not a silver bullet, but an evolving process as part of a wider reform agenda. No one is suggesting primaries alone will change Labor's fortunes, but we should not ignore the immense power of community engagement that this method of candidate selection taps into. As the Left, we should be leading the charge to embrace and shape this process.

If you're still not convinced, don’t take my word for it, look at the numbers: more than twenty times the amount of people have participated in this process than would have voted in a rank and file ballot, and more importantly, for the first time in decades, Sussex Street don’t know what the outcome will be.


Paul Erickson

Reasons to be sceptical about “community preselections”

The old saying goes that there’s nothing wrong with any political party that an election win won’t fix.

In the ALP we might be tempted to invert that aphorism – no matter how poor the campaign or how bad the defeat, there’s no unsatisfying election outcome that can’t be salved internally by a discussion about primaries.

This has certainly been the case since the Bracks-Carr-Faulkner review recommended a tiered candidate selection system involving Party members, affiliated unions and “registered Labor supporters in the community”.

Whilst take-up of this recommendation has been patchy, there have been some useful examples like the City of Sydney community preselection being trialled by NSW Labor. 
But there have been other far less successful examples. The evidence they offer is instructive:
• In 2010 Victorian Labor invited 40,627 locals to participate in a primary trial for the Liberal-held seat of Kilsyth. Only 136 people voted, exactly 2 of them went on to join the Party, several existing branch members decided not to renew their membership following the process, and Labor’s candidate copped an above-average swing against her of 10.1% in the general election.
• In 2011 a Tasmanian ALP plan to hold a primary for the state upper house seat of Hobart was dropped after only one candidate nominated, and less than 100 locals registered to participate.

Perhaps what these experiments show is that a disengaged public who are sceptical about Australia’s political institutions are unlikely to get too excited by a ‘trial’of a ‘model for community preselection’ for positions they care little for.

And that’s the nub of this debate.

We all remember the excitement generated by the 2008 US Presidential primaries. Many ALP supporters were proudly pro-Obama, pro-Hillary, or in the case of some of our special friends from the SDA, pro-McCain.

More recently the UK Labour Party and the French Socialists have elected their Leader and Presidential candidate respectively through mass-participation elections. UK Labour also managed to involve affiliated unions in the process and avoided undermining the links between the Party and its affiliates.

Ultimately, when we talk about ‘primaries’ we are talking about broadening out the franchise through which we select our representatives, in the hope this will generate more interest and involvement in the ALP.

To trial that successfully in a country with virtually no contemporary culture of mass participation in our political parties, you’d really need to look to one of the few positions our Party elects that the average person on the street feels any connection to – the Labor Leader.

Anything else looks and smells a little bit too much like a pea-and-thimble trick from those who’ve got the most invested in maintaining the status quo in our Party.

In 2005, in the aftermath of the Latham experiment, many in the Victorian Right were briefly interested in Primaries and advocated a trial of community preselection models.
Strangely, that push ran out of steam after the next round of Victorian preselections delivered the desired outcome to those advocating change.

The current debate doesn’t feel much different.

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