Daniel Gerrard has been a Labor campaign manager in Victoria, Western Australia, Queensland and the ACT. He is currently working for Bec Cody, one of our ACT Labor MLAs, whilst doing a PhD in campaign methods.
A question often discussed in our party reform debates is the selection of candidates. Too often we hear that we need “better candidates,” “candidates with more life experience,” or “more diversity in our candidates.” The last often meaning we need to select more business people and those with experience on the successful end of capitalism. Two further arguments are commonly made in relation to certain seats: “it’s a safe seat, so we should preselect someone who’ll be on the front bench,” and “it’s a marginal seat, so we should preselect someone with centrist views and demographics.” The final cliché of the pack is a lament rather than a suggestion, “we’d never preselect a train driver today,” it refers to Ben Chifley, our second best ever leader. Those who say it forget that Curtin (the best Prime Minister we ever had) was life-long party hack. He was moved by the party machine from Melbourne to Perth, because he spent too much time when he was supposed to be editing the labour newspaper and running the anti-conscription campaign.
If we approach the question of preselection from a collective (the good of the party, the good of the working class), rather than individual (my right to be preselected, my right to vote in preselection) perspective, we can get some better perspective. What do we, as a party and representatives of the working class want from the team we preselect? I think we want a group:
- Capable of winning elections (inspirational, hard working)
- Capable to govern competently (management/technical skills)
- Willing to implement the platform (loyal)
- Committed to the solidarity of the movement (no/limited infighting)
- Understand of many walks of life (diverse)
Our preselection process is very good at the first two points, is increasingly patchy at 3-4, and depending on the way you measure it, either getting much better or much worse at being appropriately diverse. The diversity of our preselected candidates has improved if you measure it by gender or race, but fallen sharply if you measure it by class. We are over supplied with graduates from sandstone universities, and under supplied with graduates from the school of hard knocks.
Currently, 84% of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party claim a university education on their websites. That compares to 79% of the LNP, and 80% of the Greens. For context, the Census says 22% of the general population hold a Bachelor Degree or higher. On education levels, the people Labor is selecting as MPs are the least diverse in the Parliament. A significant contrast exists between our Members of the House of Representatives (MHRs) and Senators; 84% of our MHRs have a degree and 62% of our Senators have a degree. There are also differences between states. Where central panels and/or the State Conference preselect candidates, they’re much more likely to include more educationally diverse candidates. Our tradies and our truckies are mostly in the Senate, and most are due for retirement in the next few terms. A point can be made that nurses, teachers, social workers and many others have degrees and are still working class… true, but they’re still in the 22% with a university education… leaving the other 78% poorly represented.
Labor’s methods of preselecting by rank and file ballot is generating this narrowing of our caucus. Rather than attempt to preselect a diverse team, each local decision is made in isolation. Where a central panel would select a diverse group, our localised system keeps delivering very similar MPs. This may reflect that those with the time and inclination to get involved tend to be wealthier and higher educated themselves. Whilst I would like to have a fine lawyer as Attorney General, some doctors, some nurses, a few military veterans, and a solid sprinkling of industrial relations and communications experts, having a caucus dominated by the professional class creates a disconnection from our base.
When they are deciding how hard to push on Occupational Health and Safety Legislation, people who have faced workplace hazards greater than a paper cut would improve our depth of understanding. The decision on negative gearing should be made by those who know what it is like not to afford a house. The working class should have the numbers at Conference, at Caucus, and in Cabinet.
So how do we select more people who have had careers in manual or menial work for Parliament? Affirmative Action has worked very well in the selection of woman candidates – we aimed to put a lot more women into Parliament, and we did. Affirmative action worked so well we raise the target, and all evidence points to success. For those of us who hang out in machinery rooms of the party, it has had one perverse outcome – a focus on fast tracking women into Parliamentary careers left the back room dominated by blokes. We had fewer female party officers in 2010 than in 2000. Fortunately, that problem has been recognised, and the effort is now being put into ensuring we give women the training and experience they need to take senior back office roles.
To improve the representation of people from menial and manual working backgrounds we must do two things, firstly, push party reforms that create a meaningful place for them in the machine. Just stacking them into the room will not do... they need a powerful place in it. Secondly, we need to alter our preselection model to increase the number of working people preselected. That could take the form of quotas (perhaps a cap of 49% with university educations?), or perhaps a move back towards central panel preselection, allowing for a group of candidates to be selected from diverse backgrounds.
If we do not address our Party’s current failure to preselect people from outside the 22% elite who have got university degrees, our credibility as a party representative of the working class will be damaged permanently.