Australian Labor Party pre-selection requires real reform to be able to connect with outer-suburban federal electorates. Local candidates selected by primaries could change the internal branch warring, navel gazing and the ultimate failure - disconnection from the public mood.
By changing pre-selection to reward high profile local candidates with policy knowledge and genuine vote-winning power, the Labor Party could find salvation in suburban seats it has previously given up on. It is only primary pre-selection that can deliver popular involvement, which in turn, will deliver vote-winning centre-ground candidates.
The Labor membership has become a marginalised Left and consequently fails to represent local electorates in areas such as Lindsay and Makin, for example. People who have worked on campaigns have been repeatedly made aware of this - (with advice such as) “Don’t speak about Mabo, interest rates, tax, economic management, refugees”, among other issues. But when you consider that the health of the economy generally, and interest rates in particular, are lightening rod issues, it becomes clear that most of the grounds where Labor can claim credibility and respect are limited by its current membership. The real issue is that Labor may run away from its members’ concerns at election time, but it can’t hide from the reality.
When reading Peter McMahon’s recent article in On Line Opinion, “The Australian Labor Party: incestuous, secretive, schlerotic”, sympathy for his views on the internal culture of the ALP is not hard to avoid. However the membership of the ALP is the fundamental cause of its political disconnection. This is obvious to those who have knocked on doors in marginal seats. The university student Labor door-knocker is more likely to create discontent than to understand the issues in the suburbs they travel to.
Self-serving premiers and factional warriors are a symptom of a party that knows its membership is out of touch. The “elites” of the party who have access to polling know they need to distance themselves from some of the more extreme tendencies of Labor’s Left. These elites, whether Richardson, Keating and Ray in the 1980s, or Mandelson, Blair and Brown in Britain in the 1990s, know that the traditional messages of the Labor membership are the real reasons for past failures in centre-ground electorates.
Labor needs a bigger constituency to move beyond its identity crisis. It must seek a bigger pool of opinion to find both its legitimacy and its values to win elections consistently.
Labor needs to move to centre rather than being captured by the Left. If primaries are done well and large numbers turn out to select the candidate, the candidate who wins will be from the centre of politics.
Primaries encourage growth and involvement at a time when Labor’s membership is in crisis. Branch stacking may be a symptom of branch warfare but its collateral damage has been the loss of openness and attractiveness of the membership. The culture of Labor has been set for the “Young Turks”, and it is a culture of internal warfare and little else.
It is important primaries require aspiring politicians to connect with community issues. A system that rewards involvement in neighbourhoods, schools, unions, churches, policy forums and business would provide a popular candidate choice from a broad range of centre and left-of-centre. This can only create interest and debate of Labor’s policies and values.
Broad candidate choice would encourage a Labor Party that was able to represent the great majority of Australians in a large variety of electorates. It is no coincidence that the decline in the variety of candidates seeking pre-selection has occurred at a time when pre-selection has become controlled by a select few. Labor needs people running for election who think about the communities they live in as opposed to the union officials and political staffers presently being run.
The most obvious benefit of primaries is it does not require any reduction in union involvement in the Labor Party structure to move to the centre. While unions are the traditional heart and soul of the Labor movement, it is now clear they are not the heart and soul of middle Australia. By using primaries, the Labor Party can find a means of ensuring that unions can be at the heart of party conferences without them dominating all decision-making processes for pre-selection and policy.
When Labor appraises itself after each election, the most fundamental issue it faces is the restoration of its “brand”. Most of the Labor membership considers the reduction in “brand quality” a result of Labor being too right-wing. But in reality this is voodoo politics, especially given that John Howard is prime minister. If the centre of politics was further to the Left than the current perceived wisdom for those who manage the major parties, Kim Beazley would have been prime minister in 1998 or 2001.
What Peter McMahon should do is set up a progressive movement outside the Labor Party. A party wanting to win the middle ground will struggle with his prescription. A party using primaries can adapt to the changing face of the electorate.
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