Australian political parties have seen a steep decline in their membership over the last fifty years, falling from 4% of the electorate in the 1960s to just over 1% (Gauja 2012, p. 641 cited in Sawer, Abjorensen & Larkin 2009, pp. 134–35; van Biezen, Mair & Poguntke 2012, p. 28). In fact, an Australian Labor Party Review published in 2010 showed that its membership has fallen from 50,000 to less than 40,000 (Orr 2011, p. 977 cited in Australian Election Studies). This trend has not only occurred in Australia, but in most Western democracies. Consequently, as a response to this disenchantment and in an attempt to boost intra-party democratization -or, as some have argued, as a cynical attempt by the party elites to limit the voice of party activists (Kenig 2009, p. 434 cited in Mair 1994, p. 16 and Marsh, 1993, p. 230), they have opened the process of candidate selection and policy making  to a wider selectorate (Kenig 2008, p. 240; 2009, p. 434 cited in Scarrow et al. 2000). One of these measures has been the implementation of primaries, an instrument through which a political party selects its candidates for a forthcoming election. However, there are different levels of membership participation within these processes, ranging from open-primaries, where any elector is allowed to take part; to closed-primaries, where only paid-up members can participate in the decision (Holmes 2011). There are still many other types of primaries, such as Parliamentary Party Groups and Selected Party Agencies, among others.

Figure 1: Party leader selection methods: a three dimensional classification (Kenig 2009, p. 444)

This article will examine the most relevant party primaries held in Australia so far, along with the prominent arguments from its proponents and detractors. It will finish with an analysis of the outcome of these fledgling selection processes and of their possible implementation in future contests.

The current procedure of mainstream Australian political parties is a rather closed system where only paid-up members get to vote, and is still closely controlled by the party elites (Williams & Lelliott 2012). Both in the ALP and in the Liberal Party it is for the Party Parliamentary Group, “the party’s elected representatives in the legislature”, to make the candidate pre-selection for the lower house seats (Kenig 2009, p. 435). Nevertheless, Modern ALP divides the decision-making between local branches and a central committee which represents the factions and trade unions of the party. Likewise, Modern Liberal Party employs a pre-selection panel, with both centrally named ‘selectors’ and a bigger amount of local branches’ nominees -in accordance with their number of members (Orr 2011, p. 969). However, the party apparatus still retains considerable control over the pre-candidate list (the list of contenders from which the electorate has to choose from), as well as the right to exclude any nomination, even after the candidate has been elected, through requirements that candidates be endorsed (Gauja 2012, p. 647).

The Australian pioneers in this regard were the Victorian ALP and the Nationals in New South Wales, which trialled ‘community pre-selections’ for winnable seats, namely, those not held by them (Orr 2011, p. 967 cited in ABC Radio National 2010; Gauja 2012, p. 641). As for the Nationals, they trialled the first open-primaries in June 2010 to select the candidate for the state seat of Tamworth, in an attempt to rectify the loss of seats to independent candidates in rural areas (Orr 2011, p. 967 cited in Peter van Onselen 2009, p. 16). All the residents registered in the electoral roll qualified for participating (2012, p. 347). The selected candidate, Kevin Anderson, went on to win that seat at the 2011 NSW state elections, with a 12.5% swing to their party (Holmes 2011). As for the ALP, they conducted a semi-closed primary for the winnable state seat of Kilsyth in 2010, where residents had to register as supporters of the party and claim that they had the intention to vote for the party in the upcoming elections (2012, p. 647). In June 2012, the NSW Labour Party also held primaries for selecting the candidate who would run for the mayoral election of the City of Sydney (2012, p. 645). However, candidates in the latter were selected using a weighted method, where half of the votes went to the party supporters and the other half to the official party-members (2012, p. 648). All these primaries have used the preferential (or ‘alternative vote’) system (2012, p. 648). When it comes to leader deposition mechanisms, both Liberals and Labours use the no-confidence vote. In short, whereas the selection method of the large Australian parties is comparatively closed both in terms of selectorate and candidacy requirements, their de-selecting mechanism is quite open (Kenig 2009, p. 444), which has led to 5 different Primer Ministers from 2010 to 2015 (Bryant 2015).

There have been many actors advocating for reforms in the candidate-selection methods, especially from senior and high-profile politicians and prominent intellectuals (Gauja 2012, p. 651). Based on the success of Kilsyth primaries, which resulted in a “significant increase in local Party membership in the region”, ALP 2010 National Review called for the use of primaries as a means of strengthening party organisation (2012, p. 652 cited in Bracks, Faulkner and Carr 2011, p. 22). In addition to attracting new members to the party, the Nationals claimed that the use of community pre-selection would make the candidate accountable to their electors and improve the image of the party (2012, p. 652 cited in National Party 2010, p. 4). Some members of the Liberal Party have also advocated the implementation of primaries, such as the review issued by senior Liberal Peter Reith, which was supported by Tony Abbott. Academic and former Victorian Speaker Ken Coghill has also called for their implementation because of the necessity to counteract oligarchical control, waning membership and branch-stacking (Orr 2011, p.  966 cited in Coghill 2001 and Bennett 2002). Rowena Johns argues that primaries are more democratic, in that they reduce corruption and increase public electoral choices (2011, p. 967 cited in Johns 2001). The survey ‘Transforming Labour’ from April 2010 disclosed some significant facts: 86% of respondents supported Labour members’ bigger weight in the party, and 80% believed that the party leader should be elected on a one-member one-vote primary. However, most Labour members (58%) opposed to the idea of open-primaries (Byrne 2010).

Another salient reason is boosting the quality of candidates (Gauja 2012, p. 653), which will increase the likelihood of an electorally successful party leader. They may also help balance the power of party elites (factions and trade unions alike) on the one hand, and rank-and-file members on the other (Orr 2011, p. 967; 2012, p. 644). Moreover, parties are regarded as secretive and opaque organisations (Wanduragala & Hope 2010), where all decisions are made by party elites irrespective of the ordinary members. Therefore, opening up this process may make a party appear more democratic and recover its legitimacy among their electorate, especially after a scandal. On other occasions, however, the party may have experienced an electoral backlash, so opening the selection mechanism can be a way to re-engage their electorate or even attract new voters. This is what happened in the Liberal Party after their defeat at the 2010 federal elections and in the NSW Labour Party’s proposal of the primaries for the City of Sydney. Bernea and Rahat have classified the motivations for intra-party electoral reform in three categories: the political system, the party system and the political party (2012, p. 651 cited in Barnea and Rahat 2007, p. 377).

Figure 2: Motivating Factors for Candidate-Selection Reform (Gauja 2012, p. 651)

Some of the positive aspects of primaries have already been mentioned in the examination of the Australian public debate about this topic. But this selection method offers a broader number of advantages: Ben Franklin discovered that Latin American parties which had selected their candidates through primaries increased their electoral success by 4 to 6% (Gauja 2012, p. 653 cited in Maley 2010). Therefore, they are an instrument to reach out to a wider group of supporters, which is particularly necessary in these days of disenchantment with and mistrust in the political class and policy-making (Orr 2011, p. 966). This is why the use of community pre-selections would increase people’s trust in politicians, as they would have to be closer to their voters in order to win the primaries. Furthermore, they can reduce party-line vote, allowing those members elected by primary systems to cross the floor and vote on behalf of the interests of their community (Van Onselen 2009). It also makes it less likely that defeated contenders turn against their own party in the following elections (2009), as their failure in the process would challenge their legitimacy to do so. According to Ofer Kenig, it may increase transparency, participation (as every elector is entitled to vote) and accessibility (in opposition to the occasions where the candidate is selected by an elite group of the party) (2008, p. 246). It will also make representative democracy more representative, as electors would have a say in the policy with which their leader (and therefore, their party) runs in the elections. This would encourage more citizens to get involved in the political life.

Dr Joff Lelliott, one of its detractors, claims that primaries have been used by the party elites as a universal panacea in order to resolve every backlash or image problem of the party (Williams & Lelliott 2012). He gives three more reasons why open primaries should not be implemented: Firstly, they are counterproductive, because they can divide and weaken the party, in that candidates tend to rally against each other. This can be used by opposing parties to discredit them. Secondly, the may be costly. For instance, the cost of the National’s Tamworth primaries amounted to $63,000, let alone the cost of the advertising campaigns of each contender, which came out of their own pockets (Gauja 2012, p. 648 cited in Gay and Jones 2009, p. 4 and in Williams and Paun 2011, p. 23). Thirdly, unless a federal independent body registers the affiliation of voters, there is a risk that voters can wantonly interfere in another party’s primaries and vote for the weakest candidate (Williams & Lelliott 2012). This is the reason why National Party members from the electorate of Dubbo (NSW) voted down the community pre-selection process (Gauja 2012, p. 650 cited in ABC  2009). Additionally, people may be discouraged to join a party, since party members no longer have the exclusive right to choose their candidate (Reece & Rizzetti 2010). Nicholas Reece and Dean Rizzetti also mention the “disproportionate influence that special or single-interest groups can have on a primary, particularly if they can mobilise large numbers of people” (2010).

Figure 3: Primary Candidate-Selection Contests in Australia (Gauja 2012, p. 646)

            Even though primaries are at a very early age in Australia, they have already proven to be effective. ‘Figure 3’ demonstrates the proportionally high participation of the electorate, especially in Tamworth and Sydney city (10% and 6% of the electorate respectively). Labour 2010 ‘National Review’ stated that local party membership increased significantly as a result of Kilsyth primaries (Gauja 2012, p. 652 cited in Bracks, Faulkner and Carr 2011, p. 22). NSW Labour Party selection process for the City of Sydney was also a success, attracting ten times more selectors than in closed party selection contests (Straw 2012), as well as the Nationals’ 2010 Tamworth pre-selection, whose nominee won the seat. The NSW National’s primaries have also received a huge support, both from the party apparatus (Van Onselen 2009) and the rank-and-file members – 90% of the local Electorate Council from Tamworth voted in favour of their implementation (Gauja 2012, p. 650 cited in an author interview with Trevor Khan, 22 June 2010). In the light of these positive results, NSW National Party has decided to hold further community pre-selection contests (Gauja 2012, p. 649 cited in Jones 2010, p. 11). As for the ALP, its annual conference approved the adoption of a weighted primary method, whereby registered party supporters could take part in the selection of the party leader (Gauja 2012, p. 649 cited in Wintour 2011). Likewise, after the national election failure in 2010, the Liberals’ national party suggested the adoption of 100% member-controlled polls, and mentioned the possibility of trialling full-scale primaries as a second choice (Orr 2011, p. 967-968 cited in Reith 2011). Outside Australia, there is also evidence that supports the positive influence of primaries both on party electoral results and on people’s engagement. The 2012 Socialist primaries attracted 3 million electors, and enabled them to gather contact information from more than 1 million voters (Straw 2011). What is more, thanks to the 1€ participation fee they collected enough money to cover the expenses of the contest. In many cases (such as the Conservative open-primary elections for the mayoralty of London in 2008 or the 2012 French Socialist primaries), the selected candidates ended up winning the elections; and in virtually every other election, the support for the candidate selected through primaries increased considerably.

Therefore, primaries do not only ameliorate electoral performance and membership engagement with the party, but they also contribute to the democratization and liberalization of party politics, as well as to a more horizontal structure within the party. This would limit the weight of factions and deter ‘powerbrokers’ from acting in their own interests. But most importantly, it would bring party leaders closer to their communities and make them actual representatives rather than unaccountable bureaucrats. Accordingly, it would improve public perception of politics. Furthermore, contrary to what Joff Lelliott claims, discussing policy proposals and initiatives does not mean ‘washing dirty laundry in public’. In fact, it is worse when politics are done behind the scenes, as decisions are left to a select few, which are never the electorate nor ordinary members. As for their high economic cost, the 2012 French Socialist primaries have also proven that the financial burden is not an insurmountable obstacle. Furthermore, as Lelliott himself says, opposing political meddling can be easily averted by the intervention of the Electoral Commission, which could register voters’ affiliation (Williams & Lelliott 2012). The involvement of lobbies or interest groups will always be at the heart of politics, but grassroots participation and democratic structures are the best way to counteract their effect. Finally, even though the implementation of primaries by some parties as a ‘patch’ to their problems is an undeniable fact, it cannot be used as an argument to undermine their positive results. On the contrary, as Barnea and Rahat state, they are often a response to public expectations of politics democratizations (Gauja 2012, p. 644 cited Barnea and Rahat 2007, p. 377). It is too early to make a categorical statement about the suitability of primaries in Australia due to their short life, but in view of the positive reception by the electorate, they can be regarded as a promising initiative. It remains to be seen if the parties opt for their further implementation and decide to trial at the federal level, which would provide enough input to better assess their effect.



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