With the federal ALP pre-selection season about to kick off, Crikey thought it time to shine a light into the murky tributaries that funnel candidates into the highest elected offices in the land.

Preselection is one of those interminable processes that for the most part flies under the public’s radar. Usually, candidates are selected via some division of the grassroots vote and a central Politburo-style committee, but this varies markedly between states.

For the most part, internal democracy is a charade, and there is generally no legal requirement for “private” party structures to open up their processes. The partial exception is Queensland, where elections must comply with “general principles of free and democratic elections”, a face-saving measure introduced by Peter Beattie in the wake of the Shepherdson Inquiry.

The disjuncture with the electorate is startling. In Victoria, outcomes are determined by numbers that represent around 0.1% of the ALP primary vote in any given lower house seat.

And the issue is complicated by the ALP’s notorious factions. Across the country, preselections are “gamed” as a means of divvying up the spoils — explicitly in the case of Victoria, where a 10-year “stability pact” determines whether a candidate will come from the right or the left. Under this and other agreements, dead wood in the form of incumbent members and ministers are often protected from scrutiny. Under conditions of peace, factional wheeling and dealing often reflects the ambition of key powerbrokers to secure their hegemony within the group of acolytes they rule.

The overall picture is one of full-spectrum faction domination where internal ballots are relentlessly exploited. Budding do-gooders seriously eyeing a Gold Pass would do well to start in the sandpit of student politics — the sight of 18-year-olds “doing the numbers” on campus is depressing as it is necessary. The end result is a narrowing of the political class, with factionally-loyal apparatchiks ossifying around white-collar unionists and professional staffers. At the last round of federal preselections, most of the 86 ALP candidates standing in Coalition seats were sourced from deep within the Labor machine, which includes the parliamentary kindergarten otherwise known as local government.

Often, the current factionally-addled system is junked in favour of further centralisation. Affirmative action clauses enable state branches to install candidates to fulfil a gender quota, but are subject to massive abuses. In NSW, the notorious “N40” rule, which allows Sussex Street to ignore the local branches, was originally intended to get women into parliament.

Now, the trend could be about to get even worse, with the ALP’s powerful national executive gearing up to directly intervene in key marginals before the 2010 poll, in a tribute to Kevin Rudd’s notorious micromanagement. A five-man flying squad will almost certainly dislodge Belinda Neal in Robertson and has already halted preselections in La Trobe and McEwen. In the ACT, there are rumours the ageing Bob McMullan and Annette Ellis could be replaced by handpicked candidates. In NSW, letters from the state branch to the national executive are being drafted to give Rudd full rein in crucial seats under its “plenary powers”.

A more democratic system is urgently needed. Notwithstanding the trend towards a Ruddist caliphate, how does one officially snare a seat alongside the great and good in Canberra? The situation isn’t pretty.

New South Wales: Despite the notional adherence to a 100% grassroots vote it seems every preselection that matters in NSW is decided via the N40 ballot, named after a clause buried in the state party’s rules book, which allows the administrative committee to install its preferred candidate.

Under N40, half of the votes are sourced from head office, meaning that regardless of how many votes (and indeed voters) there are in the ballot, the candidate that is the subject of the N40 can ignore the wishes of the local branch. N40 was originally designed to facilitate an affirmative action quota but is now routinely abused by Sussex Street to keep preselections  in the hands of the factions or away from incorrectly stacked branches.

NSW has form handing over its preselection vote to the national executive. At the last round of federal preslections in 2007, Jason Clare’s candidacy for Blaxland was decided by National Executive members meeting inside the Victorian ALP’s office, on the urging of Mark Arbib.

Victoria: For federal lower house and all state preselections, a “Public Office Selection Committee” of 100 members, elected by state conference and reflecting the factional makeup of the party, determines half the vote with the other half is determined by “a plebiscite of local voters residing in the electoral area concerned”.

Senate candidates are chosen exclusively by the POSC, entrenching the worst form of winner-take-all brawling.

But like NSW, the administrative committee has the power to refer all preselections to the national executive, as it recently did with state upper house preselections and in state electorates surrounding the notorious Brimbank Council and in the case of Evan Thornley’s resignation in December last year. The party also decided to do this in last year’s infamous Kororoit by-election preselection, but the national executive overturned the decision and a normal preselection was held (even though the intended beneficiary of the referral, Marlene Kairouz, won preselection anyway).

Last month, Victorian Premier John Brumby recommended to the admin committee that US-style “primaries” be introduced in Coalition-held marginal seats for next year’s state election, which would allow ALP voters to cast a vote in addition to party members. That decision has been rubbished by Brumby’s rivals as unworkable, with the spectre of branch-stacking likely to re-emerge as warlords bus in acolytes to the ballot box.

Queensland: Lower house seats are decided by a joint vote of the Central Electoral College (50%) and a plebiscite of branch members (50%). For years, seats have been divided peacefully between the factions, with outbreaks of warfare a rarity. However, a resumption of hostilities began last year when a spat broke out for the state seat of Everton. The current dynamic is a resurgent left, who believe they are underrepresented in factional terms and are keen to translate their power to seats.

Assuming there’s no double dissolution, the federal Senate preselection will be of some interest, with Liberal Russell Trood’s seat is almost certain to go to Labor or the Greens. Joe Ludwig and Jan McLucas have the first and second spots respectively, with the third Labor spot up for grabs. Although that would be expected to go to the right, the left’s “ambition faction” are also said to be doing the numbers.

Following the Shepherdson debacle, Peter Beattie introduced a an internal disputes tribunal with the Queensland Electoral Commission auditing all internal ballots.

Senate vacancies are filled by a 100% central vote.

Western Australia: Federal and state lower house members are chosen by a ballot of state executive members and local members enrolled in the electorate. If there are fewer than 40 members, there is only a ballot of state executive. If there are more than 40, each vote is weighted so that a local member’s votes only account for 40 out of the total.

Legislative Council and Federal Senate preselections are conducted solely by the executive.

However, Section 18 of the party rules states that “notwithstanding anything contained in these Rules the State Executive shall have power to act on behalf of the Party in any emergency … If the emergency is such that State Executive cannot be summoned in accordance with these Rules, the Administrative Committee will have the power to act, but must report such action to the next meeting of the State Executive”.

Before the 2005 election, the ALP’s national executive, on the invitation of Geoff Gallop, intervened to protect the preselections of all sitting members to prevent a bloodbath following a split in the right. At by-elections, every candidate in living memory has been determined solely by the state administrative committee.

South Australia: The state branch uses a modified Victorian system, however only 25% of the weighting comes from local branches. Seventy-five percent of the vote is sourced from state council, comprising 25% from delegates sourced from all the state’s branches and 50% from affiliated unions, who have traditionally dominated the process.

In practice, a vote of the state executive, elected by the convention, can overrule the grassroots to install its preferred candidate.

In the state and federal upper houses, the local branches get no say — 100% of the vote resides in the hands of the state committee.

Where the state executive deems there isn’t enough time for the normal process, state council shall select a candidate. Where it further resolves that a Council cannot be called or held in reasonable time, state executive installs the candidate itself. In non-Labor seats where the margin is greater than 5 per cent, state executive can decide not to hold a preselection ballot, and instead recommend candidates to Council or Convention which may then endorse them.

In the event of a double dissolution, the state executive can resolve by two-thirds majority to select candidates for all house seats where one is yet to be chosen. The same goes for the Senate.

Tasmania: For the federal House of Representatives, the Senate and the state House of Assembly there are two components of the pre-selection process — a local component and a central component, each with a 50/50 weighting.

The Administrative Committee also has the power to decide candidates “in the best interests in the party”. The Tasmanian upper house is a special case owing to the comparative rarity of party endorsement with the selection of ALP-endorsed candidates for the upper house had never gone to a formal vote.

The state branch said it didn’t expect any intervention from the National Executive in the current round of federal preselection.

Northern Territory: Effectively the bureaucracy decides the candidates for the Senate and the NT’s two federal lower house seats of Solomon and Lingiari. At the last federal poll, the party weighed up five reasonably diverse candidates for Solomon before deciding on Damian Hale after the internal ballot.

Australian Capital Territory: Uniquely among the states and territories, preselections for the Territory’s three federal seats and 17 Assembly seats are decided through a 100% rank and file vote, that although not immune to factional influence (heightened in the case of the left-aligned CPSU’s recent affiliation), gives local members an official say.

The state branch said it was “almost certain” there will be no votes for the coming federal preselection round, despite dark murmurings that sitting members Bob McMullan and Annette Sharpe could quietly retire with the lure of a diplomatic posting or other government appointment.

Tomorrow: so you want to be a Liberal MP …

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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