Julia Gillard’s decision to trial US-style primaries to elect candidates in some Coalition-held seats at the 2013 federal election has been rubbished by activists, who say party democracy is the last thing on the prime minister’s mind.

In a sweeping, presidential-style address to the Chifley Research Centre at Old Parliament House this morning, Gillard confirmed Labor would endorse recommendation 26 of the Bracks/Carr/Faulkner review into last year’s disastrous federal election campaign. Under the recommendation, 60% of preselection influence would be drawn from local party members, 20% from affiliated trade union members and 20% from registered Labor “supporters”. In most states, this represents a small reduction in union influence.

But a prominent Victorian Left source this morning popped the thought bubble flicked to Gillard by NSW ALP secretary Sam Dastyari — and backed by a bevy of ex-John Brumby staffers — as totally detached from reality.

“Only on Planet West Wing packed full of ex-Brumby morons who have never participated in a preselection process could this be considered a good idea,” they spat.

Senator Stephen Conroy, who maintains a peace deal with the Left in Victoria under a 2009 “stability pact”, has previously branded primaries “the most corrupt” of all selection processes because of the potential for big money to sway the result.

“I actually think it will completely devalue the role of the rank-and-file member of the Labor Party and will actually lead to an Americanisation of politics that I wouldn’t support,” he said in February.

The primary experiment has been conducted before — by the Nationals in the NSW seat of Tamworth and by Labor in the Victorian seat of Kilsyth in April 2010, the lead-up to last November’s state election. The Kilsyth reviews were mixed at best.

As Alan Griffin noted in his comprehensive review of the Brumby wipeout, just 136 people voted in the Kilsyth preselection, in addition to the 44 party stalwarts who actually do the heavy lifting at branch meetings and agitate in vain to resuscitate the party’s mostly dormant policy committees.

Plumbers union scion Vicki Setches was the victor in the three-way battle against Anna Bligh aide Jamie Byron and impressive Casey councillor turned Bill Shorten adviser Daniel Mulino. Setches, the daughter of former Ringwood MP Kay Setches, got smashed at the ballot box with a swing of 10.1% against her compared to a 7.6% swing against Labor in Metropolitan Melbourne. At the time, allegations were rampant that her family’s clan was extremely vigorous in the recruitment of unionists her brother Earl Setches controls.

In his unremitting assessment, Griffin also noted the process provided “no electoral benefit in what was a very tough election for the ALP in the outer-eastern suburbs”.

He went on: “In addition, the Kilsyth primary consumed a significant amount of party and candidate resources in the lead-up period to the state election …when primary pre‐selection systems are further trialled, it is essential that they are properly evaluated so that they can be accurately assessed.”

Local ALP members, far from feeling empowered, were livid at the machinations, which effectively delegated their right to select a candidate to union ring-ins.

In transcripts of the address leaked to the media yesterday and dutifully delivered this morning, Gillard said the momentum for reform should be sourced from the party’s grassroots and “not brought down from a mountain and written in stone” by party apparatchiks. The PM called on activists to deliver her 8000 new members by the end of next year.

But this assessment was attacked by the people actually charged with implementing it. “This is the height of hypocrisy coming from the same person that stopped the Victorian party pursuing a perfectly legitimate preselection process to avoid offending the Greens,” one source told Crikey.

“Julia should sign up for Bruce Hawker’s idea about the membership electing the leader. She’d get about 10% of the vote … actually maybe she’d do better than that and record a number in the 30s. It’d be miles ahead of how the public rate her.”

Last month, ALP federal secretary George Wright intervened on behalf of the PM to halt planned October preselections in Victoria, just as the party’s Left was keen to commence a rolling campaign to unseat Adam Bandt in Melbourne.

But Mulino, a one-time Nous Group consultant, cautiously backed the primaries brainwave this morning, declaring the Kilsyth experiment “a good start”: “There are some things that could’ve been done better … although it did help us engage beyond the party.”

Mulino expressed concern about barriers to access in Kilsyth that prevented big turnouts in the mould of the Nationals’ in Tamworth and the UK Tories’ selection of Sarah Wolleston in Totnes in 2009 — democratic triumphs Labor would do well to mimic.

But judging by the harsh reaction this morning, the “lamp on the desk” that Gillard says now channels Chifley’s “light on the hill” has already blown a fuse.

Peter Fray

Get your first 12 weeks of Crikey for $12.

Without subscribers, Crikey can’t do what it does. Fortunately, our support base is growing.

Every day, Crikey aims to bring new and challenging insights into politics, business, national affairs, media and society. We lift up the rocks that other news media largely ignore. Without your support, more of those rocks – and the secrets beneath them — will remain lodged in the dirt.

Join today and get your first 12 weeks of Crikey for just $12.

 

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW