May 16, 2012

Labor primaries an intellectually lazy answer

If you can manage three terms as premier of NSW or Victoria without primary elections, maybe the problem isn't the process after all, writes Luke Walladge, a long-time ALP member and former staffer and campaigner.

Another day, another ALP review, another repeat of its authors' prejudices. Crikey's article on Monday dredges up the old chestnut of primary elections in the ALP, an example of counterfactual drivel if ever there was one. As regularly as this idea crops up, its consequences remain surprisingly unexamined ... which might explain why so many otherwise sensible people continue to talk about it as if it makes sense. Primaries benefit two types of people: those with the resources to campaign, and those with experience in campaigning. Which leaves the exponents of primaries for the ALP in the position of arguing for either a plutocracy or patriciate. Take Joe or Jane member of the ALP. Under a system of primaries, he or she would first have to find the money for a preselection campaign. They would have to hire or borrow the expertise of someone skilled at mailouts, design, printing and all the machine elements of running a campaign. They would be at a significant cash, organisational and name recognition disadvantage compared to a celebrity candidate, a union-backed candidate, a staffer, a campaign worker or a wealthy dilettante. And all this would be done in the name of opening up the ALP to more involvement from its members. Then there's the small problem of funding for the Labor Party generally. Within the WA ALP, for example, at least 60% of the party branch's funding comes from union sources; without it the party would not be destitute but would cease to exist. Are unions supposed to keep funding an organisation seemingly committed to excluding them from important decision-making procedures? No union could reasonably be expected to spend a member's money on a party who's decisions they couldn't impact. For that matter, why should members bother joining? If you can't influence preselections, what good are you -- other than handing out cards on polling day and shoving mail in letterboxes? This is how you get more membership and energise the grassroots? According to this model, less member involvement, less union funding and less union connection is the way forward for the ALP. One can only presume Bob Carr, Steve Bracks, John Faulkner and the Primary Election Orchestra think the inevitable result of an increased reliance on corporate and business donations is a positive for Labor. Because that is what primaries mean. It might behove these anti-member, anti-union zealots in the ALP to fix up some glasshouses before aiming stones at their trade union comrades. The Labor Party, nationwide, has about 35,000 members. The Australian union movement has just shy of 2 million. Labor should ask itself why, at an average cost of $40-$60 a year, it can only convince two-hundredths of the number of Australians to join that trade unions can, at an average cost of anywhere between $250-$600 a year. Far be it from me to suggest that one is much better value for money, contains much more relevance to the average Australian and is perceived as being far more in touch with the ordinary working family than the other. I leave such conclusions to the reader. What isn't in doubt is that if there was an organisation in Australian life with nearly 2 million members, committed to the same philosophical outlook as the Labor Party, with an active and actively recruited membership base, campaign experience and social outreach people would be demanding Labor establish closer ties with it. Indeed, the Bracks/Carr/Faulkner review said just that of organisations such as GetUp. Yet Labor is supposed to jettison its existing reciprocal links with the largest movement of exactly that kind in the country, in order to advantage rich folks, staffers and celebrities? You start to wonder what these people are smoking. The truth is that primaries are an intellectually lazy answer, usually proferred by those who haven't bothered to understand the problem (let alone the solution); a sort of cross-Pacific plagiarism that neither fits Australian politics nor the ALP. Anyone who wants can read through the Griffin Report into the 2010 Victorian election -- the first time a primary election was trialled in Australia, in Kilsyth. Only 136 members of the public bothered to vote. The predominant response from voters when doorknocked was "Can't you pick your own candidates?". And Kilsyth fared worse than the average swing against Labor at general election. Some result. All these points are rarely answered by the assertion-based community in favour of primaries. Neither can they explain how affirmative action would be ensured under a primary system. They never answer why the Liberal Party manages to win elections and ride high in the national polls without primaries, or how Bob Hawke, John Curtin, Ben Chifley, John Faulkner, Steve Bracks or Bob Carr managed to get elected to anything without them. If you can manage three terms as premier of NSW or Victoria without primary elections, maybe the problem isn't the process after all. For anyone who bothers to spend more than two minutes thinking about it, primary elections are an attempt to force a square peg into a round shot put and result in about the same level of success. Perhaps these suggestions are the product of leaders who prefer to abjure all restraints on themselves, rather than a genuine attempt to learn from what works in Labor and ruthlessly excise what doesn't. The real questions for the ALP can't be avoided with simplistic, imported glib nonsense like primaries. The roots of the ALP's failure to connect with ordinary voters lie in a cultural willingness, or lack of it, to listen to the concerns of ordinary voters in the suburbs; primaries solve nothing, have no relevance to Australian political culture and create far more problems than answers for a party already grappling with its soul.

Free Trial

You've hit members-only content.

Sign up for a FREE 21-day trial to keep reading and get the best of Crikey straight to your inbox

By starting a free trial, you agree to accept Crikey’s terms and conditions


Leave a comment

13 thoughts on “Labor primaries an intellectually lazy answer

  1. john2066

    This guy is right and makes a good point about primaries just rewarding the same useless labor hacks who rig the system now.

    However, they should definitely get rid of the union block votes for labor conferences. These do nothing for the unions, and ensure that the unions are used as useless preselection numbers machines for hacks. The SDA and HSU being cases in point.

  2. Matt Hardin

    [For that matter, why should members bother joining? If you can’t influence preselections, what good are you — other than handing out cards on polling day and shoving mail in letterboxes? This is how you get more membership and energise the grassroots?]

    This is something that needed to be said. Add the word policy in there and you have the main reasons that people leave the party. It was certainly mine.


    Well said/written, Luke Walladge!
    If Luke can see it – and he writes from practical experience as an ALP staffer and campaigner – why can’t the present ALP autocrats see it?
    The idea of primaries is so out of touch with Australian tradition and the current reality of the Australian political scene (as Mr Walladge so precisely and comprehensively paints it), that I can only think it has some other motive than reform of the ALP’s method of selecting electoral candidates.
    What that motive might be I cannot begin to guess.
    If I dared enter the labyrinth that is ALP politics I would need more than the thread of Ariadne if I were to escape not only with my life but even any the wiser.
    We outsiders need someone like Luke to tell us how it is.

  4. Edward James

    Labor have not made a genuine attempt to learn from what works in Labor! And they have shown they will not ruthlessly excise what doesn’t. I have watched Labor politicians walk around my dying father when he spent the day outside NSW Parliament in a Hospital bed. When a Labor politician dose the wrong thing the Labor Party dose the wrong thing! Labor party membership has shrunk because long term members can’t put up with the misgovernance accommodated by senior party members! Ratepayers can not put up with the fact that Labor councilors will not overtly raise concerns which put fellow councilors who are members of the sitting government in a bad light. Consider the preselection for the seat of Gosford when Marie Andrews bailed, it was not all about what the local Labor party members wanted. When the community is actively involved the party can get $tuffed the peoples will vote how they want. Edward James

  5. AR

    Crikey, please assure your paying subscribers that you are not giving this bloke a brass razoo otherwise I shall seriously consider becoming a squatter, though I will sorely miss FDotM.

  6. Mr Tank

    As a subscriber I expect Mr Walladge to get paid more than just a brass razoo for his contribution. It is for writing and real insight of this quality that I subscribe to Crikey.
    Nice critique of the impact of primaries – I had started to get carried away with the possible upsides. Such as higher public profiles for candidates who use the opportunity to try out their ideas in a public forum. Added transparency to the process and a greater engagement of the public bringing in new minds and perspectives to the labour project.
    Luke’s less naive and deeper analysis demonstrates that in fact they are another barrier to influence by those without money and connections. Something that should be anathema to party members. It is to this one.
    The Sydney Mayoral Primary at first glance seem rather to demonstrate that primaries just mean that the back room deals are done in public – perhaps not such a bad thing but hardly likely to bring the masses rushing back.

  7. Hugh (Charlie) McColl

    If Luke Walladge wants transparency in the ALP he could start with some of his own. Presumably, as a “long-time ALP member and former staffer and campaigner” he has aired this scungey laundry within the confines of his ALP branch and up through the apparatus to those who he has staffed and campaigned with. If not, why not? If so then who in the apparatus is holding things up? What about some names and packdrill? Anyone who has been a member of an ALP branch is now bored shitless with the whingeing and whining of other members who are constantly ignored. The ALP simply does not listen to anyone outside the organisation – it’s not really interested in anyone on the inside either. What else is news? Move on, there’s nothing happening here and no one should care.

  8. Tom McLoughlin

    whoa there tiger, what about starting with this: I was wrong about the bounce in the polls for the Gillard Govt courtesy of Swan’s budget.

  9. Luke Walladge


    What bounce? You goose. The 59/41 result of three weeks ago was an outlier on trend, and the 45/55 result of this week (with the ALP on 30% of the primary) is exactly where the trend has been for months. I’m no Possum, but I can read a trend as opposed to statistical noise. Nice try.


    You’ll be relieved to know that I don’t write anything in Crikey, or indeed anywhere else, that I don’t already say privately to other ALP members, elected officials, MPs and in party fora.

  10. Edward James

    @ Luke Walladge in response to what you have written on; is my own mash up. Take Joe or Jane members of the ALP, who are I note a small part of a diminished number of party political affiliated Australian voters! Identifying Labor party members and trade unionist as comrades of honest tax and rate payers raises the question. How is it possible? As far as union membership goes. It has been exposed for all to see why Unions and what they have been up to, is just bad news for honest hard working people. Australians may be identified by you Luke as anti member anti union zealots in this piece. But value for money is a moot point because the substance of unions and political integrity has been lost in the struggle for power and influence. The reader is far better informed and less likely to let so called leaders who are expected to be “in touch” direct them how to vote! Readers are much better informed now than when they relied on paid Union reps and party politicians to tell them how to think and vote in mail outs. As Luke Walladge from I think Western Australia. Has pointed out all our politicians nationally are a minority amongst us. They have collectively forgotten their place, they have forgotten we elected them to act in our best interest. to represent us. I suspect Luke Walladge has lost the plot. So what, as he is just one vote I hope we the peoples will insist on the respect all our elected reps owe us. In the next few ballots Local, State and Federal the swing against Labor party and their supporters needs to be enough to destroy Labor as a political force. Then we the peoples can move forward toward representative government, something which has been stolen from us over time by the two parties not much preferred. Edward James has expressed his views in paid spots in his local newspapers! Still waiting to see responses from identified Labor reps in print!

Share this article with a friend

Just fill out the fields below and we'll send your friend a link to this article along with a message from you.

Your details

Your friend's details