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.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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