A good deal has been written in recent years about the malaise of established political parties throughout the Western world.

In Australia, alienation with major party politics received its most vivid expression at the Senate election in 2013, when nearly a third of the electorate took its business elsewhere.

While many of the forces behind these developments have been sociological, and thus largely beyond the parties’ control, it can hardly be doubted that moribund party structures are desperately in need of reform. But such is the strength of the vested interests involved that doing so is never a straightforward task.

Nonetheless, moves are afoot in both the Labor and the Liberal parties to shift the balance of power, however modestly, away from factional powerbrokers and towards the rank and file.

In the case of the Liberal Party, the scene of the action is the New South Wales branch — perhaps surprisingly, given that it would seem to have been on a bit of a roll lately. At state level, the party emphatically succeeded at an election held just months after its counterparts north and south of the border fell by the wayside, while its federal polling numbers have provided the engine of the Abbott government’s recent recovery.

However, it’s clear enough that much of this is to do with the fact that state branch of the ALP is in an even worse hole. Indeed, it’s the New South Wales branch of the Liberal Party whose internal affairs most frequently bring the Labor Party to mind, and all that is thought to ail it.

Turf wars between the party’s various factions have often brought large-scale infusions of new members, often of the same ethnicity, to strategically important branches.

While the contours of the factions aren’t always as neatly defined as journalistic shorthand might suggest, it’s clear enough that a balance exists between moderates and a right divided between various powerbrokers.

The chief principals of the latter have long been state upper house MP David Clarke, who was noted for his success in marshalling the party’s religious conservative tendency, and his estranged former protege Alex Hawke, the member for the federal seat of Mitchell. More recently, the situation has been complicated by the emergence of new players, particularly among the “religious right”.

These rivalries are complicating moves to give effect to a review of preselection processes conducted in the wake of the 2013 federal election, which was overseen by no less an eminence than former prime minister John Howard.

The review was motivated by some striking failures for the state branch at the 2010 and 2013 federal elections, including defeats in the crucial Central Coast seat of Robertson on the former occasion, and in the eminently winnable western Sydney seat of Greenway both times out.

The report recommended that candidates should be elected directly by the party membership, in place of an existing system that divides the vote between the central party and delegates of the branches. It also proposed that the state executive’s power to intervene in the process should be reduced.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported last week that support for the current reform push is dividing along factional lines, with the “centre right” and moderates standing in opposition.

Not coincidentally, an alliance between these groupings presently has control of a state executive that stands to have its wings clipped.

The fine balance of support and opposition would appear to leave the issue hinging upon the man of the moment, NSW Premier Mike Baird, who has provided in-principle support to preselection plebiscites but is otherwise hedging his bets.

On the other side of the fence, Labor’s triennial national conference next month will consider granting voting rights to members of affiliated unions, and allowing the rank-and-file to participate in Senate preselections, which are presently the domain of the heavily factionalised state conferences.

A trail has been blazed in the latter respect by the party’s Queensland branch, which last year reformed its rules to put 50% of the vote in the hands of the party membership.

As with the Liberals, these proceedings are coloured, to at least some extent, by the factions and their attendant self-interest.

Such are the inclinations of the type of person who still feels motivated to join the ALP that membership ballots are typically good news for the left. The reform in Queensland at least partly reflects the Left’s ascendancy in that state, having secured a majority at the state conference last year for the first time.

All three of the left faction candidates in the election currently under way for the party’s national presidency are unequivocal in their view that such a measure to apply in all states, both for the Senate and state upper houses. The candidate of the Right, Tim Hammond, offers the slightly more equivocal position that the “trial” in Queensland should provide a “model for the broader party”.

Whatever arguments might be marshalled against democratisation have to be weighed up against formidable evidence that the party membership has been re-energised since the 2013 election defeat, which can undoubtedly be attributed to rank-and-file ballots for the party leadership.

Last month, The Australian reported that Bill Shorten’s otherwise uninspiring tenure as leader had seen an increase in ALP membership from around 44,000 to 54,000 — with the biggest proportional increase being a rise of over 50% in Queensland.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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