At a time when America’s presidential election campaign is raising doubts about the durability of the norms that underpin its system of government, both of Australia’s major parties have been confronting questions about the notion of democracy and what it means for the way they do business.
For the Liberals, Tony Abbott has found a familiar place for himself at the centre of the disturbance, having backed a motion for preselection reform at the New South Wales Liberal Party’s state council meeting on Saturday.
At present, the selection committees that choose the party’s candidates include a “central component” consisting mostly of members of the powerful state executive, with delegates from party branches making up the remainder.
The Abbott-backed motion, which was defeated by 246 votes to 174, sought to replace the existing system with plebiscites of party members — something that was recommended in 2014 by a review panel headed by John Howard.
When the state council considered the matter last year, all that emerged was a watered down compromise allowing for trial plebiscites to be conducted in a small number of federal and state seats.
This time, the matter was kicked down the road until a special party convention to be held next year, agreed to by Malcolm Turnbull and Mike Baird, in which the proposal will be one of a number of possible rule changes under consideration.
All of this has been neatly complemented by the ructions that have followed Labor’s recent Senate preselection in Victoria, in which Bill Shorten ensured that one contentious factional ally, Stephen Conroy, would be succeeded by another, Kimberley Kitching.
[Why Shorten pushed for Kimberley Kitching — and why it could blow up in his face]
This was determined by a near-unanimous vote, minus abstentions, of the state party’s Public Office Selection Committee — a body that is elected by the state conference, which is, in turn, made up in equal parts of delegates from party branches and affiliated unions.
Asked if Kitching had his endorsement, the leading figure in the party’s Left, Anthony Albanese, offered only that the doings of the Victorian branch were not his affair — while pointedly adding that there was “a case for ensuring that members have votes in Senate preselections”.
From a purely rhetorical standpoint, calls for greater democracy are always hard to argue against.
However, the case has been made a little easier recently thanks to the examples set by the political right in the United States, and the left in the United Kingdom.
In the US, the Republican establishment got enough democracy to choke on during its nomination process earlier this year, in which an assembly of career conservatives from central casting was steamrolled by Donald Trump — a result made possible by the uniquely American spectacle of presidential primaries.
Rightly or wrongly, Trump doesn’t particularly feature in the rhetoric of reform skeptics among the New South Wales Liberals, who favour the more locally familiar bogey of branch stacking — or, for those willing to run the gauntlet of Section 18C, ethnic branch stacking.
This chief attraction of this argument is that it dispenses with the notion that the proposed “democratisation” will do what it says on the tin.
In large part, this debate is a proxy for the tribal warfare that has consumed the New South Wales Liberals in recent times, with the existing preselection powers of the state executive defended by the moderate powerbrokers who dominate it, and opposed by marginalised “hard Right” forces who fancy their chances of drafting new members into key party branches.
For Labor, the obvious cautionary tale is provided by the party’s British counterpart, which has been rendered dysfunctional by a leadership selection process open to anybody willing to pay three pounds and tick a box saying they “believe in the values of the Labour Party”.
This has twice confirmed the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, despite him being anathema to the majority of his parliamentary colleagues, and the entirety of the party’s establishment.
Corbyn supporters may well argue that things would be different if his opponents had accepted the people’s verdict, but the fact stands that the most recently published national poll has the Conservatives leading by 47% to 29%, while Corbyn sits on 31% approval and 55% disapproval.
[Rundle: Jez is back, but Labour has a huge problem]
The potential for a similar situation to develop hasn’t stopped the ALP venturing down the path to rank-and-file involvement in its own leadership contests in recent years, without being quite so inclusive as to involve non-members.
Although Labor now allows for elections that combine party room and member ballot components federally and in most states, the only time this has actually been put to the test was in the contest between Bill Shorten and Anthony Albanese after the 2013 election defeat, when Shorten’s winning margin in the party room overwhelmed Albanese’s among the membership.
While this process ran astonishingly smoothly, the result fit the usual pattern in that the membership voted to drag the party away from the comforts of the political centre, while parliamentarians showed greater concern for their electoral prospects.
For similar reasons, Senate preselection reform of the kind advocated by Albanese has tended to be promoted by Left and resisted by the Right.
This is reflected by the fact that the rank-and-file have been granted a vote in Senate preselections in Queensland, where the Left has gained ascendancy in recent years, whereas a push for the New South Wales branch to follow suit was decisively resisted in 2014 by the Right, with help from some elements of the Left.
But as political parties of all stripes strain to build connections with a jaded and disconnected electorate, calls for reform are becoming ever harder to reject out of hand.
So it is that we find Malcolm Turnbull appearing to break ranks with moderate allies in joining Mike Baird in support for eventual moves to a plebiscite model, and Bill Shorten at least willing to allow that his party “could look at improving opportunities for people to participate more”.