For both the Liberal Party and the Greens, their NSW branches are proving to be problematic at the moment, in different contexts, but on much the same basic issue: how far should a parliamentary political party represent the views of its membership rather than the will of the wider electorate?

The NSW Greens argue that their power to bind senators to vote in a certain way is more “democratic” than allowing the federal party room to reach decisions itself, because it gives NSW Greens members a real say in policy. That’s certainly more democratic internally. It isn’t more democratic per se, however. In fact, that a group of unelected officials and members, reminiscent of Labor’s “faceless men”, can require elected politicians to vote a certain way is arguably less democratic. The logical extension of that position is that Lee Rhiannon needn’t bother ever going to Canberra — the state branch can simply tell her colleagues and the Senate which way she’d vote and save everyone the expense of her attending the Senate, since what transpires there — such as negotiations over legislation — are apparently irrelevant.

In the case of the NSW Greens, the views of the hard left on what constitutes “democratic” should be taken with a pinch of salt anyway. This is the branch that, hoping to win Anthony Albanese’s eminently gettable seat of Grayndler, put forward a doctrinaire Trotskyite who was of the view that an Abbott government was preferable to a more progressive government because it would radicalise people more. Albanese was duly and comfortably returned.

And this is a pattern with the NSW Greens — it under-performs electorally. Whereas the Victorian Greens picked up nearly one and a half quotas in 2016, the NSW Greens couldn’t muster one, and their vote actually fell in the Senate — a poor performance in what should be a strong state for the party. this, apparently, hasn’t been any cause for introspection on behalf of the NSW party, which appears more focused at the moment on fighting other branches and the federal parliamentary party. 

The fight within the NSW Liberals over greater power for the party membership is similarly about perceptions of democracy. As with the NSW Greens, some NSW Liberals want the party base to wield real power, rather than — as Tony Abbott put it on the weekend — “pay up, turn up and shut up”. But it’s also about the chafing of a highly conservative party membership under a party leadership controlled by moderates (with help from a sub-group of conservatives) and toward a federal government that is looking to bolster its electoral prospects by governing from the centre.

There’s nothing particularly new here — parties have long wrestled with the fact that their declining, ageing memberships tend to be more extreme than the electorate more broadly; giving them too much power risks making a party unelectable. Sometimes that dynamic can have a happy ending — if the electorate is moving in that direction. Jeremy Corbyn, once regarded as unelectable (and that includes me) in fact has benefited both from astonishing Tory incompetence and a sharp swing to the left in the UK electorate. But no one outside the lunatic fringe at News Corp is seriously suggesting the Australian electorate is ready to lurch to the right and embrace the kind of agenda Tony Abbott and his ilk are pushing.

In the case of the NSW Greens, however, the blunt solution is to not permit the parliamentary party to resolve this tension creatively and on a case by case basis, but to impose a blanket restriction. Meanwhile, Labor can’t believe its luck that not merely is the government roiled by division, but the party to the left of it is as well.

Peter Fray

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