A superficial interpretation of Tony Abbott’s latest mutterings would suggest the former prime minister is a fan of democracy. He certainly claims to be, particularly when it comes to “democratic” reform of the New South Wales Liberal Party.
But a closer look at Abbott’s motivation for party reform, paired with his calls for changes to the Senate, show he’s only interested in wresting power from those with whom he disagrees.
On its face, Tony Abbott’s call for “democratic” reform of the NSW Liberal Party seems perfectly reasonable. As he rightly noted last weekend, Liberal Party members are generally expected to turn up, pay up and shut up.
All important decisions are made at the highest levels of the state and national divisions of the party, while grassroots members attend monthly meetings to debate policy resolutions that aren’t binding on MPs, run seemingly never-ending fundraising drives, and man the polling booths on election day.
So it makes a lot of sense to re-engage demotivated grassroots members by giving them a greater say in party decision-making, such as the selection of candidates.
But it’s equally fair to say that grassroots members might not have the knowledge or expertise to choose a candidate who can win the seat, let alone be a good local member or minister. This is particularly the case if the members are not representative of the broader electorate, which is usually the case with the Liberal Party.
Despite Abbott’s claims that the NSW division is “haemorrhaging members”, the party’s membership in that state is around 11,000 and has been that way for the “past five years or so”. Across the Murray, the Victorian Liberals have around 13,000 members, and according to the Victorian Liberals’ state president Michael Kroger, half the state party’s members are aged over 70.
There is little to suggest the NSW party’s demographics are significantly different. The state’s Liberal Party members aren’t representative of the broader community, yet Tony Abbott wants them to have a greater say in selecting the party’s candidates.
This is not just because lobbyists are holding senior party positions or having significant influence over party decisions. It is because such lobbyists are wielding that power that the moderates, who’ve taken control of the state party’s decision-making bodies, are blocking the preselection of conservative candidates.
For example, when former treasurer Joe Hockey bowed out of federal politics after Turnbull became leader, the NSW Liberals’ president and leading moderate, Trent Zimmerman, beat the conservatives’ preferred candidate for the position.
And then before the last federal election, conservative warrior Bronwyn Bishop was replaced by Liberal moderate Jason Falinski, who also beat former Abbott campaign manager Walter Villatora for the position. Villatoria lost again to James Griffin, who won preselection for the state seat of Manly after it was vacated by the former NSW premier Mike Baird. There’s even talk the moderates will orchestrate a challenge against Abbott for preselection before the next federal election.
So Tony Abbott’s push for grassroots party members — who are more conservative than the party executive — to have a say in preselection decisions is more an effort to counter the dominance of moderates in the NSW division than it is a fight for democracy.
For if Abbott actually believed in democracy — that is, political equality for all voters – he wouldn’t be arguing for reforms that would allow the government of the day to overrule the Senate. Yet that is what Abbott is calling for in the latest iteration of his “election manifesto”.
Abbott essentially rejects the right of democratically elected senators to reject or negotiate improvements to government legislation, claiming “the Senate has become a house of rejection, not a house of review”. At no time does he acknowledge that the composition of the Senate is a direct result of Australian voters deliberately creating an upper house that will provide checks and balances on the government.
In an effort to end this Senate “gridlock”, Abbott has proposed that section 57 of the constitution be amended by a referendum at the next election, making it possible for legislation rejected twice by the Senate to be put to a joint sitting of both houses of Parliament without the need to hold a double-dissolution election first.
In short, the man whose austerity budget was blocked by a more compassionate Senate wants to change the power dynamic between the two houses of Parliament, to ensure that any governing party with a strong majority in the House of Representatives can overrule a Senate that was created by voters to keep it in check.
Such a move would be the antithesis of democracy, because it would diminish the democratic rights of Senate voters.
During Tony Abbott’s long campaign of attrition against Malcolm Turnbull, political observers have become accustomed to the fact that the former PM is not big on consistency or internal logic. But his diametrically opposed positions on democracy — advocating more for Liberal conservatives but less for Senate voters — are the most incoherent yet. That’s because they are about wresting, consolidating and exercising power, and not about political equality at all.