While the successful push for preselection plebiscites at the New South Wales Liberals’ extraordinary convention on the weekend will be seen through the prism of the bitter moderate/right split in that branch, and the Abbott/Turnbull stoush, it’s significant for political engagement and a political system that alienates more than it encourages.
The right’s love of plebiscites reflects not some deep-seated respect for internal party democracy but a slow-burning anger that it has been outsmarted and outvoted by moderates and the centre-right in NSW for years. Undoubtedly it will, if adopted even in a modified form by the branch executive, lead to more extreme Liberal candidates. The party membership is old and very right-wing; plebiscites will produce more religious and more conservative candidates. It won’t do anything to address the ferocious branch-stacking that has damaged the party in western Sydney and served up woeful candidates.
But political disengagement is a massive challenge for the political class. It can only be addressed through greater power-sharing between party insiders and grassroots members, making the effort and time required to be an active party member worth it. That also means increasing the risk that the party membership will behave in ways that insiders don’t believe will win elections. As Jeremy Corbyn has shown in the UK, however, that insider judgement can be proven badly wrong. The next step is following Labor in allowing party members a say in the election of the parliamentary leader, an idea championed by moderate Christopher Pyne. As someone said in a different context, it’s time.