Features Australia

My war against the factions

Why are the NSW Liberals so afraid of plebiscites?

12 October 2013

9:00 AM

12 October 2013

9:00 AM

The State Director of the NSW Liberal party recently advised that the State Executive has initiated a five-year suspension of my membership. My sin? I spoke to the media about ‘internal party affairs’. The rule preventing party members speaking to the press throws a blanket of darkness over factional abuse. If the factions have nothing to hide, they should surely welcome debate. As Martin Luther King said, ‘One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.’

I gave a ten-second grab to the ABC’s 7.30 in support of Tony Abbott’s moves to end lobbyist control of political parties. At face value, that explains my pending suspension. But the NSW Liberal power brokers are targeting me for a different reason: I promote the democratisation of our party. Until recently, the factions were dismissive of my efforts. Now, though, they’re rattled. Here’s my story.

I joined the Liberal party in 1993 hoping to meet other young people with an interest in big ideas. Alas, I found a culture dominated by factional leadership, which rewarded loyalty over merit. There was scant debate on questions of policy, because all else was squeezed out by the relentless need for factions to accumulate delegates.

Many new party members confront this reality and exit. My first thought was to aid those opposed to the ruling clique: once we wrested control of the party executive, we would end factionalism. Several years later, I found myself as one of the three most active members of a minority faction gaining strength. Then came a premonition: we may be no better than the bullies we sought to replace. It was a bit like Animal Farm where regime change produced no change or worse. The next day, I quit the faction and didn’t attend a Liberal party event for a decade.

The faction I had supported went on to take control of the party, but the slide towards relentless factionalism continued. We all too often read about ugly branch stacks and rigged pre-selections. After studying the governance of comparable political parties around the world, the solution became clear: democratisation. All factional fighting is directed to a single sharp point: the power to choose parliamentarians. A structure that gives all members a vote in candidate selection — plebiscites — is the obvious solution. You see, the more people cast a ballot, the harder it is to manipulate a result. We must replace ‘delegates and pre-selections’ with ‘members and plebiscites’.

John Howard, writing in his 2010 memoirs Lazarus Rising, confirmed my thinking. In it, he argued: ‘Reduced and less representative membership has made political parties more susceptible to internal group control of the candidate-selection process… Some Liberal party factions are nothing more than pre-selection co-operatives… It’s becoming increasingly difficult for the talented outsider to win party favour. The Liberal party should fully embrace the plebiscite system for candidate selection.’

I urged senior figures in the party to run for party president on a democratisation agenda without luck. So if it was going to be the case for reform, it was up to me. I resolved to nominate for NSW Liberal party president at the next opportunity and boldly promote the end of factionalism through democratisation. In practice, this would mean all members have an equal vote for their local candidates and all members statewide are able to vote for our senate, upper house and State Executive candidates.

Three factions contested the 2011 State Executive elections with a rare unity of support for one presidential candidate: the respected Liberal, Arthur Sinodinos. Many laughed at my democratic agenda. Others merely dismissed me with quips like, ‘You’re probably right, but it’ll never happen.’ The 2011 campaign was an apparent failure (9 per cent of votes) but it wasn’t futile. Candidates were given the email addresses of the 5 per cent of members honoured with a vote under our apartheid-style system. Pro-democratisation emails were widely circulated and well received. The 95 per cent of excluded members loved the idea of inclusion. At last, the genie was out of the bottle.

Perhaps the most encouraging moment in the 2011 campaign was when the Australian’s Christian Kerr contacted Howard for comment on this ‘maverick campaign’. Our Division’s most exalted elder went further than he did in his memoirs, saying, ‘I have long been in favour of a plebiscite system for lower house seats and support choosing upper house and senate candidates by similar means.’

A few months after that first presidential contest, the State Executive suspended standard pre-selection rules and imposed a marginal-seat candidate by decree which outraged local branch members. Those members drew a line in the sand after agreeing with the fresh path outlined in my emails about democratisation. They proposed amending our Constitution to replace pre-selections with plebiscites. The ruling faction refused to allow even a debate until the Supreme Court stepped in. In November 2012 56 per cent of State Council voted against plebiscites, despite a street protest by ordinary members demanding reform.

The campaign had momentum. In the 2012 contest for party president, support for democratic reform quadrupled to garner 38 per cent of State Council. If every party member voted in that ballot (as they should), the result would have been reversed.

Initially, the democratic agenda was opposed by three factions. One has disbanded after its supporters were persuaded by the merits of democratisation. The other two have merged to protect their shared commercial interests, making a mockery of any ‘left v. right’ or ‘moderate v. conservative’ labels. A more helpful description of the divide is ‘Lobbyists v. Democratic Reformers.’ Despite reforms by Prime Minister Abbott and Premier Barry O’Farrell, the lobbyist faction still controls the State Executive. All bar one member of that august body voted to commence my suspension. They chose the wrong side of history.

This campaign is not about me or my suspension. Democratisation at the cost of one suspension would be a good bargain. Whether from within the party or without, we will continue this drive until we have created a model of political excellence. Democratisation will encourage participation, welcome new members, treat opposing views with respect and open the door to candidates of substance beyond apparatchiks, lobbyists and staffers. This is a story of reward for perseverance, of ordinary Australians challenging vested interests, of principle versus cash and of hope overcoming despair.

How could any genuine Liberal disagree?

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