Bottom Drawer

Bottom Drawer

9 October 2014

2:00 PM

9 October 2014

2:00 PM

Just over a year ago, John Ruddick wrote of his quixotic campaign to reform the NSW Liberal Party. Last month Michael Baume, also in these pages, saddled up as Ruddick’s Sancho Panza to battle the evil knights of the NSW Branch.

Ruddick is still battling the windmills – the clever factional leaders who arise inevitably and, in Burkean terms, necessarily, in political processes. He wants candidate plebiscites to defeat these imaginary giants. But to quote a somewhat different, more local, literary hero: ‘Mr Ruddick, that’s not a democratic reform, THIS is a democratic reform’: let’s not have just internal plebiscites for candidates, let’s have community-based primaries.

If the machinery of the party is unrepresentative of the membership, as Ruddick claims, the bigger problem is that the membership is narrow and unrepresentative of party supporters who vote Liberal in (most) elections. That in part explains why those in control of the NSW party resist its democratization; if the party is to be able to enlist the ‘talented outsiders’ John Howard desires, giving the existing members a plebiscite role would be a counsel of despair. Real, modernizing reform involves a move to supporter primaries for pre-selection and a transcendence of the old physical branch system to a wide, supporter-based, virtual membership that generates maximum political education and civic participation.


Seven years ago, the new member for Manly, Mike Baird, maintained in his maiden speech that ‘the two-party system is breaking’. He called for stronger links between the party system and the community. Well, the reform double for Mr Baird would be both the full public funding of elections intimated in his maiden speech and the rebuilding of the Liberal Party around its electoral supporter base, rather than its narrow membership base.

A party’s membership moves to the extremes of the ideology the party champions. Only committed people join a party; the really committed attend all the meetings and do all the branch stacking necessary to disempower those they disagree with. The saving dynamics of modern democratic politics involves the dialectic of its liberal and social democratic traditions, expressed here through alternating Coalition and ALP governments. It also involves the pressure democracy exerts on major parties towards election platforms at the centre. Our compulsory voting system makes that pressure irresistible.

Such a centering process should be built into the Liberal Party’s very machinery. The internet and electronic voting mean that low cost systems of engagement, policy education and party participation can be created. It would be relatively easy to create publicly available lists of people identifying as Liberal supporters, and on-line primary voting systems to give them the power to select local and upper house candidates. The fear for some is that members will be discouraged from attending meetings and from manning the booths if non-members are given pre-selection rights. But old style meetings – with ritual demonization of the other party and bitching about internal opponents – can continue for those whose previous lives condemn them to such a purgatory. Membership would likely grow, however, if the quality of the resources, debates and occasional meetings for the rest of us was high. It would grow if the candidates were representative of the middle ground; both worthy and likely of election.

You can only ever minimize, not eliminate, factions. People cluster around narratives and personalities, and capable organizers emerge to help prosecute distinctive arguments and interests. Likewise, you can only ever minimize the influence of money and the problem of individuals giving in to temptation and self-serving, corrupt actions. The challenge is to continuously adapt structures and technologies to nurture robustly democratic, centrist organizations and cultures. That adaptation for the NSW Liberal Party should include supporter-wide participation and on-line primaries to select Liberal MPs. Mike Baird should push that reform alongside full public funding for elections. It would modernize and democratize the Liberal Party. The ALP has toyed with this idea, but is constrained by its union links. It would eventually follow the lead. The two-party system would get Mike Baird’s major renewal.

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