How do we elect our leaders? Part two

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Yesterday I laid out how leaders are elected in Canada and the UK, where party members play a central role in deciding leaders, as opposed to New Zealand and Australia, where leaders are elected by members of Parliament.

So what are the merits of the alternatives? Whenever you raise the possibility of electing party leaders by the grassroots membership, you’ll be referred to the patchy history of the Australian Democrats electing its leaders through a general election of the membership. It’s true that the conflict between Meg Lees and Natasha Stott Despoja was dragged out through a long election process, but it remains that the party room was deeply split and such a conflict probably would have continued even if the Senators had responsibility for electing leaders.

When you look at how direct election processes have elected leaders like Tony Blair, David Cameron and most recent Canadian political leaders, you would have to think that precedent suggests that a direct election process does not necessarily lead to instability and internal division any more than a process that gives the final say to a parliamentary caucus.

Issues of giving control of leadership to party members in a direct vote has come up a few times in recent years. Following the 2004 election, the Australian Greens officially appointed Senator Bob Brown as Leader after almost a decade a de facto leader. Although there was little doubt that Brown would be elected, the process of electing leader was controversial, and Brown’s favoured model of giving total control to the Party Room was approved, although some called for the decision to be made by the National Council or the membership.

In 2003, the National Presidency of the Australian Labor Party was put to the membership in a direct vote for the first time, a reform initiative of then-leader Simon Crean. With a turnout of just under 20,000 members, former WA Premier Carmen Lawrence, of the Left, was elected as President. The position is elected every three years, with the second- and third-polling candidates serving as Vice-President for the first year after the election. The Presidency is then rotated, so that the three top-polling candidates each serve one year as President and two years as Vice-President. The following election in 2006 also saw a Left candidate win, with Senator John Faulkner elected President for the year 2007, defeating SA Premier Mike Rann amongst others. Those results suggest that, despite the domination of the Right faction, ALP members are substantially more left-wing than their leadership. Which might not be that much of a surprise.

After years of internal fighting, the Victorian Liberal Party has recently implemented new preselection rules which give all members in an electorate a vote in deciding candidates for preselections. This has been seen in the upcoming campaign to succeed Petro Georgiou in Kooyong. Rather than a handful of senior party members, over 1000 party members living in Kooyong will vote in a small-scale primary to decide the Liberal candidate for the 2010 election. While not quite the same as giving members the right to decide the leadership, the principle of giving all members the right to decide their leaders in order to cut through internal wrangling remains the same.

So what are the merits of the alternatives available? The 2008 Democratic presidential primary in the United States clearly demonstrated the merits of a real election within a party. Although many worried that the lengthened Democratic race would favour McCain, it ultimately strengthened Obama as a candidate, built up Democratic membership and machines across the country and invested Democratic voters in the Obama campaign. Despite fears that division in the party would drive Clinton supporters away from the party, the issue was highly over-rated, and division was far more of a problem for McCain than Obama. Of course, no leadership election in the UK or Canada comes close to the proportion of voters participating in US primaries, but the principle is the same. A real election will beat a focus group or opinion poll in proving a candidate’s worth any day.

History shows that Canadian and UK leadership elections inspire parties in a way that nothing else does. When an inspiring figure is a candidate, or a debate over the direction of the party is taking place, a large-scale election can work like nothing else. Parties recruit large numbers of new members who become organised and politicised in a way that is hard to do otherwise. The New Zealand Greens’ 2006 leadership race provided an opportunity for the party to debate the way forward: should they remain committed to supporting a Labour government, or would their agenda be better advanced by being flexible and being able to work with the Nationals? Most importantly, it makes for better leaders. There can be plenty of ulterior motives for MPs or senior officials to support a particular leader despite not being the best person for the job. But no-one can win a large-scale election without having a decent level of campaign ability.

Of course, there are arguments against allowing voters and party members a say in deciding their leaders. A party’s membership base tends to be more extreme than the voter base, and can support candidates with less popular appeal. Successful opposition leaders tend to be elected by expanding their party’s voter base rather than simply relying on their existing support base. But you have to wonder why such a narrow group of Australians are represented in today’s political party memberships. Surely it has something to do with the complete lack of influence in major parties given to the grassroots membership? If you gave members of, say, the ALP, a significant say over who is the leader of the party, it would be a greater motivation to join than anything else you could offer. It would undoubtedly broaden the base of the party. And if there is one group of people less politically diverse than members of political parties, it’s the MPs and officials that run those parties.

The one complaint heard most when people object to letting more people have a say in electing party leaders, it is that a widespread election process airs out private party matters and internal divisions, which of course is true. You can’t expect that issues raised in a process involving thousands or tens of thousands of members to remain private. But if you look at recent contested party leadership races, such as the ongoing battles between Kim Beazley and Simon Crean, Mark Latham and Kevin Rudd respectively, or the ongoing Turnbull-Nelson skirmishes, it’s clear that little in terms of internal party divisions ever remains private, regardless of the method of election. If MPs can leak sensitive party matters without the party collapsing into public disrepute, then it makes sense that no more damage can be done by an open and genuinely democratic process.

It’s a big culture shock in Australian politics to suggest that our country’s political leadership is chosen not in smoke-filled rooms but in openly democratic processes that encourage many more Australians to actively participate in elections where their votes genuinely matter. It could be the best solution to the widespread dissatisfaction with modern Australian democracy that we could find.

I thought this would be a good opportunity to test out WordPress’ polling mechanism, so I thought I’d post one to see what people think. Please post your comments about what I’ve argued. Do you think we need a change in how we elect our leaders?

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13 COMMENTS

  1. I’m a member of the Australian Democrats, partly because I believe in one-vote-one-value. The reasoning is that my vote should count just as much as anybody else’s, and I should be able to vote for my leaders.

    Obviously, the Australian Democrats are in bad shape at the moment, but I would argue that is not due to membership voting for the leaders but other factors.

    In fact, having a wide vote for pre-selections and leadership positions gives the winner a certain kind of legitimacy that stands them in good stead against the majors.

    One of the primary lessons to take from the Democrat experience is that speed is important. We are working on fixing that in quite a radically interesting way.

  2. Hey Coconaut,

    I’m not sure if I was clear, but I absolutely agree that the electoral system for electing the leader had nothing to do with the instability in the party, but that is the argument often heard against giving power to grassroots members (particularly in the Greens, where is a fear about going wrong like the Democrats).

  3. Yes, I was agreeing with you (sorry if I came off defensive). I too have heard the same instability argument against the one-vote-one-value system…

  4. I’m getting more hardline about this issue as I get older :-), I think one of the best things about the Dems is having members being able to vote for the party leader, and I think there’s a lot of merit in the argument that the membership voting to replace the leader helped us retain senate seats we may have lost in the 2001 election. It would be really interesting to see an Australian political party adopt the US primaries model, which is even more open than just having the members vote for leaders/candidates. The big practical issue against primaries, I guess, is the cost of running them.

    As for the Greens going the way of the Democrats – you’ve got a lot more electoral protection than we ever had because you have built up significant strength at a local and state government level. There are obviously still some significant risks for you, but I think you’re highly like to break through in the next couple of electoral cycles and get lower house seats in Melbourne.

  5. Ideally I’d prefer something along the lines of the NDP for the ALP (though the union vote would most likely be much higher than 25%) though the UK system is more likely.

    I would imagine that this would be replicated at State and Territory level with Premiers/Chief Ministers also determined this way.

    Personally though I would push for reform of Senate/Upper House ALP pre-selection to make include an element of one vote one value as a greater priority.

    No change will happen in the ALP unless the party is out of office for a very long time though.

  6. Yeah, I think what will happen is that once one state party breaks through the change will spread pretty fast through both major parties. There was some discussion in the Liberals after Nelson became leader. I couldn’t find the link when I was writing the post but I think it came from Chris Pyne.

    PS. I think “Oz” is already taken on my blog by Oz from the Young Greens in Sydney.

  7. Interesting analysis Ben. I’m not sure Australia is ready for or capable of US style primary elections, but it’s vital to involve more people in the key choices in politics, including leadership.

    I share your optimism for a swing away from current systems which now seem to be only a whisker away from cronyism. The NSW ALP is a case in point, with a leader supposedly from the Left and yet installed by the same Right powerbrokers who will make the party unelectable. A period in opposition may make this more clear to them.

  8. The big problem I can see with this proposal is that the major parties are no longer grassroots based but made up of stacks and hacks. Any ‘primary’ style system would be less a reflection of the people’s will than a race to see who can stack the most seats.

    Secondly, what the party diehards want is often not what is acceptable to the mainstream. Ordinary people want centrist candidates, not hard Left vs hard Right.

    Thirdly, what’s to stop a party’s opponents suddenly signing up to help boost the weakest or least palatable candidate? There were accusations of this from both sides during the US Primary.

  9. There’s always a danger of stacking (or people joining to distort the result) but the advantage is that the numbers of voters are so large that it’s hard to distort the result.

    The last two ALP Presidential races had 20,000 votes cast. In a leadership race that actually is much more significant, you would expect a higher turnout and a lot more ALP members to join the party. It’s much easier to stack a branch with a few hundred people.

    So, yes, the ALP and Liberal parties have largely locked out their grassroots. But the point of this proposal is that it would undo that. The very act of giving members a say over the leadership would revitalise and give people a reason to join.

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