Nationals experiment with open primaries


Via Pollbludger, a fascinating story in the Australian the other day has revealed plans by the NSW Nationals to trial using open primaries to preselect a candidate in a winnable seat for the 2011 NSW state election. All voters in the electorate would be eligible to cast a vote in the ballot to decide the party’s candidate.

It appears that the plan is to use the system in one of a number of traditional Nationals seats held by a rural independent, such as Dubbo, Port Macquarie or Tamworth. It appears a smart strategy to blunt the impact of rural independents, and in certain cases would prevent cases of popular candidates being defeated by party machinists. As van Onselen points out in the Australian article, federal member for New England Tony Windsor would have likely won the Nationals primary for Tamworth back at the beginning of his career, and would have remained within the party.

If such a model spread through politics, it would have a fascinating impact. MPs would be much less beholden to their parties and we would likely see a decline in party discipline. It could also have a serious impact on government ministers. Yet it seems unclear how a primary system can effectively work in a political system which isn’t strictly divided into two parties, and it is completely incompatible with any system of multi-member election system.

It would seem to be a step in the right direction, but it would make more sense to give more powers to “one vote one value” elections within the party, which would be a strong incentive to encourage more voters to join political parties, while avoiding the obviously silly concept of voters from the opposite end of the spectrum having a say over a party’s candidates. The Nationals have a very large membership base, and it would seem to be just as effective to give the power of preselection to a vote of all members living in the electorate. It would seem bizarre that Labor and Greens members in, say, Dubbo, let alone supporters of the sitting independent, could have a say over who the Nationals stand.

While an open primary system may not become the universal system of preselecting candidates, it is a good gimmick and can be useful for the Nationals in regaining momentum in country areas which have become disengaged from the party. The rise of maverick Nationals who are more concerned with the party’s independence than its coalition relationship, such as Barnaby Joyce and Brendan Grylls, would be encouraged by the rise of open primary preselections.

Update: That dangerous lunatic Tim Andrews has some unkind words to say about this post over at his blog. Check it out.

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  1. On what basis will primary candidates compete? If it’s more than just personality than they will have to promise to vote differently in parliament. How compatible is this with responsible government?

  2. It’s incompatible with strict party discipline, that’s for sure. But I don’t know what that has to do with responsible government. It would simply replicate within political parties what we see between political parties in PR systems where a party rarely wins a majority of seats (like New Zealand).

  3. Strange post from Tim Andrews.

    Has a nice rant about your penchant for PR and then ends up agreeing with the crux of your post via a proxy representative who spoke at a Young Liberals conference?

  4. The big question that usually gets ignored in these debates is how many people will vote. If the answer is “a lot” then they have value, although that has to be weighed against the many problems people raise. But if the answer is “not many” then its an expensive waste of time that really just means the person with the most friends in the seat wins. Having a large friendship group might be a good sign, but people whose friends are concentrated in one seat will be privileged over those spread far and wide.

    I think it could work for the Nationals, and in rural seats in general. People feel more connected to their area, the local media will cover it, candidates will mostly know people from the electorate.

    However, I think it will be a disaster in suburban electorates. How many people will bother to vote – if less than 10,000 people voted when Boris Johnson (a bona fide celebrity who also has parliamentary experience) ran for Lord Mayor of London (with novelty value thrown in) you’re likely to get less than 100 votes in an Australian suburban electorate, leaving aside those who are effectively stacked in by the candidates. Even less in state seats.

  5. This would certainly help to end ‘toeing the party line’ that is too much of a problem in Australian politics. I think this is a good idea; a move to something closer to the US system, where candidates have more of an individual say in their positions. This would promote more discussion. We might see some more Barnaby Joyces. This would also promote regional diversity, whereby candidates could reflect the concerns of their electorate much more closely, rather than having to follow the centralised party doctrine.

  6. i think a primary is a great idea for democracy, but of course it should be limited to party members. It is a good way for minor parties to engage the grass roots support base the need. i can see other minor parties such as the DLP using this model. Maybe they do have something similar. The Democrats also had a similar idea, where all party members could vote to select a candidate

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