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We need a better system for preselecting election candidates

By Michael Lee and Graham Young - posted Monday, 15 January 2001


Revelations at the Shepherdson Inquiry illustrate the bankruptcy of the Australian party political system. It is a cartel run by a pair of oligopolies. If you are not a member of the club you have little chance of becoming an MP.

Somewhere around 70 percent of seats never change hands between parties. The people who hold those seats are not concerned about general elections. The only time their ownership of the seat is at risk is at their preselections. Electoral records show that Curaçao Fischer Catt was successfully enrolled with the Australian Electoral Commission. If preselected by a major party for one of its safe seats, Curaçao would have been the member, despite being a cat of the one "t" variety. No cats have yet been preselected, but quite a few donkeys have, and the electorate knows it.

One Nation campaigned against the cartel, calling it the Laboral Party, but One Nation was the least democratic of the parties. Its corporate structure entrenched power permanently in the hands of Pauline and the two Davids. The major political parties are more democratic, but over time tend to become captive of a dominant internal faction.

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The membership of political parties has been shrinking, representing only one per cent of the total population. This smaller size makes it easier to manipulate party structures and demonstrates that ordinary electors have been turned off by internal party machinations.

Ryan, the leafy Brisbane electorate which is home to the majority of the City’s professionals is a case in point. This electorate is to Queensland’s Liberals what Kooyong, the seat of Robert Menzies and Andrew Peacock, is to Victoria’s. Yet Michael Johnson, a young Australian lawyer of Chinese extraction, is likely to win preselection for it, not because of his demonstrated political ability, but because he is alleged to have stacked the pre-selection council by signing up 400 ethnic Chinese to the Liberal Party.

As a result, senior Liberals are apparently ceding him the pre-selection and threatening to run an independent conservative candidate once he wins. They believe that this will give the electorate a member more representative of the Liberal cause who at a later date may elect to join the Liberal Party. Essentially they are saying that the party’s internal processes have become so corrupted that all electors should have a say in selecting its candidate.

After 100 years of Federation it is time to return politics to the people and ensure that parties work to the benefit of the many rather than the few.

That requires not just an eight point plan, as proposed by the Queensland Premier, that will tinker around the edges but leave the internal systemic bastardisation intact, but a more radical democratic approach. When the USA faced similar problems 100 years ago it invented primary elections.

Primary elections take the place of Australian preselections. Where they differ is that they are run by organisations similar to our Electoral Commission. Any voter who registers with the local Electoral Commission organisation as a supporter of a particular party can vote in that party's primary. They don't have to attend branch meetings, pay membership dues or tout for votes on street corners, just register.

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The system has many benefits. It ensures that only those people living in the seat, not remote party committees or cohorts of bused in activists, select candidates who will represent them.

In America about a third of all voters participate in the primaries. Adjusting for our compulsory system that means that a Liberal primary in a safe seat like Ryan would involve say 10,000 people, completely diluting the influence of the 400 or so ethnic Chinese allegedly stacking the area. A system like this is more attractive to good candidates who might be ideal for politics but, having established themselves in another career, are not about to brown-nose factional hacks for the honour of being an MP.

Candidates who are directly selected by their electorate would also be more inclined to speak out against the orthodoxy within their own party. They would be more prepared to vote against their own party on matters of principal, and where their own electorate's interests diverge. The party organisations would still retain substantial influence but it would be more evenly shared with the electorate.

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An edited version of this article appeared in The Courier Mail on 29th December, 2000.



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About the Authors

Michael Lee is a Brisbane based consultant who assesses economic loss in litigation matters. His interests include human rights, American political history, and Native Title.

Graham Young is chief editor and the publisher of On Line Opinion. He is executive director of the Australian Institute for Progress, an Australian think tank based in Brisbane, and the publisher of On Line Opinion.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Michael Lee
All articles by Graham Young
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Queensland Labor Party
Queensland Liberal Party
Shepherdson Enquiry
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