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Parties, probity and preselections

By Gary Johns - posted Wednesday, 28 February 2001

Following the February 2001 election, Queensland Premier Peter Beattie is in a position to implement his electoral and party reform program, as promised during the campaign. The program was devised to respond to the crisis of confidence in the Labor party caused by the conviction of three party members for electoral fraud, and the resignation of three Labor MPs and a number of party members for falsely enrolling, or witnessing false enrolments, of voters. These transgressions of public law occurred in pursuit of advantage in preselection contests. The Beattie program is designed to restore probity to the preselection system and public confidence in the ethical behaviour of members of Parliament.

The program consists of reforms to the ALP rules, which include a new disputes tribunal, and new rules to handle disputes, and the Queensland Electoral Commission (QEC) to audit internal ballots. The program also consists of reforms affecting all parties. Among other things, all preselections are to be supervised by the QEC. As Queensland is, for the time being, virtually a one-party state, the prospects of achieving this program are high. Unfortunately, the cure may be worse than the bite. The intrusion of the Electoral Commission into the affairs of political parties will simply confirm that the electorate has lost trust in political parties. The logical next step in the process of making private political organisations public property is to take the power to select candidates away from parties entirely: preselections where the public may vote, that is, primaries. Does the punishment fit the crime?

What is the problem that the Beattie reforms address?

If the Beattie reforms address a lack of public trust in political parties, why was the offending party so well-rewarded at the Queensland election? Parties are probably the cleanest they have ever been in terms of their rules and procedures. The reasons the electorate are not enamoured with parties are far broader than the internal performance of the major parties. They have to do with the diminished differences in the major parties on economic policy and the cultural agenda, particularly immigration and Aboriginal policy. This, in addition to the rising expectations in the electorate that government should intervene in all manner of issues, and a general decline in the authority of institutions, have emboldened the left (Greens) and the right (One Nation) who are able to tar the Coalition and Labor with the same brush.


The initial problem of false enrolments is a small component affecting one major party’s overall standing in the electorate. Nevertheless, it has triggered a response that reinforces the view that all parties cannot be trusted. Part of the Beattie motivation to involve the QEC in party preselections is to spread the blame and the shame of intervention to all parties. This, despite the fact that no other member of any other party has been found to have breached public law. Moreover, no-one other than a member of the Australian Workers’ Union faction of the ALP has been found to breach public law. A problem in one faction, in one party, which is itself a small component affecting its overall standing in the electorate, becomes every party’s problem.

The Beattie solution - to hand the responsibility for preselection of party candidates to the Electoral Commission - implies a lack of trust. The solution will confirm, not alleviate the problem.

An alternative view is to recognise that political parties are private and voluntary organisations that, in so much as they select candidates to compete for public elections, perform a public role. How they do so has, for most of their history, been largely private. Since 1984, however, parties have received public funding for elections and, despite the fact that such funding can be held to be for a relatively narrow purpose - public campaigning by preselected candidates - such funds are a major part of party finances. Further, since 1989, the courts have found that a dispute in a political party is justiciable. Part of the reason for such a shift in the judiciary’s attitude is the receipt by the parties of public funds; part is because of the general desire by members of private associations more generally to be given a fair hearing within those organisations. An assertion of democracy within associations at large, and the use of the courts as a means of dispute settlement have made the internal operations of political parties public property.

Having the QEC supervise party preselections would complete the public ownership of private political associations. The reason for Labor entities defrauding the electoral roll was because they were responding to a particular set of party rules. The fact that the measure of preselection eligibility was enrolment to vote in an election created an opening to win preselection by stacking the electorate through false enrolments. Such behaviour is not necessary, for example, in the Queensland Liberal party where a voter in a preselection does not need to be on the roll in the relevant electorate. That rule, supposedly designed to encourage Liberal activists to leave the safe seats and organise in the marginals, in fact has the opposite effect. It draws people from all areas to the safe seats in order to contest preselection. Nevertheless, the choice of rule is strictly a matter for the Liberal party and is unlikely to generate the manipulation of the electoral roll.

If the National party opts for a non-electorate qualification for preselections, the ALP could end up as the only party whose preselections are supervised by the QEC. Perhaps that would be a fair outcome, given that only Labor party members breached public law.

Beattie could address the whole matter much more directly by changing the ALP rules. There is no need to change the rules concerning QEC scrutiny of the parties. The public system works. Once the cheats were detected, the law was able to be applied with devastating effect. Party rules can be made adequate if there is a decent scrutiny and appeal process within the party. Further, recourse to the courts, although expensive, is available. The new disputes tribunal suggested in the Beattie programme is an important reform. The disputes tribunal should be selected by a super majority of the party. This means that consensus candidates are likely to emerge. Rules to ensure that people are aware that they are enrolled for a preselection are also valuable, although it must be said that those falsely enrolled were willing recruits, so such a rule may have little impact. Nevertheless, the disgrace for those who sought to cheat should help change the culture in the ALP. Fear of detection by appointing a fair disputes tribunal will assist.


The one big reform, and the one Peter Beattie has studiously avoided, is the reform of the system of union bloc voting. All known rorters in the Queensland political system, as found by the Shepherdson Inquiry, were backed by the Australian Workers’ Union. The accumulation of power by the AWU is at the heart of the problem; not the electoral roll, not all of the Labor party or all of the political parties. Before the National Executive interventions in the Queensland ALP in the early 1980s, some old industrial-based unions, particularly the Electrical Trades Union, dominated the party. The behaviour of these "old-guard" unions was appalling. There was a point when party units were forbidden to correspond with each other and all correspondence had to pass through the party secretary. Ballots were rorted on a massive scale by the use of postal votes to non-member unionists who, at that time, had the right to vote in a party ballot. The current shenanigans are child’s play compared to the old days. An essentially middle-class and publicly funded political party, in an era of individual rights, will not accept the old ways. Why should they?

The major organisational base of the ALP is the trade unions. They are no longer the major electoral base. The ALP need not abandon the union movement, but it must abandon the bloc vote. Any union that affiliates to the ALP must select its delegates from its membership. In this manner, the impact of any one union will be dispersed. Bill Ludwig will not walk into State Conference with a swag of votes in his hand. Moreover, his troopers will not be able to use the threat of those votes to do as they please. The rule change that is really at the heart of the ALP ‘rorts affair’ is the manner of the affiliation of unions and their right to a bloc vote. This is the rock on which the whole edifice of Labor factionalism stands. Factionalism will always exist in parties, it can be healthy, but at least it should be built on persuasion as much as on the resources of trade unionists who do not even vote Labor.

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This paper was first delivered at the seminar, Good Governance: Fair Elections and Ethical Parties Friday 23 February 2001 at the Caulfield Campus, Monash University.

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About the Author

Gary Johns is a former federal member of Parliament and served as a minister in the Keating Government. Since December 2017 he has been the commissioner of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission.

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