I have been mildly amused by the shenanigans within the NSW Liberal Party recently over the liberalisation of their preselection rules. In other state branches of that illustrious legacy from Pig Iron Bob, the candidates for election are chosen by the rank and file members of that party. Not so in NSW (or the ACT for that matter).
There are the faceless men of the party machine who meet in smoke filled rooms in the semi darkness of political intrigue to discuss the claims of candidates for preselection and then they dispense the gift of preselection to the favoured child (or rip it off a recalcitrant sitting member).
Brer Rabbit has put the fox in the chook house by suggesting that the rank and file membership should be given the democratic right to choose who shall be their champions. The Prime Hamster has agreed with Brer Rabbit but the machine-men are yet to yield.
This same resistance of the ordinary member to decision making by cabal played out in the 1990s when the ACT ALP had for one term a system which it called the college system. This was where the Branch Council of about 20 odd (and at times very odd) members had a 50:50 say in who was preselected. It meant that a rank and filer had one vote but if one was a member of the Branch Council one had one’s own vote and about 10 more because of the 50:50 rule. Not exactly democratic and thus a war ensued resulting in its abolition some couple of years later.
Interestingly though, this is the system the party uses to select its federal Parliamentary Leader with the parliamentary caucus having a 50:50 role in the matter.
So, one can see that the issues confronting the NSW Liberals is nothing new in political musings.
Every now and then, someone decides to change the system to give an advantage to their particular faction or grouping. This is being played out at the moment within the ACT ALP.
There has been media speculation recently around possible challenges to sitting members in the ACT and the possibility of branch stacking through the introduction of changes to preselection rules which remove a requirement for members to be engaged in party processes, such as sub-branch meetings.
It is interesting that these changes have been mooted without a general engagement with the rank and file, outlining reasons why the changes are necessary. In other words, change should only occur when something is broken and no-one has shown how the system is broken. I would argue that it is not.
In the absence of such justification, one can only speculate on the reasons for change and what springs instantly to mind is the factional need for spoils of office.
So in the ACT at the moment, there are two members of the Reps and one in the Senate. These members come from each of the three major groupings in the party in the ACT. One from the Left, one from the Right and one from the Independents (the faction you have when you don’t have a faction). Enter the probable third Reps seat and which group will get that prize?
So the rules must change to allow one of the factions to guarantee that it gets the prize.
With that comes an additional factional colleague in the parliamentary caucus and an additional position at the annual conference which chooses the delegation to the National Conference and this is an important issue.
A side issue is the role of the unions. In the Left in the ACT, the major union players are the CPSU, the CFMEU and the TWU. In the Right, the major union is the SDA. The Independents don’t have any connection with a union.
In the past, the CFMEU and the TWU were the dominant grouping within the Left. However, this has been changed by the affiliation of the CPSU, which has then given rise to some tensions within that faction. It will be interesting to see how this aspect plays out. Is this a push by the CPSU to gerrymander one of their own into a seat?
The most valuable thing and sometimes the only thing of value an ordinary member has is the vote for their candidate for public office. It is a right which is cherished and it is earned by a showing of commitment to the party, through engagement in its processes. To suggest that one merely need to pay a fee and be a member for 12 months is an insult to those members who give of their time and intellectual input into the system, refreshing and challenging the paradigms and norms prevalent at any one time. It is insulting to those members who engage in discussions to refresh policies and suggest changes in party directions to alleviate disadvantage and discrimination.
This process is an easy way to stack a branch with faceless people who are never seen or heard. There is no transparent mechanism to prevent people being recruited with no other reason than to influence a preselection process.
In a sub-branch, a member is seen, invited to engage, and mentored if needed. People display their bona fides and their commitment to the values of the group. Faceless people with a cheque book need not show any allegiance nor commitment.
In the 1990s, the War of the Roses erupted and the peasants revolted. They overturned the college system here and put the power back into the hands of the committed rank and file.
Unless those who wish to change the system show how the system is broken, I predict another War of the Roses. And there will be casualties and all the while, good governance and public confidence will be the main casualties.