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Outsized party power distorts democracy


Gary Humphries smilingThere are lessons from the pre-selection defeat, now under challenge, of ACT Liberal Senator Gary Humphries, Parliamentary Secretary to the Shadow Attorney-General, that are of wider interest.

Some, such as the ability of local pre-selectors to displace a sitting member supported by the federal party leader (in this case Tony Abbott) and the shadow front bench, seem admirably democratic. Others, such as the small pool of party members determining future parliamentary representation in a safe seat, are problematic.

Humphries is a political veteran who has held elected office since 1989, first in the ACT Legislative Assembly where he rose to be Chief Minister and then since 2003 as Senator for the ACT. He was defeated by Zed Seselja, Leader of the Opposition in the ACT Assembly since 2007, who had the support of all seven of his Assembly colleagues. Seselja twice led his party to electoral defeat, but only narrowly lost in the October 2012 elections.

The result was in part about generational change: Seselja is about 20 years younger, though Humphries is only in his mid-50s. The Young Liberals rallied strongly around Seselja. It was also partly ideological as Seselja is probably more socially conservative, though both are best classified as middle of the road Liberals. But it was largely about conflicting aspirations and organisational power.

What stands out most is that less than 200 pre-selectors voted. Seselja won 114 to 84 amid allegations of unfairness in the process that are still being ruled upon within the party. The power of this small pre-selectorate points to a broader problem in Australian politics.

In short, while the major political parties are in decline as membership based organisations, they retain disproportionate power in determining the composition of Australian legislatures.

Political party membership has now fallen to quite low levels and the major parties are not as organisationally vital or active as they ought to be. This applies to Labor as much as to the Liberals. Not only are membership levels low, but the number of active members is far smaller than the merely nominal ones whose membership commitment generally ends with their financial support.

Yet these parties effectively select most MPs, because their candidates in safe seats are almost always elected and they share the marginal seats between them. The number of Independent and minor party MPs in lower houses is miniscule other than in proportional representation systems like Tasmania and the ACT.

The Liberals rank behind Labor in Canberra, but they support and produce from among their ranks eight members of the ACT Assembly, one Senator and occasionally a member of the House of Representatives. Yet they are a party of just 600–650 members; and only about a third of these paid up members have been ruled active enough to be eligible to vote in this pre-selection contest.

Incumbent MPs in safe seats, like the ACT Senate, often serve long terms because incumbency is usually a great advantage within their own political parties. Not only do incumbents have inherent advantages in communicating with party members but they tend to stick together and to have the support of their parliamentary leaders.

One consequence of this phenomenon is that MPs in safe seats serve long terms and some of them, like federal MPs Peter Slipper (former Liberal), Laurie Ferguson (Labor) and Bruce Scott (Nationals) stay on far too long.

Relatively small active memberships also inevitably mean that some individuals end up wearing more than one hat, such as branch officer and parliamentary staffer. Activists with multiple hats come to dominate the workings of parties. The division between the party organisation and the elected parliamentarians becomes fuzzy.

In the case of the Canberra Liberals the party president also served as a political staffer to Seselja. In these circumstances there can easily be crossed wires and perceived conflicts of interest.

Given the predominant place in Australian democracy of a few political parties it would be much healthier if these parties had larger and more active memberships. Otherwise crucial democratic decisions are left to just a few.


John Warhurst headshotJohn Warhurst is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and a Canberra Times columnist. 

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Gary Humphries, Zed Seselja, Tony Abbott



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Existing comments

Appreciate the sentiments contained in the article. In NSW Labor, increasingly over the past decade, there has been an increasing trend to lessen or eliminate local input in pre-selections for winnable seats. The effect of this trend is that the elected member is then more dependent on the party machine in a range of matters including fundraising. Perhaps this also explains, at least in part, why these elected members, were so easily influenced by elements (who have been the subject of investigation recently) that were closely associated with the power elites that comprise the party machine.

Paul Crittenden | 05 March 2013  

The heading of your article is exciting and (sadly) frighteningly true. We don't live in a democracy but a benevolent dictatorship. Recently I asked my Federal member, Paul Fletcher, whether he voted for what I (and my Kuringai electors) want or what Tony Abbott wants. His reply was typically off-subject. The man has a good job and he doesn't want to lose it. And the superannuation is not bad. Party politics has killed democracy. Agree?

Jim McDonald | 05 March 2013  

Thanks John for this article. "Use it or lose it" could well apply to democracy. In many ways our democratic system is slowly being eroded by the power of lobbyocracy. Power and capital is slowly being drawn into fewer and fewer hands. As far as the Australian Senate is concerned it really annoys me that we give the first vote to the one nominated by the party. There is nothing wrong with voting for your preferred candidate. Voting above the line pleases the party machine but a more democratic decision would have been to number as many numbers as was warranted not the whole lot as it is very easy then to accidentally vote informally.

Anne Schmid | 05 March 2013  

This article is about the ACT Liberals, but it could be about Gillard and the NT ALP, imposing yet another political novice, not even a member of the ALP when touched upon the shoulder to sit for the rest of her life on red leather and, if she is anything like Garrett, make a complete fool of herself, from having absolutely no idea how the machinations of the ALP operate, even though her prize was the result of an A Class act of ALP bastardry. Remember the footballers wife in South Australia,running for the ALP, mocked in the media for having been a Liberal Party member and having no idea whatsoever about party politics or even just 'politics'? Another 'good idea'? It is, of course, up to 'the public' to join in the political processes and the situation described here is the sad reflection of just how low in the rank of 'respect' politicians have fallen, but probably also a reflection of how well-off most people are that they do not understand what a life with fully privatised health, housing, transport and education at all levels will be like. And that is as much the failure of the ALP to understand the electorate, by pre-selecting plonkers and clapped out union careerists, just like here in this story with the Liberals.

Janice Wallace | 05 March 2013  

The factions in the ALP and the "wets and the "dries" in the Libs have control. Sometimes this is OK but often we as members are let down. In WA Senator Bishop has at last been dropped to a lower ranking, not before time but the bloke like;y to replace him is worse.

clem schaper | 05 March 2013  

I realise that it has become accepted by common (bad) practice...but it would be really satisfying to read: "...FEWER than 200..." ...and a lot less of LESS!

Eugene | 05 March 2013  

John Warhurst's article is right on the money! Headlines over recent times have demonstrated cleary how often successful political candidates have been found to be morally weak and/or intellectually challenged, with little evidence of any clear political convictions, but a powerful desire to stay in office long enough to be financially secure for the rest of their lives. They would never have been chosen as candidates if the party members had been looking for qualities of integrity, intelligence, relevant experience and a vision for the future of Australia!

Rob Brennan | 05 March 2013  

The article is about politics, but it mirrors the Dialectic Idealism we see in religions in general and also in the Catholic Church. To be effective every ideal needs to build up a group or community to promote it. Because of our social nature and the different groupings that are formed, often the Group looms larger than the ideal, and can result in the Ideal being suppressed or distorted. Christianity began by professing a Universal Love, which freed us from the strictures of ancient traditional ways, and stimulated a more spiritual approach. The cycle has turned so that a different set of old traditions are now the priority of the relatively few who make the decisions, and are apparently either oblivious or indifferent to the alienation of vast numbers of former followers. Or are unwilling to rise above the misinterpretations of the past. Or are simply unable to find the spiritual path that will reconcile all our aspirations.

Robert Liddy | 06 March 2013  

Robert Liddy's comment is spot on. The same problem occurs in private enterprise, educational institutions, and the community sector. Too often (or is it always eventually) the controlling 'group' becomes more interested in retaining power per se than in pursuing the original objectives and reproduces itself by cloning. In doing so it so closes down all avenues of reform and revitalisation so that in the end the organisation dies (or is killed off by a revolution) only to be replaced by another group of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed idealists who are destined to repeat the cycle. So is this repeated cycling inevitable, or is there a way of avoiding the problem?

Ginger Meggs | 08 March 2013  

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