Time we had some primaries of our own

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As Peter Hartcher wrote in today’s Herald, the US primaries are wonderfully entertaining. I had friends round to watch Super Tuesday, and we sat on the couch eating Cheetos. We treated it like it was a blockbuster helmed by a particularly uncharismatic star in the bumbling form of CNN’s Wolf Blitzer – never before has such a dull man had such an inappropriately exciting name. The bad guy was vanquished (Romney), and the good guys triumphed (anyone but Romney). And the spectacle made me wonder whether Australians would benefit from some primary pageantry of our own.


I’m not talking about reforming our entire political system to function along American presidential lines, mind you, although there are arguments in favour of that. I’m talking about introducing the system that (don’t laugh) the Australian Democrats already have. OK, had.
Few would remember the process, and I do only because I gatecrashed it while filming a Chaser stunt. In the Democrats, leaders are elected by the party’s members. Candidates among the existing senators travelled around the country for debates attended by the party faithful (literally a handful at the event I visited in Redfern), and the supporters decide who best reflects their position. They ultimately chose Andrew Bartlett as the leader, which wasn’t exactly a brilliant decision. But the important thing is that at that time the party was riven by internal disputes between the left and right wings of the Dems, just as is happening in the Liberal Party today at both federal and state level. And if the members don’t decide who gets to set the direction, it’s resolved merely by backstabbing.
Imagine if the choice between Malcolm Turnbull and Brendan Nelson had been made by Liberal Party supporters (not members, because that sets the bar too high and implies financial contributions and ongoing involvement – merely those who registered with the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) as supporting one party or an independent, as in the US system.) It’s increasingly clear that Nelson was a compromise candidate, selected merely because he wasn’t Turnbull. And it’s hurting the Liberals, because they are unable to move forward from the Howard legacy.
We’ve already had the ridiculous uncertainty over the apology, followed by an embarrassing capitulation, and now we have the preposterous suggestion that the Coalition use its control of the Senate (until July) to retain AWAs, when everyone agrees that WorkChoices was the biggest reason for the party’s defeat. When Wilson Tuckey feels he’s getting input into policy, you’ve got a leader who’s unlikely to win the support of a majority of Australian voters. This is not a party positioning itself to win back government, and Nelson’s leadership already seems fatally hobbled.
Turnbull was the obvious candidate to lead the party into a new era. He’s considerably to the left of Howard, which means he’s more in sympathy with where the electorate is in 2008. His positions on climate change and the apology, for instance, reflect a growing consensus. There’s no point in the resentful Howardites trying to cling to their fallen leader’s platform – it was comprehensively rejected. Turnbull was the overwhelming favourite before the ballot, and there can be little doubt that if he’d been elected, his party would have a considerably more coherent platform today, and be doing a substantially better job in Opposition. His merit was overwhelming enough for Nelson to appoint him shadow treasurer even though he was an on-going threat.
And if a primary process had been undertaken, with votes in each state on different days over the course of, say, a month, the whole party would have benefited enormously, because the new leader’s positions would be well known to the public by the time they took over, and their profile would already be higher. Mark Latham was largely an unknown quantity when he was elected, a problem which hampered his campaign until the end (among other problems such as, for instance, his personality and policies). But if Latham had toured the country trying to convince Labor supporters his ideas were better, he’d have been road-tested before he got to lead the party to an election. The ALP would have had far more success in finding a candidate with half a chance of unseating Howard in 2004.
Who knows, a primary process may even have saved us the disastrous leaderships of Simon Crean, Kim Beazley (the second time), and most spectacularly unsuccessful of all, Alexander Downer.
By contrast, the folly of the current system of the party room appointing leaders was aptly illustrated by the disastrous performance of the NSW state Liberal Party last year. Because the state party was then controlled by conservatives, whose positions on issues like immigration were far to the right of the electorate, they chose a terrible leader in Peter Debnam instead of the far more competent Barry O’Farrell. And they were trounced by a man whose government should have been in terrible trouble then, and is still performing disastrously today.
In fact, Morris Iemma is an even better argument for primaries to choose leaders. No one comes to mind, but there must be someone better in the NSW ALP, surely? Primaries would be a wonderful way to expose dour machine men before they make a mess of governing. And what’s more, if they’d had primaries attracting substantial media coverage, the party wouldn’t have had to broadcast ads explaining how to pronounce the new premier’s name.
The point about primaries is they let the public, not politicians, decide who gets to become leader. If the Democrats had been able to simply appoint their presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton would have romped in – but it seems Barack Obama is better at appealing to uncommitted voters. That means he may be a more attractive candidate in a presidential election, even though he isn’t Democratic Party royalty like his opponent. And as politics becomes ever more driven by the personalities of leaders, it becomes all the more important to appoint the right person. Primary voters don’t always choose the right candidate (John Kerry, anyone?), but the process gives candidates the chance to road test their ideas and popular appeal on their supporters before they face a general election. It’s a way of calibrating parties so that they appeal to the public, so that they don’t disappear into irrelevance the way the Liberals have in NSW.
I can’t promise that Australian primaries would be as entertaining as the American ones, because there’s so much less at stake. Being leader of the free world is somewhat more attractive a prize than getting to pick the Prime Minister’s XI. But if we introduced them, we would get considerably better leaders. The Liberal Party is going to dump Brendan Nelson for Malcolm Turnbull at some point during the next three years. We could have saved them the trouble.

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