Community preselections for Sydney Lord Mayor are an improvement but it’s no panacea

The announcement this morning that NSW Labor will adopt a “community preselection” to determine its candidate for Sydney Lord Mayor should not come as a complete surprise. The use of community preselections in local government elections was outlined by NSW General Secretary Sam Dastyari in an op-ed last year prior to the 2011 NSW Labor Conference.

The NSW Conference endorsed trialling community preselections in some local council elections and for five state electorates with the caveat that non-members would have no more than a 50 per cent say in candidate selection. Following Conference, there were murmurings of a trial for the Sydney Lord Mayor contest. Rumour has it that NSW Labor may even trial community preselections for other directly elected mayoral contests this September.

The community preselection model to be trialled is slightly different to the model proposed in the Faulkner/Carr/Bracks review which supported a stronger weighting for members and a component for members of affiliated unions. Instead it will take the shape of an electoral college that is half open primary, half rank-and-file preselection.

Former Labor candidate for Lord Mayor of Sydney, Meredith Burgmann outlined two main reasons for it in her conveniently timed opinion piece advocating for community preselections, reconnecting with residents and breaking perceptions about NSW Labor.

A community preselection is undoubtedly better than the previous process where NSW Labor Conference determined the candidate. It led to a debacle where Tony Pooley was pre-selected as the Sydney Lord Mayor candidate by NSW Labor Conference but withdrew at a later date and was replaced by Meredith Burgmann whom he defeated.

The history of community preselections

This move towards community involvement in preselections by political parties in Australia is relatively new phenomenon. Experimentation can be traced back to 2010 when the NSW Nationals and Victorian Labor trialled open primaries. The Nationals trialled it for the seat of Tamworth and had over 4,000 participants, subsequently winning the seat back from independent MP Peter Draper in 2011. Labor conducted its primary in the seat of Kilsyth, however, it met with little success.

Recent discussion within Labor has focused on community preselections instead of open primaries, involving a “supporters” component but keeping members involved in preselections. This can be traced back to the 2010 National Review which recommended the trial of a “community preselection” involving 20 per cent community members, 20 per cent members of affiliated unions and 60 per cent branch members.

A strong push for trialling community preselections has come from within the more reform minded state Labor branches of New South Wales and Tasmania, ironically controlled by the Right and Left respectively. In Tasmania, Labor is likely to trial a community preselection for the federal seat of Denison against Andrew Wilkie after a failed attempt to hold one for the Tasmanian Legislative Council seat of Hobart.

What about a rank-and-file ballot?

While it is a definite improvement on NSW Labor Conference determining the Lord Mayor candidate, the question of “Why wasn’t a rank-and-file ballot attempted?” has been skipped over and not addressed at all.

Rather than jumping straight into a “community preselection”, it might be a good opportunity to try something different, for example, allowing anyone who joins NSW Labor in the City of Sydney, a vote on who is the Lord Mayor candidate.

Under the current proposal, the restricting of eligibility to those who have been members for twelve months (as well as the required number of meetings) cuts off for any incentive for people to join to have their say in determining who is the Lord Mayoral candidate.

The debate about community preselections versus rank-and-file preselections is a proxy for a much larger issue that Labor will need to address in the near future. It goes to question of ‘what is the value of party membership?’.

By jumping straight to community preselection without seriously lowering barriers to party membership and eligibility to participate in rank-and-file preselections, it create a risk of hollowing out the value of remaining a member. These remaining members do the bulk of the work maintaining the existing party structure. If in the process of reaching out, the value of membership is hollowed out, it will have dire consequences for organising and building outside of Labor-held electorates in the future.

Will the “community preselection” succeed?

While many are pinning their hopes on the success of community selection to renew the party, effort must be invested in being able to measure whether the “community preselection” has succeeded. As the Griffin Review of the 2010 Victorian election stated:

when primary pre‐selection systems are further trialled, it is essential that they are properly evaluated so that they can be accurately assessed

There needs to some clear parameters set right now to evaluate the success of a community preselection. It is unlikely to be possible to completely measure success until after the election in September 2012, however, everyone needs to be clear about the aims of community preselection. It goes to the very purpose of why it has been adopted.

At the moment, it is unclear if its purpose is to use supporters as a sounding board for new ideas and candidates, a way of acknowledging that supporters have a different relationship to the party than members or whether it’s about identifying and recruiting potential members or a mix of all three. This needs to be clarified.

My guess is that the broad aims of community preselection are to detoxify Labor to increase its vote, use it as a voter ID activity and hopefully recruit some of those supporters to help campaign against Clover Moore.

There is a risk that NSW Labor is putting all its egg in one basket by focusing on community preselections. If Labor spends considerable resources on it but it does not do considerably better electorally and those participants do not campaign or become members, what will NSW Labor do? It is a particularly relevant concern as the Griffin Review highlighted that significant resources went into the Kilsyth open primary and:

it did not translate into increased party membership or improved electoral performance.

Opening up isn’t enough, a Labor vision and policies are necessary

While it is a positive step to re-engage with supporters and shows a willingness to change, community preselections and party reform more broadly are not enough on its own to rebuild NSW Labor in the inner city or across the Australia.

In 2009, David Miliband spoke about the need to open up the British Labour Party and used the example of a European sister party that embraced open primaries to elect its leader, had deliberative and engaging party structures and how Labour could learn from this. The party he was referring to was PASOK, the Greek Socialist Party, which has crumbled over the past year and is nearing electoral oblivion. For all the openness and reform it embraced, it did not help PASOK when it adopted deeply unpopular policies and turned its back on its base.

Turning supporters into the advocates and activists that a party needs to rebuild requires vision and good policies. Labor needs to engage with the inner city’s diverse demographics with an alternative vision that inspires and connects. This applies to Leichhardt and Marrickville Local Government Areas as much as the City of Sydney.

Current Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore has a vision that is well known. It encompasses urban villages, push for light rail, Copenhagen-style bike paths and small bars but what about Labor? What is Labor’s distinct vision for the City of Sydney that will resonate with its base and other potential votes?

I doubt most people, even rank-and-file Labor members, could answer that. One can only hope that this community preselection will provide a platform for candidates to articulate and shape a Labor vision and platform for the City of Sydney.

Given that Labor barely beat the Liberals and Greens in 2008, unless Labor can clearly articulate an alternative vision, a community preselection on its own will not rebuild the party in the inner city, let alone come anywhere near beating Clover Moore.

UPDATE 1/3/12: A copy of rules motions from the 2011 NSW Conference are available via OurALP. Item 156 covers the trial of community preselections.

UPDATE #2 1/3/12: I am starting to wonder whether there is enough time to hold a proper community preselection process. According to the new N.43 rule adopted:

e) Voting in a community selection ballot must close at least three months before Election Day for the election for which a candidate is being selected.

Local council elections will occur on 8 September, meaning that community preselections will need to occur by early June. It leaves three months maximum for potential candidates to declare and run. This process should have commenced a year ago.



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