How will we know if primaries work?

Every day the list of ALP figures advocating “community preselections” aka primaries seems to be growing. Today, former Victorian Secretary Nick Reece became the latest to publicly urge community primaries as part of party reform.

I have previously written about my concerns about community preselections and those who have spoken to me know I do not believe that Labor should institute primaries for the sake of it.

Considering how resource intensive primaries are (and the limited resources that exist for party organising), it is essential that the success of community primaries can be measured. The lack of discussion as to what those measurable outcomes are, beyond greater numbers of people participating, concerns me.

Isn’t greater participation a good thing?

Turnout is not a good measure of success for community primaries. It is inevitable that primaries will have more far people involved when barriers to participation are low. The involvement of 5,000 residents out of 100,000 enrolled voters in the City of Sydney community preselection seems like a lot until you learn that all electors were mailed about the primary and realise that student elections, at the University of Sydney for example, get a few thousand voters out of approximately 33,000 undergraduate students.

What outcomes should primaries be measured against?

In my view, the success of community primaries for Labor should be measured using three tangible outcomes:

  1. increased party membership;
  2. increased primary votes; and
  3. increased number of volunteers involved in a campaign.

It is unclear if any of these outcomes were met because of the City of Sydney community preselection trial. To my knowledge, there has been no assessment of whether the trial met any of these outcomes.

What are other outcomes of primaries?

If none of these outcomes were met, the question must be asked: why are we adopting primaries? It only leaves three other plausible reasons:

  1. Voter self-identification;
  2. Greater transparency and openness; and
  3. A wider variety of candidates preselected.

Voter identification was flagged as a reason for adopting a primary model for electing the NSW State Parliamentary Leader in NSW Young Labor’s submission to the party commission on direct election of leader.

Greater transparency and openness was raised by City of Sydney councillor Linda Scott during a session at the SEARCH Foundation’s Left Renewal Conference. This is understandable given NSW Labor’s current public standing and the scandals being investigated by ICAC.

The shrinking pool from which candidates are preselected has been widely discussed for the past decade and continues to be an issue across all parties. Recently, Tim Soutphommasane suggested that primaries may be one way of ensuring our parliamentary representatives are more diverse and representative.

Will primaries achieve these other outcomes?

It is unclear if a community preselection would achieve these other outcomes. There are also questions about whether a primary is a good use of scarce resources.

At 43 cents per letter for pre-sorted mail with approximately 100,000 enrolled residents in the City of Sydney, it would have been a considerable expense to mail every person enrolled in the City of Sydney to inform them about the primary. An online portal to allow electronic voting and polling booths to vote in person were also established, adding to the cost. For that same amount spent on a primary, it is likely you could hire a call centre to do voter ID work and identify an equivalent number of people.

There is a need for greater transparency and openness to regain public confidence but it is difficult for that to be measured other than by an improved electoral outcome.

Ensuring a diverse and representative range of preselected candidates is important but it is unclear whether community preselections would do that. A successful candidate would still need to have strong links in the local branches and be able to cobble together a campaign machine pretty quickly. The resources and time required would limit a realistic chance to be preselected to those who have been active party members for a considerable period of time and/or political professionals.

I am open to a discussion about community preselections but will remain sceptical until these concerns about scarce resources and measurable outcomes are addressed. Avoiding these issues will do the Australian Labor Party no favours in the long-run.



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