Are primaries really the answer to Labor’s woes?

Last year, New South Wales Labor announced that preselections for five “winnable” seats would be conducted by a community pre-selection. Fifty per cent of the vote would come from rank-and-file members of the ALP, with another 50 per cent to come from an open primary where members of the public on the electoral roll can vote.
These “primaries” are currently being held for the seats of Newtown and Campbelltown and will soon be held for the seat of Balmain. The primary for the seat of Strathfield is still to be announced while the proposed Londonderry primary did not proceed as only one candidate, Prue Car, nominated.

While there has been enthusiasm by some Labor Party members about this process, are these “primaries” really what Labor needs?

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

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 far more people involved when barriers to participation are low — for example, unlike similar primaries in Europe, the lack of a fee to participate.

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, routinely pull 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:

  • Increased party membership
  • Increased primary votes
  • Increased number of volunteers involved in a campaign.

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

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

  • Voter self-identification
  • Greater transparency and openness
  • 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 by NSW Young Labor, in their submission to the NSW Labor commission on the 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 public standing and the scandals being investigated by Independent Commission Against Corruption.

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. Tim Soutphommasane has suggested that primaries may be one way of ensuring our parliamentary representatives are more diverse and representative.

But it is unclear whether community preselections will achieve these other outcomes. There are also questions about whether a primary is a good use of scarce resources.

At 47 cents per letter (currently) 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 the same amount spent on a primary, it is likely Labor could have hired 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. Outsiders will have little chance.

The frontrunner for Newtown is Penny Sharpe, the current Shadow Transport Minister, who is expected to beat former South Sydney Councillor Sean Macken and refugee activist Natalie Gould. Former NSW Education Minister Verity Firth is making a comeback in Balmain and is up against Leichardt Mayor Darcy Byrne in what will be a much closer contest. Campbelltown will be the most unpredictable contest with no obvious favourite out of Ian Fulton, Greg Warren and Brendan Whitehouse.

There should be an open and robust discussion about the use of community preselections but questions will remain 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.

Published in New Matilda on 14 March 2014

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