Primary elections: the future of Australian politics?

13 August 2012

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With the lengthy process of the US Republican presidential nomination all but over, and the election only a few months away, I wondered recently whether Australia could learn a thing or two from the American federal system.

After all, ever since Julia Gillard ousted Kevin Rudd, her legitimacy as a leader has been questioned to no end. Add to that the public and political outrage that ensued when Labor allied with independent and Green members in the last federal election, and you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking that we have an electoral system in crisis.

It would take a thesis to fully compare and assess the two political systems, but there are key points of difference that give food for thought.

For one thing, we all know that in Australia your choice in voting is limited to the candidates a political party chooses. You don’t get to vote directly for a Prime Minister.

In the US, a system of primaries determines who gains a party’s nomination on the state and national level. This essentially means that each state has a kind of mini-election, some of which are open only to registered party members, and others open to the wider public.

People vote for a candidate, and later on representatives from that state are sent to vote for that candidate at a National Convention in the case of Presidential elections. At a state level it is simply the winner of a primary who gets to represent their party in contesting a district.

There is something unsurprisingly appealing about a political system where you get a say in who represents your party in an election race. With Kevin Rudd’s approval rating as Labor leader at 60 per cent, almost double that of Julia Gillard’s, it is clear than many Labor voters would prefer to see the former-PM back in office.

If the public mobilised to choose who would represent their preferred party, not only would politicians be more popular, they would be more accountable. There is a notable lack of belief in our political system and culture at the moment, stemming in part from a lack of engagement with politics in general.

Getting people involved would lessen the belief that politicians are constantly trying to appease powerful interests and each other behind the scenes, rather than the people they are tasked with representing. If pre-selection was abolished in favour of primaries, they would be safe from such pressures, beholden only to their electorate.

Anyone who has watched the ABC’s Q&A or Lateline would be familiar with the sight of politicians scrambling to avoid disagreeing with the party line, which is often more depressing than it is comical. Stripping our political parties of the power to pre-select members for certain seats would give our politicians considerably more freedom to discuss different views and policies.

As ‘The Chaser’ writer, Dominic Knight, writes, ‘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.’

However, a key benefit of our system is that it lessens blatant populism and a need to appease a wider political base. While it sounds representative to have politicians expressing their true views and letting the public decide who they agree with, what often results is the need to appeal to a wider base than your opponents, often at the expense of your own views.

There is no better example of this than current presumptive Republican Presidential Nominee, Mitt Romney, who has come to be widely characterised as a ‘flip flopper’, due to his changing positions on key Republican issues, such as abortion rights and health care reform.

As former ALP campaigner and staffer, Luke Walladge, writes, ‘Primaries benefit two types of people: those with the resources to campaign, and those with experience in campaigning,’ raising other important issues that arise from externalising the political process.

There are no clear in-depth proposals of how a primary election system would work at either a state or national level, so this is all purely hypothetical. It would no doubt require a lot of organisation, and it is difficult to imagine either major party deciding on such a systematic shake-up.

Despite their improbability of being adopted, these ideas aren’t entirely unheard of in Australian politics. Back in 2009 the New South Wales National Party trialled a primary system to select a candidate to run for state parliament.

In addition, earlier this year the ALP trialled a similar system in choosing Sydney’s Lord Mayor. This was in the context of the ALP’s 2010 Review, which suggested primary elections as a way to reinvigorate the Party.

This idea hasn’t caught on nationally, but it is nonetheless interesting to see both minor and major parties testing the waters with the primary system. There are clear problems with any political system, but local primaries could be enough institutional change to at least inspire some sort of enthusiasm in politics, and possibly lead to its implementation on a national scale.

For the time being we will have to wait and see if we will ever get a say in who represents our political parties.

Tim Viney is a Master of Global Communications student at La Trobe University, and is upstart‘s deputy editor. You can follow him on Twitter: @TimViney2.