The Case for Primaries

[W]e saw millions of Americans registering to vote for the first time, raising money for the first time, knocking on doors, making calls, talking to their friends and neighbors, mothers and fathers lifting their little girls and their little boys on to their shoulders and
whispering, “See, you can be anything you want to be”… A record thirty-five million people voted in this primary, from every state, red, blue, purple, people of every age, faith, color and walk of life. And we have brought so many people into the Democratic Party and created enthusiasm among those we seek to serve.
—Hillary Clinton, June 3, 2008

There are those who say that this primary has somehow left us weaker and more divided. Well I say that because of this primary, there are millions of Americans who have cast their ballot for the very first time.
—Barack Obama, June 3, 2008

This year the USA witnessed one of the most fascinating political contests in modern electoral history—the battle for the 2008 Democratic nomination. If the victorious and defeated Democratic nominees are to be believed, the 2008 primaries have had a transformative effect on participation in that party, attracting new supporters, campaigners, fundraisers and workers to the party. While the presidential primaries have been attracting the world’s attention, there have also been a range of other less newsworthy but still important primaries for federal House and Senate seats and for places in the state legislatures.

The purpose of this paper is to advocate the consideration of primaries in Australia for lower house seats in state and federal parliaments. As in the USA, primaries may have a transformative effect on our body politic. They could encourage a wider pool of candidates to stand for selection and the galvanising effect of primaries may bring a new generation of people into the political process.

People, Politics and Political Parties

According to the Democratic Audit of Australia, Australians don’t care much for political parties:

“55 per cent have not very much confidence in them; 12 per cent none at all; and only 9 per cent believe that parties have high standards in the conduct of their internal affairs.
“This is reflected in Australians’ reluctance to join parties … all the evidence suggests that party membership for the Liberals, Labor, the Democrats and the Nationals would total less than 2 per cent of the population.”

Political party membership has been in decline for decades. According to Ian Hancock, Liberal Party membership peaked in September 1950 with 197,984 members nationwide and 44,287 in New South Wales. The New South Wales numbers grew in 1974–76 to in excess of 45,000 but have fallen away to 10,000. In 1950 the New South Wales Liberal Party membership to electoral support ratio was 7.3 per cent; in 1999 it was 1.1 per cent. According to the party website, today the Liberal Party numbers 80,000 members nationwide.

The general population is no more enthusiastic about the ALP. Brett Evans, author of The Life and Soul of the Party: A Portrait of Modern Labor,observes:

“Labor’s individual rank and file membership only stands at about 50,000 or 0.5 per cent of the electorate. In the 1930s and 1940s … ALP membership got as high as 270,000, about 7 per cent of the voting public.”

So why are people eschewing political involvement and why are party membership numbers in decline?

In the past citizens interacted with other like-minded citizens by joining local community organisations, religious groups and civic groups like the Rural Fire Service, and service clubs like Rotary. People joined political parties or various leagues (like the Australian Women’s National League or the Australian Natives Association) as a way of expressing their political views. People were engaged in their society not only because it gave them a sense of purpose but also because attending meetings and participating in debates was a way of finding out about the current state of the world. It was also a form of entertainment. Television changed civic participation and weakened all these groups—people no longer needed to leave the house for news or entertainment and so they stayed away from civic organisations.

As people stopped attending meetings and being involved in political parties, as the Cold War ended and Labor rejected many of their policy shibboleths, party identification declined. People are now less likely to always vote for the same political party than they were one or two generations ago.

Today when people do attend political meetings, often the party structures work against the encouragement of interested participants. Party meetings are often procedural and boring, and because parties operate on a delegate system, individual members often do not get a say in the running of the party or its policy development.

The behaviour and ethics of some of the more involved party members are also a turn-off. Take, for example, the description, from Barry Donovan’s book on Mark Latham, of a Labor preselection contest in 1989 in the New South Wales state seat of Liverpool:

“On February 11, the night of the ballot, Latham’s sure win turned into a deadlock: he had 48 votes and so too did Paul Lynch, a local solicitor. Twenty-nine disputed votes would decide the preselection. What made matters worse was that a scuffle broke out as both factions tried to put their own padlocks and wax seals on the box containing the disputed ballots.
“The right-wing returning officer then seized the box, leapt into his car and drove for hours around Sydney with a left-winger in pursuit ‘at speeds understood to be brisk’.”

John Hyde Page’s The Education of a Young Liberal provides a comparable set of scenarios from the other side of politics. Add the general Australian cynicism about politics and it is possible to conclude that all these factors have contributed to a decline in party membership and involvement.

But things are changing. The internet is changing the nature of civil society for the better. Political organisations are becoming more network-based. The internet and in particular social networking sites like Facebook are providing new ways of bringing new people from around Australia into the political process. The success of internet-based political networks, the growth of mass-member left-wing protest organisations like Get UP! and the rise in civic participation in volunteer groups demonstrate that Australians are looking to re-engage in civil society and have a greater say in public affairs through new networks and new media.

And yet, at the very time when there seems to be an increase in the level of interest Australians are displaying in the political process, some parties are opting to make their processes and affairs less participatory. At a time when Australians want more of a say, the New South Wales ALP is giving them less of a say in candidate selection.

Through a combination of Labor’s N40 “emergency” preselection rule and National Executive preselections there is a declining number of preselections where rank-and-file ALP members have any say. Ten federal ALP candidates or MPs based in New South Wales were preselected from a very small franchise of the National Executive or New South Wales Administrative Committee (between twenty and forty preselectors): Maxine McKew, Peter Garrett, Jennie George, Sharon Bird, Greg Combet, Jason Clare, David Bradbury, Julia Irwin, George Newhouse and Belinda Neal. Mike Kelly and Greg Holland won their preselections as a result of factional deals. The large number of candidates selected in this way demonstrates that what Mark Latham described as “six union secretaries sitting around a Chinese restaurant table planning the future for everyone else”, has become the standard method of preselecting Labor candidates. Labor’s problems with George Newhouse and Belinda Neal show that limiting the franchise does not always lead to better candidates.

Elite decision making in the ALP is a far cry from the major centre-Left party in the United States—the Democratic Party—whose presidential primaries attracted 35 million voters (or around 11 per cent of the total US population). The equivalent in Australia would be 2.3 million people—voting in one party’s primary alone—instead of between twenty and forty people.

This is not a problem for Labor alone. Liberal Party preselection systems do not always produce the best candidates or the most just results. Perhaps Liberal Party structures are preventing quality candidates from considering putting their names forward for preselection because they think the odds are stacked against them. Status and pay alone do not explain why the party that at one time boasted four QCs in its parliamentary ranks has not selected a new practising silk for fifteen years to represent it in the House of Representatives. While a party’s success should not be measured by the number of senior barristers in its ranks—and indeed some senior barristers have made poor politicians—the absence of distinguished professionals is a problem for the party. The Liberal case is often under siege from the media, academics and other commentators. That is why Liberals need the most articulate, brightest and thoughtful people to put and defend their case.

The processes need to be fairer and more transparent and allow all candidates an even chance to participate. There is a trend towards greater participation in the Liberal Party, with the ACT, Queensland, South Australia and Tasmania adopting plebiscites of their membership to preselect candidates. And while plebiscites are a step in the right direction there is more that can be done to reinvigorate the political process and address some of these concerns. One of the things that can be done is to consider the adoption of primaries.


What is a Primary?

A primary is essentially a method of preselecting candidates via a ballot similar to a general election. Primaries originated in the USA during the so-called Progressive Era (1890s–1920s), an era of social and political reform. Primaries were introduced as a way of removing control of candidate selection from party bosses who ran the local party machines:

“The machine’s political power arose out of the loyalty of voters to it, a loyalty purchased by the help given by the machine to its heavily immigrant electorate in coping with the vicissitudes of urban American life. In return for these services the machine gained substantial electoral support, which was frequently enhanced by a degree of corrupt voting practices. It controlled the process of party nomination and usually had little difficulty in winning the November election for its chosen candidate … Bosses were the inhabitants of the smoke filled rooms … They could deliver votes … Consequently they were courted by candidates and rewarded by presidents.”

By pressing for primaries, Progressives sought to “end the widespread corruption and venality” in American politics “which they blamed on the power of the political machines”. Today almost all American states have some form of primary system. The rapidly modernising UK Conservative Party has also begun using them. They were used in the selection of Boris Johnson as a candidate in the London mayoral elections. In that primary around 20,000 Londoners voted. People who were not party members registered beforehand via SMS.

There are several different primary systems. At the one extreme are “open primaries”. In this system a voter may vote for any candidate regardless of whether the voter is a party member or supporter. For instance, Virginia holds open primaries where voters may vote in either the Republican or Democratic primary but not in both. At the other end of the spectrum is the “closed primary” in which only party members or supporters may vote. This is the system in New Jersey. There are many other combinations. In Massachusetts, for instance, the ballot is semi-closed, in that voters who are registered for a particular political party must take that party’s ballot paper but independents can choose which party’s primary ballot paper they would like.


Some Advantages of the Primary System

Openness and Transparency.The public can see the method by which a candidate is selected. Faceless party bosses no longer make a decision on who the candidate will be. This is particularly important in “safe” seats where, because the seat is unlikely to be won by the other party, the contest to be the incumbent party’s nominee is often more significant than the contest at the general election. Primaries give a candidate greater legitimacy because a candidate is selected by the majority of supporters in an electorate, not just by the people who are delegates of members of the political party.

Increased transparency would reduce the number of media stories about internal party machinations and internecine party battles. In a country which selects its candidates behind closed doors, the secrecy involved understandably goads the media into taking a greater interest in candidate selection. Often media reporting of these issues can be misinformed by aggrieved parties’ selective and strategic leaking. This can cause collateral damage to the party as a whole. Opening up the preselection process to the public should lead to a reduction of these inaccurate stories, as the media can more readily observe the working of the selection campaigns.

A primary system tests a potential candidate and provides greater scrutiny than they might otherwise undergo behind closed doors in a preselection. The primary provides a party with a better idea of how a candidate might fare in a general election campaign.

A primary system also indicates to the general public that the party is prepared to be open to all comers and outward-looking. It provides potential outreach for the party to the broader community and an opportunity to introduce a broader range of people to the party’s values. If individuals can have a direct say in choosing the candidate they may take a greater interest and become involved in the activities of the party.

Level Playing Field.Primaries treat the conscientious campaign worker, the community stalwart and the successful businessperson equally. All three types of candidates have a contribution to make to our parliament and our national life. Primaries give each the same chance at becoming a parliamentary representative. Some structural factors in political parties prevent candidates from considering standing for preselection. In certain seats one or a small number of candidates may “have the numbers”: this discourages potential candidates from attempting preselection. Australia is therefore potentially denied a range of people who might make very good parliamentarians or ministers: because they have not lived and breathed the internal affairs of their party they are prevented from being seriously considered as candidates.

Increasing the Franchise. A candidate has more legitimacy if he or she is selected by a larger number of people in an electorate than a smaller number of people. Extending the franchise makes it more difficult for party bosses to “control” votes.

Extending the franchise encourages supporters to become more involved in the party. Campaigners who have engaged in doorknocking will have had the experience of visiting electors whose response is, “You don’t have to worry about me, mate. I always vote for your party.” These party supporters are potential primary voters. The challenge is to encourage them to become more involved.

Turning supporters into members was the challenge of a number of flagging AFL clubs who successfully turned their fortunes and finances around. In the fast fifteen years AFL membership has ballooned to around half a million members. The challenge for political parties is not dissimilar. The hive of activity generated by a primary may help encourage more supporters to become members.

Increased Community Awareness of a Candidate. One of the key challenges for a political candidate is to become better known in the local community. A primary might assist in this process, particularly in a marginal seat. A primary might help a candidate achieve longer and more sustained media coverage. At least for the first few primaries there will be increased media interest in the process and a candidate who can successfully take advantage of this will be rewarded. Added scrutiny presented by a primary also allows parties to test candidates in a simulated campaign. The party is able to ascertain the candidate’s political skills.

Finally if the primary is successful it will give whichever party tries it first a real advantage because their candidate will be well known, have already been subjected to scrutiny and have an established supporter network well in advance of polling day.

How a Primary Might Work

There is a range of permutations and combinations for establishing a primary system. I want to outline one potential method for implementing primaries in Australia. A primary has three phases:

• Nomination
• Campaign
• Primary election day

Candidate Nomination and Scrutiny. In order for a candidate to be considered for selection he or she would need to be nominated by a prescribed number of branch members in the electorate. One option might be to allow local party members to nominate more than one candidate because they wanted to see a contest. Candidates would then be scrutinised by the state executive or administrative committee, which would determine whether the candidate would be allowed to proceed to the next stage. Candidates would need to co-operate fully with enquiries made by the executive or committee as to their suitability.

In my view there should be very few reasons for not allowing a candidate to proceed to the next stage. Those reasons would include that the candidate’s candidacy would bring the reputation of the party into disrepute or that the candidate was a supporter of, or stalking horse for, another political party.

Campaign.A campaign of some weeks would ensue. Candidates would be able to spend whatever sum they liked on the election including receiving donations in kind.

However, all candidates, whether they were successfully selected or not, would need to give a proportion of the money raised and their in-kind donations received, to the party’s general election campaign. This sum would need to be paid on the Monday before primary election day. Failure to pay this money would result in the candidate’s disqualification. This would prevent candidates from cannibalising party funds and would potentially increase the total pool of donations received by the party.

As part of a campaign, the local party could run a series of events so that the general public got to know the candidates. Community organisations like Rotary might also do the same.

Primary Election Day.On election day electors would arrive at the polling station—in metropolitan electorates it may not be necessary to have as many polling stations as in a general election—and state their name and address. Each elector’s name would be checked against the electoral roll and the party membership lists. If the elector is a party member they would be given their ballot paper and sent to vote. If the elector is not a party member they would be issued a ballot paper after having paid a fee.

The fee would be necessary for a range of reasons. If non-party members can vote in a preselection without joining the party then, absent a fee, this may encourage a significant depletion of the party membership. The second reason is to recoup the cost of running the primary for the party central office. The third reason is to act as a disincentive to members of other parties to vote strategically and select the weakest candidate. In addition to boosting party membership this system would provide significant benefits for political parties, which would be able to widen their potential donor and supporter lists, based on the participation of people in primaries.

Primary elections would also provide an opportunity to try out electoral reforms which have been mooted in the past such as requiring voters to present proof of identity before voting.

Who Should Face a Primary?There is a question about whether there should be primaries in every seat or whether a sitting member should have to face a primary every election. Because of the cost in time and resources it might be undesirable to have primaries in every electorate at every election. In some safe seats opposing parties may find it hard to recruit candidates (the ALP might find it hard to locate a candidate in Farrer, the Liberal Party might find it hard in Blaxland). Due to the time involved, ministers, or at least cabinet ministers, could be exempted from a primary. Perhaps a special resolution of the local members can suspend or bring on the need for primaries; perhaps they should be held every other election. These are all issues for debate.

Pilot Scheme.If the primary system was seen to be viable, ultimately the Electoral Commission would be responsible for the conduct of primaries. However, initially the parties would need to conduct the primaries themselves.

Primaries represent a significant cultural change in Australian voting practices. Therefore they might take a couple of elections to catch on. Perhaps the best way to evaluate primaries is to trial them in a pilot project. Primaries should be trialled over three elections in the same geographic area—say for two federal elections and one state election—before properly assessing their effectiveness. As it would be such a cultural shift, the worst thing would be to attempt a primary pilot and then to abandon it as a failure after only one attempt. The primary could be attempted in an open seat (such as a newly created seat which is the result of a redistribution, or a seat which the party does not currently hold, or a seat where the sitting member is retiring). The seat should be one which the party has a good chance of winning.

Some Arguments Against Primaries

A number of arguments can be made against primaries. It is important to consider and respond to them.

Primaries Only Benefit the Rich.Candidates who are personally wealthy may have an advantage in that they will not have to raise as much money as other candidates. However, these candidates also have an advantage at a general election. In a primary system all candidates have the capacity to raise their own money.

One of the key skills needed in modern Australian politics is the ability to raise money. Election campaigns are becoming more and more expensive. If a candidate is unable to raise money for a primary campaign then they will be a less able to raise money for a general election campaign. A primary tests the ability of a candidate to raise money to support his or her work in Australian politics. While an ability to raise money will be a factor in a primary campaign it will not be the only factor. The ability to establish links with the community and reach out to individuals will be far more important.

Celebrity Candidates. Another argument against the primary system is that it favours celebrity or high-profile candidates. While such candidates begin with an advantage because of their name recognition, mere celebrity will not be enough to win a primary. Australians are rightly suspicious of celebrity. Celebrity without substance will not survive in a hotly contested primary.

In the course of a primary campaign a person’s political mettle will be tested. Some high-profile people will not undertake the campaigning required to win. Others might come unstuck due to an attitude of superiority. In the end primaries should favour people with real links to their communities. Even in US presidential primaries sometimes a candidate with low initial name recognition can win. Jimmy Carter had a national name recognition factor of around 2 per cent only six months before he became his party’s nominee in the 1976 elections.

Perpetual Campaigning.Another argument against primaries is that they will create a culture of perpetual campaigning. MPs will always be worried about raising enough money to compete in a primary at the same time as raising enough money for a general election campaign. This could lead to bad decisions or a lack of focus on their responsibilities.

I think primaries will have the opposite effect. A primary system will more sharply focus MPs on the task of serving their electorate. Hard-working MPs will be rewarded by reselection. Those MPs who do not concentrate on the needs of their community will suffer under a primary system, as poor performance will be harder to hide.

Interest Groups and the Politics of Extremes.In the USA, candidates for election have tended to adopt a “Nixon strategy”. This term means adopting the strategy of Richard Nixon, courting the extreme wing of the party for the purpose of being selected as a candidate and then “running to the centre” for the general election. This is unlikely to be a concern in Australia for several reasons.

First, modern campaigning techniques, the quest for authenticity and consistency and the growth of the internet have meant that politicians can no longer get away with telling one thing to one audience and another thing to another audience. This is even the case in the USA, where the successful presidential nominees adopted an authenticity strategy whereas unsuccessful candidates—in particular Mitt Romney—tried to get away with a Nixon strategy and failed.

The second reason is that Australia, unlike America, has compulsory voting—this means that the focus of the Australian political landscape is the political centre. Candidates who adopt extreme positions to court interest groups may find they have a difficult time in a general election.

Finally, interest groups can play a potentially significant role—as we have seen with the resources devoted to Labor’s 2007 election campaign by the unions and GetUP!—but candidates who are seen as beholden to special interest groups may fall victim to the charge that they are not their own people, or that they are not concerned with all the people in their electorate, only special interest groups. This can be fatal in a political contest.

Difficult Choice for Voters.One of the difficulties for voters in primary elections is in having to choose from among candidates from the same political party. Absent a party label, so the argument goes, many voters will find the choice difficult or confusing. I think this argument underestimates Australian voters. Because of compulsory voting Australians have more experience of voting procedures and elections than Americans. A similar argument can be made about candidates at a preselection under the current system, and yet voters and candidates in that system are able to make a choice based on the available alternatives.

The challenge for candidates will be to encourage voters to the view that they are the best representative for the area and their philosophical approach is the best for the country. Studies in the USA suggest that voters participating in primaries tend to be better educated, more involved in politics and more knowledgeable about public affairs. Perhaps Australian primaries will initially produce the same results. They might also encourage more Australians to take an interest in politics and public affairs.

Weaker Party Discipline.Another argument against primaries is that they weaken party discipline because the party no longer controls the candidate’s preselection and there are therefore no sanctions against voting against the party line. This argument does not really apply in a Westminster democracy like Australia. The nature of responsible government in a Westminster democracy discourages parliamentarians from voting against the party line. If the government loses an ordinary vote in the lower house it can be embarrassing or, if it is a no-confidence vote, terminal. Unlike in the USA, the executive government in our system is formed by parliamentarians. Ministers must be MPs or Senators. MPs may limit their prospects of being promoted to the ministry if they are seen to display maverick tendencies. There is also a tradition of Liberal MPs and Senators voting against the party line on issues of conscience in Australia. A study by Deirdre McKeown and Rob Lundie of MPs who crossed the floor has revealed that:

“The act of crossing the floor does not appear to have adversely affected many floor crossers’ careers. The number of floor crossers who went on to become ministers, parliamentary secretaries or presiding officers is substantial (43 per cent) compared to the number of all MPs who attained such office (30 per cent).”

The same study revealed that none of the floor crossers were penalised when their actions reflected the views of the state branches of their party. Whether primaries would increase the frequency of floor crossings remains to be seen.

Privacy.An Electoral Commission-managed primary system would mean that Australians would need to be officially registered as voters for a particular political party. Australians do not have tradition of wearing our politics on our sleeves. Politics has tended to be a private matter. Therefore appropriate privacy safeguards would need to be enacted to maintain a voter’s privacy and prevent party identification information from being sold commercially.


The quality of our political organisations is a reflection of the quality of our democracy. If we have healthy political organisations they will select quality candidates who in turn will become quality MPs. Those MPs will become cabinet ministers who are responsible for making decisions about how our country is run. If we are not selecting the right people and our political parties are unhealthy, we cannot expect cabinets to make good decisions about economic, social, defence and international policy. When a broader group of people has a say over the selection of candidates, the quality of people for selection may be vastly improved.

For Liberals, primaries fit well with our basic values. Unlike Labor, which believes that choice is hard and people should be protected from choice, Liberals do not patronise people. We believe Australians are capable of making choices and indeed seek to reward them for making good choices. One example will suffice. In the 2007 election campaign the Liberal Party adopted an education policy that gave parents some financial compensation for education expenses. Our party put the choice of what educational needs were in the best interest of school students in the hands of those who knew their children best—their parents. Labor’s education policy gave parents no choice. It dictated that the most important expenditure for the benefit of school students was a laptop computer. We argue that parents are in the best position to make that decision about their children’s education. In the same way we should argue that electors are in the best position to choose which candidates will best represent them.

More direct voter participation is firmly part of our Liberal tradition. In the early 1990s Peter Reith—a great reformer and a parliamentarian who had the rare combination of an abiding interest in policy and robust political skills—put the case for more direct democracy. While Peter Reith has not written on primaries I would like to adopt some of his observations on direct democracy as they are relevant here. In a 2003 speech to the Samuel Griffith Society he noted:

“I am opposed to too much power being accumulated in too few hands. The participation by citizens in the government of our society is the essence of our democracy …
“Many people believe that political rights and society’s political development will follow successful economic development. I think that is the wrong way round.
“In my view, if you have the right institutions within a strong civil society, you’ll end up with a successful economy, a vibrant culture, innovative industries, and a flourishing community in every aspect of human endeavour.”

The adoption of a primary system in Australia could help to strengthen our civil society, which could benefit our economy, our political culture and our way of life. If successful, a primary system should lead to better candidates, better parliaments and a stronger Australia.

Julian Leeser is Executive Director of the Menzies Research Centre. This paper was delivered as a speech to the Australian Liberal Students’ Federation Annual Conference in July. A footnoted version is available from the Quadrant office.

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