The great American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. once said that ‘it is a mark of a civilized man to have questioned his own first principles’. In effect Holmes’s point is that thinking people sometimes change their minds. Wasn’t it John Maynard Keynes who said ‘when the facts change I change my mind – what do you do, sir?’ And that brings me to how the Liberal Party in Canberra chooses its leader.
I want to confess right here that I’ve changed my mind on this. For years I was of the view that leaving the decision to caucus, to the party room, was a better option than leaving it to party members or largely to party members. This was because the party room would, I assumed, be supersensitive to the views of the paid-up party members, could act decisively when needed, would not be subject to branch stacking – busing in all sorts of new party members to help someone win – and, in all likelihood, would have the party’s best interests at heart, not just their own.
I thought this despite growing up in Canada, where even in the 1960s the main political parties gave a predominant say to party members. I vividly recall watching leadership conventions with my dad where party members gathered in the same place and over a very long day voted for their favourite leadership candidate in consecutive rounds, with the lowest vote-getter dropping off each round until someone got over half the votes. It was like a super-slowed down version of Australia’s preferential voting for House of Representatives seats, save that after each round the voter could reconsider in the light of now knowing how the other candidates had fared. The Canadian method, no doubt influenced by the US, was that the party leadership was not a gift of the party room. Paid-up party members had a say — a decisive say.
But as gripping TV watching as that was (or maybe as gripping as it was for me and a few other tragics), it had a fair few downsides. On balance I liked better what I then thought of as the British ‘leave it to the elected MPs’ system. But then even the Brits changed, or partly changed. So for today’s Tory party in the UK the MPs effectively narrow the list to two candidates and then the grassroots membership, the paid-up party members of at least three months’ standing, pick the winner. It’s a compromise lying somewhere between the Canadian system that gives party members almost all the say and the Australian set-up that gives Liberal MPs all the say. But at least the newish British system means that 54 defenestrator MPs cannot impose a cuckoo on the party, the most left-wing leader of the Liberal party for eons, probably ever.
So here’s the thing. If you’re depressed about the state of conservative politics in this country, as I am, and you put a big load of the blame on the elected Liberal MPs in Canberra, you may have come to the following sort of conclusions.
First, there is now a pretty sizeable gap, a disconnect, between the median views of party members and of the party room MPs. Sure, not all of them are gloating members of Christopher Pyne’s ‘Black Hand’ faction, more at home with GetUp! than actual conservatives, but a good few are, and their median views are clearly a good way to the left of those held by rank-and-file party members. And sure, not all of the MPs stupidly and self-destructively voted to push out a first term prime minister who had won them a massive majority. It was a stupid move, even if they disliked some or much of what Abbott was doing, because the long-term consequences of the putsch. This should have been obvious to anyone who knew anything about either human nature or politics in the Anglosphere. Better to hang tough, even if you lost the next election. This was plain from the effects on the Tory Party of the ouster of Margaret Thatcher, She was pushed out after being in office for eons, so it was far more defensible in that case (though a bad idea in my view even then).
Second, it is now clear that, even with Turnbull’s woeful performance and overt lefty-ism, a majority of the party room remains opposed to ditching the man; they want to stick with Team Turnbull. So if you think the MPs have a better sense of the party’s best interests, well you need to think again. Most are either comparative lefties or cowards.
Look, we live in a world of choosing least-bad outcomes. We are limited biological creatures. In other words, there will be problems with either option. But at this stage the total despair that exists amongst Liberal Party paid-up members (and I have a fair bit of experience talking to branches) is such that shifting to a system that took the final choice out of the hands of the party room would have to be better. My bet is that boatloads of people would re-join the Libs if they got a say in whom the leader would be. And there is no doubt that the next leader would be more conservative than Turnbull if party members had the final say. Heck, how could anyone be more of a lefty than Captain Malcolm?
At any rate, at this stage the Libs need to try something to reconnect with the base. And aping what you see in Canada and Britain would be a lot better than putting your trust in the remnants of the Liberal Party party room after any future Team Turnbull electoral apocalypse that will see only those in the safest seats (which means, broadly, the more lefty MPs) survive.
So I’ve changed my mind: Give garden-variety Liberal Party members a decisive vote on who will be leader. It might just offer a shred of optimism for the future.
James Allan is Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland and the author of Democracy in Decline