News & Current Affairs
19 April 2014
Labor and Liberals both struck down with NSW disease
Structural impediments in both parties mean the medicine prescribed - democratisation - is a bitter pill to swallow
Veteran senator and reform supporter John Faulkner: 'Our present system rewards intrigue, trading favours and doing deals.'
Barry O'Farrell's fall, Joe Bullock's victory, Arthur Sinodinos's woes, John Faulkner's call for reform, so many of the dramas dominating the political debate have a common thread: the power structures of the major parties.
Both big political parties in Australia are built in a way that allows enormous influence to be wielded by a few factional powerbrokers.
Those powerbrokers often value loyalty over quality in the selecting of parliamentary candidates, their backroom influence disenfranchises most party members who, not surprisingly, leave, and this structure opens the real risk of corruption, because influence peddlers thrive best when power is concentrated in the hands of a few. In both parties the problem appears to be at its worst in the state of NSW.
It's an organisational weakness most prevalent, acknowledged and analysed in the Labor party.
Veteran senator and reform-supporter John Faulkner recently wrote to NSW party members, pointing out that it was their party's own culture that made possible the kind of corruption being exposed by the Independent Commission against Corruption (Icac).
Our present system rewards intrigue, trading favours and doing deals. Eddie Obeid, Ian Macdonald or their ilk would not be able to win preselection in a genuinely democratic process where all party members cast a vote. Their success depended on nothing but factional anointment, they required no support beyond the leadership of a faction,he said.
Union-based factional power blocs also did the self-serving deal that elevated Joe Bullock to the number one spot on the WA Senate ticket, a man who has publicly declared he thinks many of the ALP members he is supposed to be representing are 'mad'.
Faulkner proposes grassroots pre-selections for upper house candidates at state and federal level as part of a solution.
But his diagnosis of what ails the party to which he has devoted his working life does not sound all that different from what Liberal reformer John Ruddick says is wrong with his side of the political divide.
We have a preselection system which has been manipulated so that all the real power has ended up in the hands of three or four people, with maybe a dozen others who do their bidding, and those people become very attractive to the commercial world and to lobbyists because they have power within the party and over many of the sitting politicians,
says Ruddick of the NSW Liberal party.
In fact, as Icac is revealing, lobbyist Nick Di Girolamo, who drew both Arthur Sinodinos and Barry O'Farrell into Icac's orbit, and Labor powerbroker Eddie Obeid, were often working together. And despite neither Sinodinos nor O'Farrell having been accused of corruption, they have each now paid the price for the system they worked within.
And, like Faulkner, Ruddick sees democratisation as the remedy, he wants electorate plebiscites for lower house preselections and statewide plebiscites for the upper house.
Former Liberal MP Ross Cameron is also calling for an end to the delegate-based voting systems in the NSW Liberal party in order to get rid of 'the incentives for factionalism, branch stacking and lobbyist control'.
But Liberal and Labor would-be reformers face the same dilemma, the powerbrokers who benefit from the current system also control the structures that might change it.
On the Labor side, reform is incremental because the union-based power blocks control the state and national conferences which have to implement any changes to the system. Once those forces had had their way, the groundswell for reform that built before Labor's last national conference in 2011 petered out into yet another committee, which appears to have done nothing much at all.
Labor leader Bill Shorten will give a delayed speech about his plans for reform next Tuesday, but will face similar opposition in the lead-up to Labor's national conference next year.
On the Liberal side, Tony Abbott also supports change and last year announced an eminent person's committee to look at reforming the NSW party - led by former prime minister John Howard. It is likely to present a reform plan next month ahead of the state council meeting in September.
But, according to Ruddick, the state council is a 'gerrymander', with factional leaders creating new on-paper branches that meet at most once a year in order to elect a delegate to state council and keep hold of the numbers, presenting Liberal reformers with exactly the same structural impediment to change as is faced by Labor.
But after the shock of O'Farrell's sudden demise and new premier Mike Baird promising to return confidence to the political system, reformers like Ruddick are feeling more confident than they have for a while. (Until Wednesday, Ruddick was facing expulsion from the Liberal party for publicly speaking his mind.)
The new NSW premier is also vowing to take action on lobbyists. Ruddick thinks this should include banning in-house lobbyists from holding party executive positions, on top of the ban of third-party lobbyists, which Abbott instituted after the federal election.
A ban like that would have an immediate impact. NSW Liberal party president, Chris Downy, is the chief executive of the Australian Wagering Council, which lobbies on behalf of the online gambling industry. The treasurer, Peter McGauran, is the chief executive of the Australian Racing Board.
But, according to the reformers, without democratisation of party processes, any crackdown on lobbyists would not end the root cause of the problem.
Meanwhile, as my colleague Gabrielle Chan has reported, independents like Cathy McGowan, Tony Windsor and Andrew Wilkie are facing a surge of interest from people wanting to run community campaigns to challenge major party politics.
Turns out voters respond to candidates and parties who listen, engage them, give them a say and don't appear to be mostly interested in shoring up their own interests and power. Who knew?
Actually, both major parties know it. They just can't quite work out how to change.