In a modern democracy like Australia, political parties are the main delivery mechanism of change. But recent events suggest these vehicles for change have become incapable of changing themselves.
For the ALP it is the rejection of internal democratic reform and the failure to modernise the relationship with the union movement. For the Liberal Party it is an entrenched and embarrassing under-representation of women in its senior ranks.
Recent attempts at internal reform by the major parties have been miserable flops, as they cling to the economic and social structures of a bygone century. And the Greens are no better.
As a result, Australia suffers from the lowest levels of political party membership in the advanced world. Yet the cartel-like structure of our party-based system means they continue as viable entities. The party is over but the music keeps playing, turning Australia into a democracy without the people.
In July, Labor’s national conference achieved significant policy success on several fronts and provided a political boost for Bill Shorten. But on the issue of internal democratic reform, the party once again came up short.
The conference adopted one significant change: ordinary members will now directly elect at least 150 delegates, the equivalent of one for every federal electorate, and a little more than one in three of all conference delegates.
The same conference also overwhelmingly voted down a motion to give local members at least 50 per cent of votes for Senate preselections. Another motion, to increase the vote of ordinary members in preselections for House of Representatives candidates, was put up then withdrawn.
With unions representing just 17 per cent of the workforce, Labor is trying to be the party of the future while shackled to the political economy of the 19th century.
Shorten in his campaign to become Labor leader promised party reform and gave commitments about setting a new standard for selecting ALP senators and giving members more say in preselections. Yet he was not even present on the conference floor when the matter was debated. It was a far cry from Gough Whitlam’s courageous “the impotent are pure” speech to the 1967 Victorian ALP conference.
Meanwhile the Liberal Party remains chained to 19th century social arrangements, with an outrageous under-representation of women in its senior ranks.
When Sir Robert Menzies founded the Liberal Party in 1944 he created a political party that was arguably the most progressive in the world in the representation of women. Menzies established quotas, with women to take a certain number of elected organisational party positions, and these quotas exist to this day in some state branches such as Victoria.
But with the exception of John Hewson, successive Liberal leaders have failed to give due attention to advancing women in their ranks through pre-selection and promotion. Now the Liberal Party finds itself with just 19 per cent of its federal parliamentary ranks filled by women and only two women in a federal cabinet of 19. That is half the number of women in the Cabinet of Afghanistan.
Again, the answer for the Liberal Party is obvious. But the party’s rejection of quotas is a triumph of school-boy debating rhetoric over evidence-based policy making. Quotas will help get more Liberal women into parliament. Quotas will help the Liberals with policy making in their party room. Quotas will help the Liberals win more votes at elections and form government more often.
But Tony Abbott is resisting calls for reform, is defiant on quotas, and will not admit to any institutional bias. In so doing he is proving to be part of the problem, not the solution. Menzies would be turning in his grave.
Finally, if you think the Greens Party are the standard bearers for internal democracy and modernity, then think again. The Greens’ system for electing their party leader is steeped in more mystery than the selection of the Pope. And their party conferences are closed affairs, with the media banned from attending debates.
In most democracies, about 5 per cent of voters are party members. In Australia, the figure has dropped sharply to less than 2 per cent.
If the Australian political parties operated in a competitive market like other organisations or companies, there is no way they would survive. So how do they get away with it? The short answer is that our party political system operates a lot like a cartel. A general lack of competitive pressure means they do not feel the heat to reform. Australia’s pathetic party funding and donation disclosure arrangements are further evidence of this cartel-like arrangement.
There is also an insularity to the Australian political system that means our parties often lag years behind developments in other parts of the world. In advanced democracies in Europe and North America there is a much higher awareness of what is happening in political parties in other jurisdictions, and this tends to drive reform towards best practice. The Australian political class seems unaware of Australia’s wooden-spoon status when it comes to party membership, or that most parties on both the left and right give their members a much bigger say in decision-making.
The paradox of power makes change hard: those with power simply won’t agree to a change in arrangements that will diminish their power. And there is no equivalent of the ACCC to demand change to the structure of this system.
The jungle drums for change are beating. But they will need to beat louder still – both internally among party members and externally with voters – if anything is going to change.
Liberal Party strategists know one reason they underperform with women voters is the lack of women in their parliamentary ranks. And Labor Party leaders know they need to cauterise the damage from the trade unions royal commission by modernising the linkages across the labour movement.
Just don’t hold your breath waiting for it to happen.
Nicholas Reece is a principal fellow at Melbourne University and a former Victorian secretary of the ALP and policy adviser to Julia Gillard, Steve Bracks and John Brumby. This article was first published in The Age on August 10, 2015