When will Australian political parties professionalise their preselection processes?

Apr 12, 2021

The shocking ongoing revelations about men behaving badly in the Australian Parliament has exposed a number of individuals for their misogyny and antiquated attitudes to women generally and their female colleagues in particular. They are discredited dinosaurs who do not belong in any modern workplace ,let alone in the national forum for charting best practice in public policy development .

A number of those individuals recently identified have been named and shamed, so their careers have collapsed .

But what are we to do with the culture that remains? How do we shift decades of sexist manipulation   which guarantees that powerful men in political parties will be those who continue to decide who is elected to our parliament ? Where should we start in dismantling the unaccountable and unprofessional secretive systems of both major parties, which control whose names will appear on the ballot paper? Who will be allocated a safe, marginal or unwinnable electorate? How many women will be prioritised in these electorates ? Why are so many senate tickets dominated by those whose careers are over?

Political parties have had many years of experience in making and breaking the careers of parliamentarians who can be outstanding public policy reform advocates , obedient foot soldiers or people whose character makes them unsuited to represent the people of Australia.

Sadly, party preselection too often recognises loyalty ahead of competence so inhouse preselection may reward those who will meekly accept the dogma of their superiors. Talent and expertise are not at the forefront of factional decision making, because their priority is internal control.

It is unsurprising that political parties jealously guard the right to choose people they want to represent the party’s priorities . Both major political parties are quick to boast that their choices include a “broad church”, yet once elected most parliamentarians sing from their party’s hymn sheet and are reluctant to challenge the current party mantra. Instead of accepting diversity and fresh ideas ,it is easier for political parties to rely on compliant “team players “, that is people who are loyal and dependable, but not too independent. In every parliament there are those promoted beyond their capabilities and equally those sidelined because their obvious ability is too threatening . Some would argue this is democracy at work , but the problem is that this system is designed to give power to a few men to perpetuate the status quo rather than reinventing this system so voters can choose from the diversity and talents of multicultural Australia.

It is true the current process has produced many committed hardworking parliamentarians ,who have contributed to important public policy development and provided significant national leadership. But it’s time to recognise we must do better by changing the way political candidates are chosen.

Why do most Australian workplaces rely on appropriate job selection and performance assessment processes ,yet our parliament is made up of workers chosen behind closed doors by a small number of power brokers who determine the choice of political candidates offered to the voting public?

It is clear that a more educated Australian electorate expects higher standards of professionalism in choosing those who seek to be our trusted parliamentary representatives. It is no coincidence that the electorate is sceptical about major political party processes and increasing moving to minor parties and independents.

There are few parliamentarians who have not experienced the tribal thuggery of preselection brawling that is an insult to those who are prepared offer themselves for public service.

Such public displays are demeaning to all concerned and reinforce negative stereotypes about the political process. Be it Liberal, National or Labor Party such behaviour is based on petty personality disputes ,which undermine the respect of voters who recognise that community interest is overridden by narrow “groupie” or “factional “ interests.

In the current Tasmania election both Liberal and Labor parties have allowed their preselection disputes to dominate the early days of the state election campaign .

First the Speaker and Member of the Liberal Party Sue Hickey who has demonstrated independence on on some policy issues lost Liberal Party preselection

The state election was called twelve months in advance allegedly because the government wanted to confirm its majority.

However, the situation of the Liberal Party Government was clear…..it had the publicly declared support for supply of both Sue Hickey and Independent  Madeline Ogilvie . Nevertheless, the Premier chose to call an early election and within days Madeline Ogilvie joined the Liberal Party and became the endorsed candidate .

Obviously, the timing of these announcements make it abundantly clear that this preselection was conducted in haste and the relevant “numbers “: stitched up in a back room as a fait accomplit.

Similarly, the Labor Party Administrative Committee muddled its way through preselection by refusing to endorse popular young Kingboroungh Mayor , Dean Winter because factional loyalty triumphed over pragmatic politics of choosing the candidate most likely to maximise Labor’s vote in a key electorate ..

Labor Leader, Rebecca White challenged this factional “deal”, successfully appealing to the ALP National Executive to intervene so that Dean Winter was endorsed a candidate .

While many Tasmanians will applaud her determination to act in the best interests of her team , she will have earned the ire of certain colleagues who have been continually   undermining her leadership because of their own ambition . The front page headline in the Mercury (10/4/21 } now reveals a threatened defamation action against Leader Bec White by the current President of the Party ,Ben Mc Gregor who resigned as a candidate because he was accused of sending inappropriate text messages.

Political parties have been slow to recognise their failure to update their preselection processes and every time they blunder they lose community support .While opinion polling to assess community attitudes is popular, political parties would not dare open up discussion about alternative ways of choosing the best possible candidates.

Preselection must be professionalised by introducing standard job selection processes and these should be monitored by the Australian Electoral Commission.

Australian electoral processes are greatly admired internationally as setting high standards in democratic practice.

Yet our major political parties regularly rort their own inadequate preselection systems and there is no current mechanism to require accountability.

There is a sad irony that Australian parliamentarians are often called to monitor the election standards of new democracies, yet our own party preselections processes avoid transparency and scrutiny.

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