John Kilcullen on Faulkner/Bracks/Carr

I suppose there are many reasons why people don’t join the Labor party, or why they leave it or become inactive members. A reason I would like to focus attention on is factionalism.

Senator Faulkner in 2005 (Parkes oration):

“When factional interests are put ahead of the Party’s interests, the Party rots. As Party membership declines, the influence of factional warriors increases. They maximise their influence by excluding those who disagree, not through leadership and persuasion. Those who defer to the powerbrokers are rewarded with positions in the Party and with employment.”

That’s a very good summary.

If an organisation is controlled by one faction, or by several factions that sometimes combine together, then non-members won’t see much point in joining or staying active. If what we say will make no difference, if we might as well not be there, then why not spend our time and energy on something more useful?

We saw an illustration in the arrangement between the two major factions at the time of the preselection last year for the two federal ACT seats. The Centre Coalition offered to support the Left candidate in Fraser, Nick Martin, in return for the Left’s supporting the Centre candidate for the seat of Canberra. As it happened, the two factions did not have the numbers between them, and other candidates were preselected in both electorates. But if the factional arrangement had succeeded, the other candidates would have been wasting their time from the beginning, party members who tried to assess the candidates would also have been wasting their time—in fact if the numbers had been clear there would have been no contest, the positions would have been filled unopposed. (This shows that localising preselection will not necessarily give members an enhanced sense of participation. If the factions are strong at the local level, the outcome will be the same as if preselection was determined at the state or national level.)

If the Labor Party is to recruit and keep members and get the most from their contributions, we must make sure that it is not controlled or nearly controlled by any faction or potential combination of factions. I suggest four things:

  1. Everyone in the party must explicitly accept that the interests of the Party always take precedence over the interests of a faction.
  2. Secret ballots in the party must be genuinely secret.
  3. Political staffers must be appointed by a selection process that applies objective criteria to choose the applicant best qualified for the job, irrespective of factional considerations.
  4. Instead of US-Style primaries, we need in all political jurisdictions in the country something like the ACT electoral system, with Robson Rotation.

The importance of the first point, that everyone in the Party must acknowledge that the Party comes before faction, was illustrated at the ACT Branch conference in 2006, in the vote on plans to close some ACT public schools. School closure was government policy, but two ministers in the government, Katy Gallagher and Simon Corbell, voted against it. Both of them explained to the media that they actually agreed with the policy of the government, but had to vote against it because their faction was against it. One of them said: “I think my faction got it wrong. And my colleagues [i.e. factional colleagues] know that. But at the end of the day you support the majority position of the groups you’re aligned with. And that’s what I did.” These two ministers gave priority, not to the interests of children, not of parents, not of the citizens of the ACT, not of the ALP or the government of which they were ministers, but to the view of their faction. This was just outrageous. Against this, the ALP must assert the principle that for every member the party must come before faction: every member of the Labor party must accept the obligation to support what they personally judge to be the best policies and the best candidates irrespective of factional considerations.

I have heard that the left faction later changed its rules so that this won’t happen again. But have they? I have a number of times asked to see the rules of the Left and the Centre Coalition, but my request has always been refused. Only members of these factions know what their rules are or who their officials are. They are secret societies within the Labor Party.

The second point is that we must have genuinely secret ballots. Secret voting is needed so that party members will vote for the best policies and the best candidates irrespective of factional considerations. In the Labor Party, secrecy is circumvented by “show and tell”, the “buddy system” and other techniques various factions use to make sure their members vote the way the faction wants. I’ve heard the excuse that being a member of the faction and showing your vote is voluntary, but this is absolutely no excuse. People with a trade union background know that in a competitive situation what begins as voluntary becomes compulsory. That was about the first political lesson I learnt from my dad, when I was ten years old. Unions, when they were able, never allowed people to volunteer for jobs that should have been paid, never allowed unpaid overtime or the voluntary surrender of entitlements, and we all understand why. Because factions are so influential in the Labor party, people with political ambitions know that they have to “volunteer” to show their votes. We should put a stop to this volunteering. The factions should give up demanding to see their members’ ballots, and if they don’t give that up, in fact in any case, the party should make rules to enforce the secrecy of ballots.

Australians sometimes claim that the secret ballot was an Australian invention, and claim that people in other countries refer to it as the Australian ballot. This is myth. Effective techniques of secret voting were invented in Athens in the 5th century BC []. Secret voting is as old as democracy, because it is essential to democracy.

The third point is that political staff positions should be filled according to objective criteria, to select the best applicant for the job irrespective of factional considerations. Our new member for Fraser, Andrew Leigh, who is not a member of any faction, recently appointed a staffer in this way; I believe there was a small selection committee. A member of the left faction got the job, because she was the best applicant. Our newly-elected MLA, Chris Burke, also not a member of any faction, has advertised for staff. I believe he will also appoint the best person, irrespective of faction.

(Note that I have no objection to “friendship groups” [current ACT Branch buzz word for factions] if this just means people who talk with one another and arrive at similar conclusions and therefore vote the same way. My objections are to specific factional practices: putting faction over party, violations of secrecy in voting, use of political staff positions as factional patronage. Precisely what turns a friendship group into a faction, in my lexicon, is the demand that members vote for the same proposals or candidates whatever their personal judgment.)

The fourth point, electoral reform, is more complicated. The electoral system exercises a steady selective pressure on political parties and moulds them accordingly. I learnt political activism in the NDP in Canada. The NDP was and is a doorknocking party, because in Canada voting is voluntary. Where voting is voluntary, parties use “get out the vote” campaigns. For that they need volunteer workers. The party engages in a continuous recruitment campaign. Incoming members are not shut out by factionalism. The party’s politicians take notice of members’ views because they need the membership.

I don’t advocate voluntary voting (“mobilising the base” leads to poisonous partisanship in US politics), but I think we need to recognise that some of the problems with Australian political parties stem from our electoral system. For more on this, and please give me some feedback, visit my website [] and read my submissions to the Joint Committee on Electoral Matters.

US-style primaries would not be an improvement. Primaries separate from the election will be rorted. Non-Labor voters will volunteer to help select Labor candidates. How could you keep them out? More important, who would keep them out? We can’t trust people who can’t be trusted not to branch-stack to vet the genuineness of people who register to take part in Labor primaries.

[Jenny McAllister commented that it might be good to experiment with primaries in electorates where the ALP branches have collapsed. I would think that it would be better to revive the the branches.]

In the ACT we already have something better, namely Robson rotation, and I think this is needed in elections in the states and Commonwealth. Ideally there would be multi-member constituencies, but Robson Rotation would be an improvement even for single-member constituencies. All that’s needed is for the party to nominate at least one more candidate than there are places to fill, i.e. two or more candidates in a single-member constituency. Under RR votes of voters who support the party but don’t have a preference among its candidates go equally to all the candidates, and the winning candidate or candidates is determined by the votes of Labor voters who do have a preference among the candidates. Already we can nominate more than one candidate. The legislative change needed is to provide for the printing of ballot papers in accordance with Robson Rotation.

In this way genuine Labor voters, i.e. people who are actually casting a vote for a Labor candidate, would decide which of the Labor candidates won the seat, which would be equivalent to a primary. Labor voters could weed out non-performing or badly-performing members and replace them with better prospects, like Liberal voters weeded out Steve Pratt in the last ACT elections. Dissatisfied voters could remove the members they blamed for a Labor government’s troubles without having to vote for another party. Party members would have a role in campaigning for the candidate they preferred.

We should think further about electoral reform. Another change we need is a move to multi-member constituencies in all jurisdictions. With single-member constituencies elections are decided by swinging voters in marginal seats—people who are, by and large, very impatient with politics and politicians. With an ACT-style electoral system, Hare-Clark-Robson, the election is decided by the full range of voters, including those who follow politics seriously and are well informed on public policy.

So four things: explicit acceptance of the principle that party must always take precedence over faction; genuinely secret ballots; appointment to political staffer positions of the best applicant irrespective of factional considerations; and electoral reform–Robson Rotation and multiple nominations even for single member constituencies—to get the advantages of primaries without the fatal drawbacks of US-style primaries.

John Kilcullen

PS. For further reading, see

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