Participatory democracy and other silly ideas

How bizarre that self-styled Labor movement intellectual Peter Botsman should be advocating rank and file popular election of ALP parliamentary leaders on the very day that Australian Dimocrats leader Andrew Bartlett returned to official duties after (presumably) drying out and successfully completing at least a couple of the secular humanist equivalents of AA’s Twelve Steps.

Here’s Botsman’s inspired recipe for ALP internal democracy:

Lawrence’s popular mandate is a real worry for Labor’s elected representatives and leaders. The average number of members in federal electorates that preselect parliamentary representatives could be as low as 200. Even adding the score of caucus colleagues who vote in a leadership spill, no other Labor leader, federal or state, commands anything comparable to the direct electoral support Lawrence has won from Labor’s rank and file. In the near future, if the Labor leadership at federal and state levels has any credibility, all leaders must be directly elected by the party rank and file. If Mark Latham has any ticker, he will ensure this becomes party law.

I don’t know about “ticker”, but if Latham has any brains he’ll treat Botsman like the loopy loose cannon he manifestly is. Arguably the Dimocrats’ ongoing rush towards political oblivion is a direct result of the decisive move to the loony left (away from the successful centre/balance of power position previously cultivated by the Party ever since its foundation by Don Chipp) initially presided over by rank and file darling Natasha Stott-Despoja. NS-D was imposed on a reluctant parliamentary party majority by a rank and file that had become increasingly dominated by Balmain luvvies. The luvvies, on the other hand, ascribe the Dimocrat slide to previous leader Meg Lees’ figuratively jumping into bed with Peter Costello over the GST, or even to Cheryl Kernot’s literal equivalent with unlikely Lothario Gareth Evans. Whatever the real cause/s of the Dimocrat demise, I suspect that Latham and his advisers won’t be rushing to embrace Botsman’s suggestion.

Arguably, rank and file control of party policy and direct election of the party leader is the epitome of internal participatory democracy, but simultaneously the antithesis of responsible and representative government that is truly responsive to the needs and wishes of the broader electorate. A party whose leadership is directly elected by the membership (especially when subject to recall/dismissal by them, as is the case with the Dimocrats) is inevitably more focused on presenting policies that will maintain the support of party members irrespective of their appeal to the broader community. That spells death to any political party that aspires to winning enough votes to govern.

On the other hand, a complete lack of accountability to party members almost inevitably leads to the absolute triumph of cynical, self-interested pragmatism over principle. Seeking and clinging onto power for its own sake is the result, with “wedge politics” tactics and Richo “whatever it takes” attitudes becoming the norm to an extent that it seems embarrassingly naive even to suggest tentatively that there might be a better system. The trick IMO is somehow to achieve a party structure that imposes reasonable accountability and restrains politicians’ inevitable tendencies towards self-interested pragmatism as the sole objective of politics, while preserving the essential flexibility that allows them to respond to the needs and wishes of the broader electorate in rapidly changing and often unforeseeable circumstances. Personally, I doubt that any of Australia’s political parties have achieved such a balance.

In contrast to the Dimocrats, the Liberal Party hardly makes even a pretense of internal democracy. Local branches mostly pre-select candidates, but party members have no role at all either in forming platform or policy or selecting the parliamentary leadership (or the ministry).

The ALP is a bit more subtle and devious. Like the Libs, local branches mostly pre-select candidates, but the National Executive has quite strong powers to intervene and overrule local branch preselections (and so do its State equivalents in preselections for State parliaments). Moreover, like the Libs, the ALP gives the rank and file no role whatever in selecting the parliamentary leadership or the ministry. However, Labor gives at least an appearance of greater internal democracy through rank and file involvement in policy development. Nevertheless, in reality it’s mostly a smoke and mirrors trick:

First, although the rank and file (via resolutions at National, State and Territory Conferences) supposedly decides the Party’s Platform, that isn’t really true. Despite Simon the Unlikeable’s hard-won reduction in trade union numbers at conferences from 60% to 50%, conferences remain utterly dominated by the factional machines. A degree of fragmentation of the factions over the last couple of years has muddied the picture somewhat, but certainly hasn’t turned the ALP into anything even remotely resembling a democratic organisation where ordinary members have any real say in policy development. Platform isn’t decided by rank and file members, but by factional power brokers.

Secondly, Labor politicians (and aspiring politicians) carefully maintain a distinction between “Platform”, which is decided by Conference, and “policy”, which is determined by the parliamentary party. Platform should, they always argue, be expressed in broad, vague generalised abstractions, leaving the politicians with the flexibility to formulate detailed policies that are responsive to the issues and practical exigencies of the day. Generally factional leaders succeed in dampening the enthusiasms of their more naive hot-headed members keen on proposing Platform changes that actually mean something concrete, instead presenting wording that gives the pollies abundant “wriggle room”, so that just about any policy position can plausibly be argued not to contravene Platform.

Thirdly, the ALP Rules have always contained a clause allowing the parliamentary party the right to determine the manner, extent and timing of implementation of any Platform policy position. Under the current Rules, this additional wriggle room is found in Rule 5(d), which gives the pollies the power of “establishing the collective attitude of the Parliamentary Party to any question or matter in the Federal Parliament”, but subject to:

“(i) at all times taking such action as may be possible to implement the Party’s Platform and Conference decisions; and

(iii) no attitude being expressed which is contrary to the provisions of the Party Platform or any other decision of National Conference or National Executive.”

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Now, even the determinedly naive reader will instantly appreciate that proviso (i) is utterly meaningless, because it’s the parliamentary party itself which decides what is “possible”. However, you’d reckon proviso (iii) would be more difficult to avoid. In reality, however, it (or earlier versions of it) did nothing at all to impede the Hawke and Keating governments from wholesale deregulation of the Australian economy, including privatisation of large parts of the public sector, despite the fact that the Platform at all material times contained provisions expressly committing the Party to a Socialist Objective. Just about every economic statement Paul Keating ever made contained attitudes utterly contrary to the Socialist Objective.

What, you might well be asking by now, is the point of this rant? It’s a question I just asked myself actually, and I couldn’t come up with an answer, except that it’s all peripherally related to my primary proposition that Peter Botsman is a goose.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Dave Ricardo
Dave Ricardo
2022 years ago

‘” A party whose leadership is directly elected by the membership … is inevitably more focused on presenting policies that will maintain the support of party members irrespective of their appeal to the broader community. That spells death to any political party that aspires to winning enough votes to govern. ”

Is that so, Ken? Tony Blair was elected directly by the membership of his party —

Robert
2022 years ago

despite the fact that the Platform at all material times contained provisions expressly committing the Party to a Socialist Objective

The Socialist Objective (which is dear to my heart) goes like this: “The Australian Labor Party is a democratic socialist party and has as its objective the democratic socialisation of industry, production, distribution and exchange, to the extent necessary to eliminate exploitation and other antisocial features.” Not exactly difficult to sidestep.

bargarz
2022 years ago

Welcome back to the typing paraphernalia Ken. Stay awhile!

Dan
Dan
2022 years ago

Arguably the Dimocrats’ ongoing rush towards political oblivion is a direct result of the decisive move to the loony left

I think that would be hard to argue, given that the demise of the Democrats has been accompanied by the rise of the Greens, who have policies which are generally equivalent to or to the left of the Dems.

Seems to me that the Dems were destroyed by disunity amongst the parliamentarians. Perhaps the rank-and-file weren’t aware of the personality conflicts within the parliamentary wing when they marked their ballots, but that’s something for which they can hardly be blamed.

Peggy Sue
Peggy Sue
2022 years ago

I did a bit of research into the history of the Platform of the ALP when I was at Uni.

When the ALP federally got round to having a party policy, 1903 or so, the platform had but two planks:
Empire Loyalty and
White Australia.

I always have a bit of a snicker when people claim to be 3rd or 4th generation labor supporters.

One of Labor’s big problems to-day is that its membership keeps shrinking. It’s hardly a mass movement.
Not that the Libs look much better.