Primaries Won’t Solve Our Political Problems

As the ALP battles to wrest control from the ‘faceless men’ of its party machine, Labor leaders from Steve Bracks to Mark Latham have argued for the co-option of US-style primaries.

While US elections may appear to be the ultimate festivals of democracy, all that glitters is not gold and we must be wary of embracing an alternative political system that is far from perfect.

In fact, primary-style pre-selections would radically change our democracy.

US enthusiasts often overlook the fundamental differences between our political cultures and in particular our contrasting interpretations of the role of the state. Despite the protestations of many conservatives, collectivism is part of the Australian psyche. After all, unionism was a precursor to Australian nationalism in the late 19th century and the idea that the state has a legitimate role to play in delivering community services and support is firmly engrained.

This sense of collectivism is also reflected in the cultures of our political parties. The parties preselect their candidates and if elected they are expected to vote accordingly. Preselection is both the carrot and the stick. If an MP breaks from the party, they can expect retribution. So while Labor may be the only party to formally bind its elected members, conscience voting has become a rare practice.

Born of republican resistance, the United States is of a very different political pedigree. The idea that taxation is oppressive predates the Boston Tea Party and is deeply entrenched. The powers of the state should be limited and the rights of the individual are sacred. Resistance to social democratic initiatives like public health-care are perhaps best understood in this context.

The political parties themselves reflect this culture and the Democrats and Republicans are practically independents who freelance on policy issues but share a party banner. Rather than being preselected by their respective party machines, candidates are selected directly by the people via primaries. The result swings the pendulum away from the parties in favour of the electors.

Giving the people the power to select their own party candidates would certainly smash the business-model of the ‘faceless men’, but what would it mean for our democracy?

In the US primary system a candidate doesn’t just need to convince the men and women of their party to vote for them, they need to mobilise party supporters across their state or district. This requires money and lots of it.

A successful candidate therefore has to curry favour from a variety of corporations and special interest groups – the NRA is a case in point. Such a system reorients the politician away from ordinary voters towards those who shout the loudest. While Clive Palmer and Gina Rinehart would no doubt salivate at the prospect of choosing their own ‘Manchurian candidates’ most Australians would baulk at this kind of corporate influence.

Ultimately, primaries force legislators to put their own political interests above the interests of the nation as a whole. Whatever the popularity of their party, a candidate cannot hope to hold their seat if they lose the support of their electors. As a result, the US congress descends into a forum for bartering, haggling and pork barrelling as congressmen and women fight for their individual districts and constituencies. It is this parochial populism that best explains the gridlock in Washington today and the defeat of commonsense reforms like gun control.

In Australia, however, elected members must also represent their electors but they do so by applying the ideological and philosophical lens of their respective parties. The discipline imposed by the party system forces our legislators to balance the concerns of their individual electorates against the national interest. Ideally, the role of the member of parliament is thus not simply to think about the interests of the people who elected them or their own political interests, but rather the broader interests of the nation as a whole. On election day, most voters will vote on the basis of party, not individual candidate.

A shift towards primaries would represent a radical departure from this model – one that is likely to fuel more, not less public cynicism. After all, one of the main criticisms of the politics of recent years has been the lurch towards populism. Indeed on so many issues the views of voters in the marginal seats of Western Sydney have appeared to trump the broader interests of the nation. The absence of a broader narrative around the public good is encouraging a focus on self-interest. Primaries would only serve to accelerate this trend.

We cannot hope to deal with the challenges we face as a nation if politicians determine the national interest by electoral boundaries. Our system is far from perfect but the parochial populism of the US primary system is not the answer; rather we must reinvigorate the collectivist culture that once defined our politics.

More than just a loose collection of electorates, Australia is a community and only by advocating for the interests of the whole can political parties hope to restore faith in our democracy.

 This piece was first published on The Drum on the 30th of May 2013. 

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