Christopher Pyne spent last night speaking to Gerard Henderson, a few members of the Mosman branch of the Liberal party, a bus load of confused pensioners and a plate of stale biscuits at the conservative ‘think tank’ The Sydney Institute.
I was, for a change, quite interested in what he had to say.
The core of his address was reprinted in the Sydney Morning Herald this morning and deals with increasing membership and participation in the Liberal Party.
The essence of Christopher Pyne’s speech was that the Liberal Party should look at moving to a system where the membership has a say in the election of the parliamentary leadership of the party. He points to the Conservative Party in Britain as an example of how he believes it should be done, with parliamentarians calling for spills and selecting two candidates for the membership to select from. Pyne believes that this would lead to an influx of members desperate to have a say in how the party is led, thereby increasing the party’s manpower and ability to fund raise.
The problem, as I see it, is that this doesn’t really give people who aren’t already committed to the party a reason to join. The members are still presented with a choice between Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum, who have been selected by the parliamentary party which is still subject to branch stacks and back room deals long in place. Additionally, this could lead to a situation where leadership contenders are forced to court the party members and denigrate their opponents instead of focussing of the business of winning elections. This would no doubt lead to the type of internal disruption that the US Republican Party undergoes whenever its competing constituencies bang heads during House, Senate and Presidential Primaries.
On the up side, Brendan Nelson would never have been elevated under a system like this. However, I believe that rather than improving the breadth of rank and file members, this type of change would only further embed the factionalism and the culture of branch stacking. What this all comes back to is that the conservative side of politics in Australia does not have a natural constituency capable of delivering it election wins. What we see instead is the uneasy marriage of rednecks, some small l liberals, people who hate unions, farmers who demand protection from free trade and a big smattering of the socially conservative religious right. John Howard’s biggest skill was keeping these competing interests at bay and focussed on the ALP, but in a system like Pyne is proposing, leadership aspirants would need to highlight the groups’ differences as they tried to gain the lion’s share of support. The power brokers in the NSW Liberal Party have already shown that they would rather be powerful in opposition rather than be marginalised in government, Pyne’s suggestion does nothing to overcome this problem.
Another weakness in the system is Pyne’s suggestion that only parliamentarians can call spills. While this overcomes the problems that the Australian Democrats faced during their leadership turmoil earlier this decade, it also removes the incentive for people to join up. If you implemented Pyne’s suggestion today, members would still not be able to rid the party of Nelson as leader, why then would you bother to sign on?
Reforming a political party is a difficult thing, Simon Crean achieved an enormous amount internally to improve the ALP but used up almost all of his political capital to do so. The one advantage that Crean did have was that labour and progressives usually have similar goals, something I have pointed out that the factions of the Liberal Party do not. The first hurdle that the Liberal Party has to overcome is deciding what it actually stands for, Christopher Pyne’s suggestion does nothing to address that fundemental issue.
Update: The Editor at Grod’s Corp has a much more positive take on the proposal.