Illustration: Andrew Dyson
Factions, meaning competing, organised groups within political parties, have a long history. For some time they have been tolerated, but now they are increasingly on the nose within the parties. Yet they are so embedded that they won't be easily eliminated. Each faction often sees itself as the ''true'' party.
Tony Abbott has brought together a group of four party elders to investigate ways of reforming the Liberals' preselection process so that, in his words, candidates are preselected ''on the basis of their ability not on the basis of their factional alignment''. The high-powered group includes John Howard, Philip Ruddock, former minister David Kemp and former party president Chris McDiven.
Abbott was no doubt driven in part by what he observes in the NSW division of the Liberal Party. He blamed factionalism for some poor choices of candidates at the recent federal election. Jaymes Diaz, who lost the marginal seat of Greenway despite needing a swing of less than 1 per cent, was a prime example. As a consequence, his patron, Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, who refused to allow Diaz to be dropped as the candidate, did not win promotion to Abbott's new frontbench.
The NSW Liberals have long been recognised as a hotbed of factionalism between moderates and right-wingers. The Christian Right is especially strong. But Liberal factionalism is more widespread than that. In the ACT, the party has split between a breakaway Menzies Group and the incumbent power-holders.
Recent federal Labor leaders, including former prime minister Kevin Rudd and one of his outspoken critics, Mark Latham, have been appalled by factionalism in their party.
Factional leaders were active when Labor elected its opposition leader. MPs who crossed factional lines in the leadership contest were allegedly disciplined in the elections for shadow ministerial positions that followed.
The shadowy factional carve-up of the shadow ministerial posts was in sharp contrast to the open election of the Labor leader by both MPs and ordinary party members. After the event the Left blamed the Right for failing to advance enough women. The former speaker, Anna Burke, was one who missed out and made no secret of her anger.
Factions have several bases within broad-based parties. The breadth of the parties contributes to their existence because the same party is home to very different people. Senator Cory Bernardi and Malcolm Turnbull co-exist within the Liberals. Senator Don Farrell and Tanya Plibersek co-exist within Labor. The Liberals contain conservatives and liberals, while Labor has its social democrats and democratic socialists.
Factions are often based on ideological tendencies (both major parties have Left and Right wings and often sub-factions within factions) and organised around competing leadership aspirants. They are also often rooted in history, like the 1950s split within Labor, and interpretations of past leaders, such as Sir Robert Menzies, in the case of the Liberals.
Historically, factions have divided largely along economic policy differences but increasingly attitudes to sexual morality issues, such as same-sex marriage and abortion, contribute to factional divides.
Professor Glyn Davis of Melbourne University in his booklet The Leader of the Gang, has seen political parties as more like street gangs than business enterprises in the way they devour their own leaders.
This analogy points to the raw aggression that can exist between rival factions. The worst insults are often reserved not for opponents in other political parties but factional opponents within their own party.
Paul Keating raised a relevant historical example of bitter Left-Right Labor rivalries in NSW in the first of his ABC interviews with Kerry O'Brien when recalling the contest for party preselection that preceded his entry into Parliament in 1969.
Like bikie gangs, factions are not all bad, however. Thirty years ago, in a book titled Machine Politics in the Australian Labor Party, I listed some positive contributions by factions in the following terms. ''Factional politics, especially where the strength of the factions is fairly evenly balanced, may contribute to making the party as a whole more energetic in matters such as recruitment and internal policy development. The efforts of opposing factions to recruit their supporters into the party may enlarge the party's membership. It may also ensure healthy competition for party office from the local branch level onwards. The contribution of opposing factions to policy discussion, in sharpening the focus of discussion, contributes to a more ideological party membership.''
In modern politics the impact of factions on our parties is largely negative. Nevertheless not only do factions represent inescapable social and ideological tendencies within parties but they also serve some legitimate purposes.
Abbott talks about ability as if it was the end of the argument, but it is not that simple. Just as there are able people in all parties there are able people in all factions within parties. Preselectors are attracted not just to people who are able but who share their vision of what their party should stand for.
If Liberal members in a particular electorate are predominantly either conservative or liberal they will seek a candidate who most shares their ideological position. It is then incumbent on the competing factions to put forward able candidates for the party to choose between. The system breaks down when the larger faction slavishly rewards mediocrity when the smaller faction has put forward a candidate of clearly greater ability.
That is why Abbott will find it extremely difficult to eliminate the impact of factions on Liberal pre-selections. However, he may be able to remove the worst excesses of factionalism by putting in place enough checks and balances to prevent the emergence of a winner-take-all mentality that produces flawed candidates.
- John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University.