With a federal election looming, you might be asking: how do we end up with the politicians we do?
The obvious answer is that voters decide who will be their elected representative. While this is technically true, it is far too simplistic a response to an issue which warrants greater scrutiny. More accurate and revealing explanations require looking back through the electoral process, and the posing of a different question.
What voters and many in the media should be asking is: how do we end up with the candidates we do?
The answer here is far murkier. The processes often include highly unethical and potentially illegal branch-stacking operations; the exercise of factional power within political parties; the nomination of political staffers; and the often-accepted norm that members from the same political party should not contest the candidature of a sitting member. All of these scenarios take place in Australia's liberal democratic political system; yet there is little that is democratic in the power-driven motives of some candidates and the parties to which the majority belong.
Branch-stacking has been, and still is, rife in Australian politics. One only has to look at NSW and Victoria for incontrovertible evidence of this undemocratic practice in the Australian Labor Party. But branch-stacking is not confined to the ALP. It also occurs in Australia's other major political party, the Liberal Party.
To put it simply, branch-stacking results in incompetent and unethical people being preselected to stand for office. If they win, some go on to be ministers or shadow ministers. Review after review by political parties over many years has failed to halt the practice. This is not surprising, as an insider approach to accountability rarely proves to be effective.
Branch-stacking needs to be stamped out once and for all, as it employs highly unethical means to achieve the ultimate goal of election to Parliament. It also ignores merit-based selection processes.
Another practice that needs to go is the nomination of party-political staffers to stand as candidates. This practice, which has increased significantly over recent decades, often occurs in winnable seats. These political functionaries have rarely, if ever, worked outside the party machine, and therefore often bring a narrow-minded skill set to policy decisions. The Parliament and broader community would benefit greatly from more candidates being drawn from outside the political bubble.
The exercise of factional power within the two major parties can also result in highly questionable candidate-related decisions. They arise through strong, faction-based agreements being made within political parties. These agreements can dictate when it is a particular faction's turn to decide, for example, who is placed first or second on a party's Senate ticket. In the major parties, gaining one of these two top spots virtually guarantees the candidate a Senate seat.
Factional power is not confined to the Senate. It also takes place for House of Representatives seats. In some cases, people who have never lived in, or anywhere near, the electorate they covet are nominated as the candidate. This can occur despite the affected community disagreeing strongly with the faction-driven party decision. The only recourse for the electorate is not to vote for the party's candidate.
A glaring example of a power-driven factional war is currently on display in NSW's Liberal Party. Factional "heavyweights" are still negotiating to try to ensure that three sitting members are "automatically endorsed" to stand in the forthcoming federal election.
Being an MP should not be treated as a right by any candidate or the party to which they belong. Any political party concerned about democratic electoral processes should abandon the idea that a serving member's candidature should not be challenged by a member of the same party, especially when a sitting MP is a minister or shadow minister, or holds another senior position in the parliamentary party.
There are examples of excellent candidates being chosen through a community-based selection process. The candidatures of former independent Cathy McGowan and sitting independent Helen Haynes were the direct result of many in their electorate, of all political hues, selecting them to stand for office.
Branch-stacking, the undemocratic behaviour of factions within political parties, the pre-selection of political staffers and the widely adhered to custom which presupposes that senior sitting members have the right to be chosen as a party's candidate are, at the very least, unethical practices, yet they are currently used too often to determine who will be a party's candidate. Clearly, reform is urgently required - but urgent needs, no matter how important, do not automatically result in change. It is the responsibility of political parties to ensure the processes for selecting candidates are reformed so that the choices presented to voters are of a much higher value.
But I suspect the chance of this happening is best summed up in a slightly altered comment from the famous Australian comedy The Castle: "Tell 'er she's dreamin'."
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