When I ran the Queensland Liberal Party’s 1995 state campaign one of the first things I did was take the marginal seat candidates to McDonald’s. It wasn’t because we were hungry, nor was it because I had a Clintonesque craving. Rather it was a matter of survival.
For almost as long as I had been a member of the Queensland Liberals they had been losing elections. It was clear we needed a new approach.
Labor had won the 1989 ‘Fitzgerald’ state election, the 1991 Brisbane City Council election and the 1992 state election because under the Waynes – Swan and Goss – they’d revolutionised their communications. They’d learnt to pick and stay on a message and deliver it devastatingly with the State’s most professional ever television, newspaper and direct mail campaign.
When you looked at the parties in hamburger terms, the Libs were running a ‘greasy spoon’ and Labor had the bright and shiny new franchise down the road. The McDonald’s visit was to teach candidates a lesson. If we were going to beat Labor, we needed a better business model than the one we were using – one more like Labor’s.
My message to Liberal Party candidates was that they might ‘own’ their individual preselections and campaigns, but we – the executive – controlled the brand. They might be putting their own personal capital into it, but so were we, and we were going to tell them how it could be spent. If they didn’t meet hurdle rates, they could lose the franchise (and Pauline Hanson did in a subsequent federal election). We were going to specialise. They could look after the shop, but we were going to look after the business.
So we put in place management systems. We also consulted them, but not with a view to changing the direction of the campaign, just communicating to them why we were doing particular things. These were campaigns that relied heavily on public opinion research to determine what should be said, and how it should be phrased. The elector was always right, no matter what the party policy said.
In 1995 the result was obvious and tangible. We beat Wayne Goss and went from Dunce to Dux, albeit by less than one seat.
In 1998 I took a public stand on One Nation. Since then I have become a commentator on domestic politics, including the Liberals. From time to time I am critical of the party, or report details some would prefer to remain behind closed doors. This has upset many and there is a constant threat of expulsion hanging over my head. It’s not uncommon for people to buttonhole me and say ‘When you were running the campaign, you told us disunity was death. Follow your own advice.’ I try to explain to them that not all rules apply across all circumstances. Political parties shouldn’t be about uniform positions, they should be about diversity and transparency and coming to compromises. Democracy isn’t something that happens in secret, it is a public activity.
This experience illustrates one of the most serious problems of contemporary Australian politics. To win elections parties need to act like corporations, but enforcing the corporate line doesn’t always serve the business of politics well. It locks up debate within parties, and undermines the concept of representative democracy. As a result, voters have as much input into political decisions as customers do to what’s on the menu at McDonald’s.
The corporate conception of the political party sees politics as just another business. Policies are goods, to be sold, and the party organisations are manufacturers and wholesalers. The upper levels of the organisation are staffed by professionals who make decisions about which of the goods will be sold, and how. Professionalism discourages volunteerism. A long career of community involvement is no longer regarded as being a good enough CV for political office. Parties look to establish career paths for representatives, and the representatives themselves need to be specialists, so we end up with a disproportionate number of former staffers elected.
As the party is viewed as a way of earning a living rather than making a difference, nepotism sets in and virtual fiefdoms are put in place and branch stacking becomes rampant.
So, what to do about it?
The solutions are there in our experience of corporate governance. The first thing we can do is to ensure that political parties’ constitutions meet basic regulatory standards. Queensland has legislative requirements that set out the form a political party’s constitution must take.
But legislated governance structures and reporting requirements only take you so far, as HIH and FAI demonstrate. Ultimately corporate good health is guaranteed by competition. We need to introduce more competition into politics.
This competition won’t occur through the advent of new political parties. In our system the single member constituencies in the lower house only occasionally yield up a member from outside our political duopoly, and then it is most likely to be an independent.
If competition is to occur it has to happen at another level. One way is to introduce it internally within parties. Another is to innovate in how citizens interact with government, outside of political parties.
A good first step would be for the ALP to abandon its policy of caucus solidarity. It has corroded politics on both sides directly leading to a monochrome state of debate. Petro Georgiou and his supporters demonstrate what representative democracy should be about.
A second step would be to introduce primary elections, as in the US. They would diminish the power of party bosses and give electors a say in who represents them, even in seats which are safe for one side or the other.
This system is not without its problems. Elections at large are expensive, and with party organisations marginalised, this means that plutocrats are more likely to win than others. That is not likely to be as large a problem in Australia as it is in the US. To start with, electorates here are much smaller, so the cost should be lower. One could also legislate to limit the amount of money that could be spent.
Even if it did lead to more rich people getting elected, would that be a bigger problem than electing talentless hacks?
Another solution is presented by the Internet, and is one that The National Forum, and its journal On Line Opinion is dedicated to exploring. While Robert Putnam (Bowling Alone) and others have pinpointed the problem of ‘the democratic deficit’ that doesn’t mean that citizens are no longer political.
What has happened is that citizens aren’t using political parties as the conduits for their political activities anymore. When issues affect them, they want to make their voice heard. That is the reason that broadbased political parties originally came into existence – they provided ordinary citizens with the ability to hookup with others who were concerned about the same issues. They are no longer performing that role, partly because most ordinary citizens are repelled by the selfinterested manipulation which forms the basis for most activity in the corporatised political party.
This is where the Internet can perform the brokerage role that political parties formerly performed. Many groups, of which The Centre for Policy Development is one, are using it imaginatively, no doubt with the success of sites like MoveOn.org in the backs of their minds.
But if it is to perform that role adequately it requires something to bolt the efforts of the various lobby sites together.
In our view what is needed is a national eDemocracy portal where citizens, partisan and nonpartisan alike, can be hooked up with political ideas, people, and organisations and where the role of the site is limited to brokerage .
An example of where we think a site like this should be heading is a recent poll on refugees sponsored by one of our members, Rights Australia. This poll was linked to articles on the issue, and discussion threads. It made allowances in the poll itself for comments, and allowed readers to vote for or against the poll. The poll was also in a form which allowed it to be presented to the Senate as a petition, and also contained information allowing politicians to contact signatories who are in their electorate. The results of the poll were automatically tallied and reported on the site each time there was another signature. Names and contact details were also made available to the sponsors.
In this way individuals with a common interest are introduced to each other and their opinions summed in a way which is useful to the sponsors and the politicians they wish to influence. The very existence of the poll, with its thousands of signatures in favour and threeandabit handfuls against, must have an influence on government’s assessment of just where this issue is running.
The structures and habits of thought demanded by the style of election campaigns that we run has undermined our democratic processes by making political parties more corporate in their approach. We need to recognise this so that we can correctly analyse the problem and prescribe the right medicines to heal it. If ‘Tweedledum and Tweedledummer’ continue to dominate market share we must find ways to at least stop them resting on each other’s laurels.