Captain Picks Democracy

I get annoyed by the simplistic analysis of Julia Gillard’s ‘Captain’s Pick’ – the terminology that has been deployed to describe the Australian Labor Party National Executive’s decision – of Nova Peris for the top of the Northern Territory Senate Ticket.

Many, if not most, media outlets seem to identify the overruling of the preselection process in the Northern Territory as some sort of violation committed by the Prime Minister (‘yet again’ goes the News Ltd narrative), and a symptom of some general malaise and the ‘lack of democracy’ within the ALP.

Let me just get this out of the way first: to be perfectly frank, if you are not a member of the ALP, it’s none of your business how we go about selecting our candidates.

But there’s a problem with the logic of the ‘symptom’ being applied to this particular case. Martin Foley, of the Victorian Left faction, in an extended ‘Twilight’ metaphor (which, having not read those awful books, I admit I only superficially understand) slams the move as a counterproductive ‘trick’ that ‘disenfranchises party activists’.

I’m not sure if the parallel with awfully written pulp fiction was supposed to be ironic, but the point being made is as vacuous as Stephanie Meyer’s repellent novels.

The fact is that there existed, in the Northern Territory, factional arrangements that maintained the status quo for decades. In an excellent article for The Drum, Suzanne Smith argues that the time had come to provide an Indigenous representative for Labor in the NT, but that the presence of two long-term (and granted, broadly liked) politicians created a relative barrier to the rise of Indigenous candidates.

It is the site of this barrier at which is located the ‘malaise’ in the ALP. Democracy is not flowering because factional arrangements lock out talent in order to maintain the status quo. Often for no better reason than that talent does not have the support of the correct faction.

So in effect, Gillard’s ‘Captain’s Pick’ marked a radical act – it was a violation of the accepted order, one that disrupted the long-standing factional structures of the Northern Territory Senate ticket (and, yes, disenfranchised preselectors).

As I am making a case for the complexity of this decision, I should also point out that there are also factional, political considerations at play for the Prime Minister – while this is largely, it is not solely, a noble move – and not all the punters are happy, and sometimes legitimately so.

But let’s reduce this to a question of practical reform, and lessons learned from the process.

1) We know that the system of factional arrangements around preselections can prevent unique and wonderful talent bubbling to the top. Bernard Keane highlights the way in which the proper preselection process is messy and produces unusual candidates. But messiness is good, it’s where the dynamic and innovative ideas come from, it is where imagination can be found.

2) Sometimes a radical act is required, and often that might not be democratic. Identifying the ‘Captain’s Pick’ as a symptom of a lack of democracy in the ALP is only correct insofar as it was necessary to address a problem that this lack of democracy had engendered. In effect, the selection of Nova Peris was a shot in the arm, alleviating some of the symptoms but not curing the patient.

3) Factions are not the problem, but the culture of the factions is. And here’s where change within the party should be focused. People in political parties will naturally form into strategic groups and alliances, that’s the very nature of politics (and that is the reason we have political parties in the first place). However, those alliances should concern the development of policy, not the advance of personalities and individuals. The trouble with the current system is not that one faction is stronger than the other, but that good candidates are excluded by the system.

What Labor needs is a cultural shift, one that focuses not on the disciplined exercise of power or naked politics, but the embrace of talent and imagination. Ultimately, our parliament is best served by the selection of a bright team of dynamic and different individuals, from all walks of life, and with as many diverse backgrounds as we can muster.

What will make Labor a powerhouse for new democracy is not something as simple as members electing the leader, or hollow words about ‘engagement’, but the passionate and free contest of ideas within the party, and the elevation of individuals who display integrity, courage and imagination.



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