The Australian Greens will hold their national conference next month. Jonathan Sri hopes they confront the elephant in the room.
Democracy is – in theory at least – supposed to encourage leaders to govern in the interests of everyone, rather than an elite minority. Democracy guards against abuses of power by ensuring that those who hold powerful positions can only remain in control as long as they have the support of the people they represent.
But the Australian Greens’ current system for selecting a leader is opaque, not particularly democratic, and fails to adequately guard against the corrupting influence of power.
The Greens’ 2015 National Conference kicks off in Adelaide on November 6. The party hasn’t yet reached consensus on the question of leadership selection, and it’ll be interesting to see how much attention the issue gets. I expect that many delegates won’t have the time to engage with the strong arguments against leaving leadership selection to a small group of people who already wield significant power within the party. But maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised.
I consider myself a loyal Greens supporter. I’ve handed out flyers, doorknocked voters, organised campaign events and even run as a state candidate. Overall I think Di Natale is performing reasonably well in his new role, and I have a lot of respect for the current crop of Greens MPs.
However, it would be extremely naïve to assume that as the party grows, it won’t begin to attract power-hungry individuals who’ll be tempted to put their own interests ahead of the party as a whole. You know (or can at least imagine) the kind of person I’m talking about. They shake all the right hands, kiss all the right arses, and plan their run for a safe seat pre-selection three years in advance.
Look at the calibre of recent major party leaders who were selected through systems that gave lots of control to a small number of elites. Just as the Australian Democrats are frequently cited as a cautionary tale of what can go wrong when ordinary members get to choose the party leader, people like Abbott and Shorten (favoured by MPs, disliked by ordinary voters) are examples of why members do need to be given a greater say in choosing the leader of their movement.
Unfortunately, rather than sensibly discussing the processes and cultural norms that might be necessary to manage potentially divisive leadership contests, many Greens have relegated this particular reform to the too-hard basket. Perhaps part of the reason for this is that some opinion leaders within the party don’t fully perceive the widening gulf between ordinary members and the party room.
If you’re a state or national delegate who can get a Greens senator on the phone at reasonably short notice, it’s harder to countenance the concern that MPs might lose touch with the membership, because from your perspective, the parliamentary leadership is highly responsive to ‘the party’ (i.e. you). But the ordinary membership needs to be understood as somewhat separate from higher-level decision-makers who’ve taken up volunteer roles on management committees and as national delegates.
These ordinary members might not have time to volunteer as convenors or delegates, but many still crave a modicum of input into the party’s future direction. As Jeremy Corbyn and the British Labor Party have shown, direct elections give members a sense of empowerment and control that manifests as a greater willingness to join and actively support the party. If the Australian Greens did introduce direct elections, the relationship between MPs and members would shift in response.
MPs seeking the top job would probably spend more time communicating directly with members (time well spent). Pre-selection campaigns would yield healthy public discussion about the party’s strategic direction, underlying philosophy and long-term goals. This would be of immense value to the movement.
Within the Greens, I’ve noticed that many of those who favour retaining the current model of leadership selection tend to believe Greens candidates and MPs are somehow purer and less vulnerable to the corrupting influence of power. To date, our national leaders and deputies have performed their roles admirably.
But our MPs are only human, and many of the same forces that weaken the connection between Labor and Liberal MPs and their constituencies could, in the future, have a similar effect on our own MPs – particularly the leaders.
The Australian Greens website lists ‘Grassroots Participatory Democracy’ as one of the party’s four core pillars, saying “In contrast to the two major parties, which are run by executives in head office, the Greens involve members in key decisions and our campaigns are powered by thousands of ordinary people volunteering their time, skills and support.”
Putting aside that statement’s unconstructive dig at the other parties, are we seriously suggesting that selecting the national leader of the party is not a ‘key decision’?
When I raise this issue with Greens members, I usually hear a combination of three basic arguments against giving members a greater say, none of which are particularly persuasive.
1. “The leader isn’t that important, it’s the policies that count”
It’s easy to see the flaws in this assertion. The Greens leader is assigned more paid staff than the other MPs, and exerts greater influence over the strategic direction of the party. The leader also has more pull with the media, so it’s much easier for them to get issues onto the agenda. Most importantly though, the leader is seen by the general public as the face of the party (this is particularly the case for smaller parties like the Greens). When someone who hasn’t had much engagement with the Greens wonders “what are the Greens like?” they look at our leader, and base their judgments on that individual. A party leader is much more than simply the coordinator of a team of federal MPs – they are the figurehead of a national movement, with significant power and influence beyond their on-paper role description. The leader matters.
2. “MPs know best”
Yep. Always. While MPs might be better placed to select a good ‘internal leader’ (i.e. someone who’ll help them work together as a parliamentary unit), the larger parties have demonstrated that politicians – particularly those who’ve spent years working in Canberra – won’t always have the best judgment when it comes to selecting the ‘public leader’ (ie. the person who must inspire ordinary members and communicate effectively to the broader voting public).
Being a good public leader is about being closely connected to ordinary voters. Those MPs who invest more time to connect meaningfully with the public won’t necessarily also have the time to win internal popularity contests within the party room, but this doesn’t mean they wouldn’t make good national leaders.
I know some Greens members feel they wouldn’t be able to make an informed decision if asked to vote for their leader. But a direct election system would necessarily involve aspiring leaders communicating their vision and credentials to members in much greater detail than currently occurs. Ultimately, those members who still didn’t feel comfortable voting would self-select out of the process, leaving the choice to those members who were sufficiently engaged.
But even if you think MPs do have better judgment than the wider Greens membership, this shouldn’t outweigh the importance of guarding against centralisation and over-concentration of power. If you don’t trust ordinary members to make good decisions, why the hell did you join a grassroots democratic party?
3. “Direct elections can be messy”
Yep. That’s true. But only sometimes. Leadership elections can damage a party’s image if candidates snipe at each other and waste energy on internal power games. But if our Greens MPs are so childish, egotistical and ambitious that they’re going to stoop to that kind of behaviour (and I don’t think they are), we shouldn’t be preselecting them as parliamentary candidates in the first place. Former Democrats Senator Andrew Bartlett (now an active Greens member) is on the public record as saying “I think it really comes down to culture and beliefs about what is acceptable.” He writes, “As the other parties have shown, electing a leader via a decision of only MPs is no protection against leadership brawls and public dissension.”
Party culture is the fundamental issue. Directly electing leaders can be divisive, but it can also be cathartic and energising and empowering for members. Leadership contests can offer space for MPs to advance contrasting perspectives on how the party should achieve its goals. It’s entirely possible to debate such questions publicly and maturely. Instead of invoking the messy demise of the Democrats as an argument against democratic elections, we should focus on the many progressive organisations that do successfully conduct direct elections of leaders. Let’s ask ourselves what further steps we could take to ensure leadership elections are robust, transparent and unificatory.
THE Greens parties in New Zealand, Canada and the United Kingdom all give their members some level of input in choosing national leaders, as do the UK and New Zealand Labour Parties. Even the Australian Labor Party gives its members half a say.
The key factor in terms of party stability is not whether the members get a vote, but what the process requirements are for triggering a leadership spill. Rather than baulking at the mere suggestion of member voting, we should be debating the details of how it would work in practice.
Many Greens members would probably prefer that we didn’t need to have a national leader at all. But we do. And that paradigm isn’t shifting any time soon. So we need to make our current hierarchy as accountable and transparent as possible, and that necessitates recognising that ‘Plays well with other political insiders’ should not be the only criterion for selecting a party leader.
Direct elections engage and motivate ordinary party members, and keep those in the upper echelons of the party accountable to their supporters on the ground. If the Greens really are striving for a fairer, more democratic society, we need to practice what we preach internally.
There will be challenges and divisions and the occasional media beat-up, but if ordinary Greens members remain content to let someone else make the tough decisions for them, they’ll wake up one day to the too-late realisation that they’re handing out how-to-vote cards for a party they no longer control.
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