This may seem like a parochial Victorian story, out of place on a world politics blog. But bear with me; there are implications for political parties everywhere.
Mary Wooldridge, minister for community services in the state government of Victoria, was defeated on Sunday in a ballot for Liberal Party preselection for the seat of Kew. She was trying to transfer to Kew after her own seat of Doncaster was abolished in a redistribution, but local party members voted instead for Tim Smith, former mayor of Stonnington.
Ten years ago, a ballot like this could have been written about as a simple factional contest, and that aspect was certainly still present. Smith was backed by what we used to call the Kroger-Costello group, who although somewhat fragmented are still dominant in the party organisation; Wooldridge represented the Baillieu group, backed by premier Denis Napthine and health minister David Davis.
But the Victorian Liberal Party is no longer what it was. Before 2007, the rivalry between John Howard and Peter Costello kept the Kroger-Costello group anchored in the political centre. When a Howard-style right-winger, Josh Frydenberg, challenged for the federal seat of Kooyong (which covers Kew) in 2006, the Kroger-Costello forces opposed him, even though that meant backing their factional enemy Petro Georgiou.
Once Howard and Costello were out of the way, however, they started to regret that decision. In 2009, when Georgiou announced his retirement, Frydenberg got the nod. As I said at the time, “Their opponents, the Baillieu group, seem to have the left of the party sewn up, so the Krogerites are naturally veering to the right. Frydenberg is a noteworthy symptom.”
There’s a more interesting difference as well. In 2008, after three successive state election losses, the Victorian Liberal Party took a desperate step and voted for radical reform of its internal workings, including preselection. Instead of a contest in front of elected branch delegates, preselections were to be voted on by all party members within the electorate.
The idea was that this sort of empowerment would make membership more attractive, broadening the party’s base and in turn improving the pool of available candidates.
But it was a risky move. Everyone knew that the party’s rank-and-file members were an ornery lot, much older, whiter and more right-wing than the population at large, and in particular much more so than their leaders and MPs. If the party didn’t succeed in attracting a different sort of member, then the reforms might just end up taking it further from the mainstream.
As I asked on the occasion of the reform vote, “Will giving more voice to ordinary members just hand power to conservative ideologues? Or will it lead to a membership influx of more mainstream Victorians who will swamp the extremists?”
Sunday’s vote is strong evidence that the first, not the second, is what has happened. In particular, Wooldridge’s pro-choice views – once uncontroversial among senior Liberals – seem to have counted strongly against her with the conservative membership. To the extent that it’s attracting them, the party’s new members seem to be more ideologically driven rather than less.
And this is where we reach the international implications, because the problems the Victorian Liberals were trying to solve are common to parties across the democratic world. What used to be mass parties have become hollowed out; branch structures have atrophied, and party officials have begun to search desperately for ways of increasing participation.
Many have gone further in giving power to members. Britain’s Labour Party, for example, voted at the weekend to put the election of its leader entirely in the hands of party members (in place of an electoral college in which members had one third of the votes). On the continent, centre-left parties in Italy and France have pioneered primary ballots in which all party supporters, not just members, can choose their candidates.
Time will tell how effective these strategies are. But all of them have to grapple with the paradox that the Victorian Liberal Party came face to face with on Sunday. Empowerment is a two-edged sword, and trying to make a party more representative risks empowering more of the same unrepresentative people that you started with.