Pre-selecting candidates using US-style ‘primaries’

At its recent State Conference the NSW Branch of the ALP decided to trial US-style primaries for preselections. Primaries are candidate preselection processes that tend to involve more people than just, say, party delegates, officials or financial members of parties. The NSW trial process—in five electorates—would give members of the community a 50 per cent say in the selection of the candidates.

Similar initiatives had been recommended at national level by the authors of the ALP Review (Steve Bracks, John Faulkner, Bob Carr) following the 2010 federal election. They proposed—in non-Labor held seats or seats where Labor candidates are retiring—preselections which would involve 20 per cent community members, 20 per cent members of affiliated unions and 60 per cent branch members. The National Review Committee had been impressed by the trial of primary-style preselection for ALP candidates for the Victorian state seat of Kilsyth in February 2010. The Kilsyth candidate preselection allowed relatively broad community participation in that anyone who identified as an ALP supporter in Kilsyth could register to vote in the preselection ballot. The ballot involved three contenders.

The use of primaries has also been advocated by some members of the Liberal Party, and has been recommended by senior Liberal figure Peter Reith in a post-election review of the party's performance. The review has been endorsed by Opposition Leader Tony Abbott . The Nationals have produced a discussion paper on community preselection, and in June 2010, held a primary ballot in which over 4 000 members of the community preselected the Nationals’ candidate for the state seat of Tamworth. There were four contenders. The winner, Kevin Anderson, went on to take the seat of Tamworth with a 12.5% swing to the Nationals at the 2011 NSW state election.

Primary voting systems to select candidates for public office are a common feature at both federal and state level in the USA. They are regulated by state laws and there are some variations in both how the primaries are conducted and who can vote in them. The Democratic and Republican parties use primaries extensively to determine who gets to run as their endorsed candidate in an election.

Generally speaking, ‘open’ primaries allow anyone who is on the electoral roll to participate in a party’s primary to preselect a candidate. In ‘closed’ primaries only financial party members or registered party supporters can participate. In some jurisdictions, voters can register as independent voters and participate in both Democratic and Republican primaries.

Primaries have been used in other democracies that have strong political parties. In the United Kingdom, the Conservative Party has increasingly used primaries since 2003, and notably in 2009 to select candidates to replace Conservative MPs in Totnes and Gosport who had been exposed by the parliamentary expenses scandal. At the ensuing general election the Conservative vote in both seats rose significantly. The UK Labour Party’s David Miliband has also advocated the use of semi-closed primaries in which registered Labour supporters—not just party members—would preselect candidates.


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