A few days ago I wrote on Australia’s being an elected oligarchy rather than a democracy, and the ALP’s National Executive showed just what I meant in voting 19-2 to replace Senator Trish Crossin with Nova Peris, who was not even a member of the ALP, as I understand it, until the offer of the Senate endorsement was made to her, but who was a name, as well as being female, indigenous and a likely Gillard supporter. The incident is full of meaning for Australian politics.
To start with, our system of representative, responsible government implies that our communities choose from among their number someone to represent them in Parliament, and that person does his or best to look after the interests of the community, and of the individuals within it. It’s not a perfect system, at all, but we have been using it in Australia since the mid 19th century, which makes us one of the oldest continuing democracies in the world.
During the colonial period and even well into the 20th century, the notion of proper local representation was taken seriously. Political heavies did look around for a seat, and could be adopted by a community far from the politician’s real home simply because the community needed someone with experience and clout. It wanted the railway to come there, or a bridge over the river, or a school — and the politician was seen as someone likely to get that done. If there was no action, the politician could be given the flick. Or he (it was always a ‘he’, then) found one closer to home, and left without much of an apology.
In time communities developed enough size and confidence to send one of their own into Parliament, and he had first to learn the business of politics, and then to become successful in getting things done. He also learned how to keep his seat from internal competition, too. By and large the party central executives kept out of things. They would look for a possible seat for a heavy, but they did it with some deference to the locals.There was a right and respectful way of doing things.
By and large, the power of the central executives, of all parties, has grown considerably since the second world war. They serve rather like selectors for a cricket team, trying to ensure that they have the strength where they need it (‘We’ve got to have a decent leggie…’). So many of today’s notables have been found seats by their parties’ central executives that the notion of ‘representation’ has taken on a different meaning: ‘We’ll find someone worthy of you!’ say the power-brokers. ‘Wouldn’t you want to have someone like [name your worthy] representing you?’
The locals don’t like it much, especially the locals who are the backbone of the party in that community. After all, they do all the work. It’s hard to get a heavy to spend any time in their electorate unless it’s truly marginal And the locals are expected to work cheerfully and well for someone who’s been foisted on them! I have heard this cry again and again, and it is no wonder that real membership in all the parties (the Greens perhaps excepted) has been falling steadily for years.
There is an obvious difference in points of view. The locals want someone who understands them. The central executive wants to ensure that it has a strong parliamentary party, wherever its members come from. And if you could get more deeply into the mind of the central executive, you’d get a rationalisation like this: ‘Actually, all these seats are pretty much the same — they have the same demography, the same problems, and they get their news from the same TV channels and newspapers. We’re in the better position to decide who should be the local member — and we need this woman’s TV skills, and this man’s financial network…’ Everyone says ‘we’, but they mean different things.
And you can add in to the recipe the vagueness of representation through a Senator. Proportional representation devalues the notion of local communities from the beginning. In Tasmania and the ACT, where PR is used for lower house elections, it is difficult to associate each candidate with a particular community, simply because the boundaries are so large. That is even more the case in the case of the Senate, where the community is the whole State or Territory. Nonetheless, it is plainly the case that the ALP has acted in a way that infuriates its Northern Territory branch, by pushing it aside and telling it who is to be the Labor Senate candidate.
‘[I]t was an opportunity that was given to me and I wasn’t going to say no,’ declared Ms Peris. And that just about says it all. She will have a lot to learn, and maybe she will become an excellent and effective Senator, and maybe all the fuss will die down, and maybe all the indigenous local politicians in the Territory who had their own eyes on the Senate position will happily work for her. Maybe.
But it is a beautiful example of the elected oligarchy at work.