Monday, February 27, 2006

Bringing competition to politics

It's preselection time again, and the intensity of the battle seems a little stronger than usual. Here in Victoria half a dozen sitting Labor MPs (Corcoran, Crean, Jenkins, O'Connor, Sercombe, Vamvakinou) are facing carefully orchestrated challenges. There are plenty of commentators tut-tutting it, dismissing it as a source of disunity and observing that many of the challenges are merely the result of the shifting sands of faction politics.

I, for one, would like to stand up for the challengers.

Free markets are wonderful things. Healthy competition keeps all players on their toes and requires them to strive for quality and innovation to survive in a Darwinian marketplace. The same is true of members of parliament. Without the threat of competition, MPs can become self-absorbed, slothful and lazy and do little more than, quite literally, occupy a seat. It's bad for them, it's bad for their constituents, and it's bad for their party.

Given that many Labor MPs find themselves in seats with such healthy margins that they face no realistic challenge at the ballot box, it is necessary for them to have some internal challengers before they get there. One of the reasons for the ALP's malaise over the past 10 years has been the substandard performance of many of its MPs. Check out this list here, and keep a straight face while you tell me it's a galaxy of stars. The Liberals have done much better in recent years and have attracted a more talented selection of backbenchers, which has put upward pressure on the performance of members further up the hierarchy.

There's nothing inherently meritorious about the challengers. Some of them will no doubt end up being just as lame as those seatwarmers they seek to replace. But the mere fact that the incumbents have had their chances and done little with them is reason enough to think positively about the challenger.

Rather than trying to limit the number of preselection battles, the interests of democracy says we should be encouraging more. At the moment it is mostly factionally-fuelled battles in one party, in one state. Let's open up debate nation wide, across parties. Solid, hardworking MPs should be left alone, but there are plenty of others who would benefit from some healthy competition. Though the US Primaries perhaps a tad too divisive, they do offer a glimpse of what could happen here if we encourage democracy and competition in party preselection.

This time around, some of the challengers will get up and some of the sitting MPs will survive, but you can be sure that the mere threat of a challenge will force whoever gets the nod to improve their performance over the next three years. And for that, we should be thankful.


Antonios said...

And Griffin in the safe seat of Bruce is also being challenged.

He's been an MP for over ten years and has done a whole lot of nothing much.

Daniel said...

I like how you say "Free markets are wonderful things" in the context of political competition. It makes sense to recognise that the same human forces at work in economics are necessarily also at work in politics and society. These things cannot be conveniently compartmentalised.

Of course the implications of saying that 'market forces' exist in politics may have some disturbing conclusions for the most rabid of free market ideologues:

One of the most significant products of the competing political demands of the many groups and persons in society (e.g. pluralism) is the existence of a state apparatus catering to the needs and wants of various constituents. The interventionist state arises from the same forces that give us a moreorless free market!

Fortunately none of us are full-on anarchist libertarians so this will disturb none of us.

John Lee said...

there's a theory that talent is generational. Which would explain why the ALP hasn't produced a new Hawke, Keating or Gareth Evans in the last ten years.

It matters because most people, I'd wager, judge a party by personalities rather than policies - for instance when they thumb the Coalition as 'better economic managers'. If they were thinking policies or long-term track record, they'd give Labor at least equal marks (or would have before Latham).

Polly said...

Antonios, Bruce is not a safe seat - the ALP received 53.48% of the 2 party prefered result at the last election in Bruce - so it definitely counts as marginal.

Ari, I don't think the free market analogy is a good fit to political preselections (as conducted in Australia). There is a big difference between people who join political parties, and normal people who just vote at elections, so you have two competing markets, and what an MP may need to do to succeed in one market is potentially very different to what they need to do to succeed in another. All that seems to be happening in the ALP challenges in Victoria at the moment is party hack vs party hack, which has nothing to do with someone's effectiveness as a local MP who is meant to represent the community in their electorate.