We’d get better candidates if we changed the rules

By Dr Denis Dragovic. Dr Denis Dragovic is an Honorary Fellow at the University of Melbourne. Dr Dragovic was a preselection candidate for the Liberal Party leading into the 2016 election.

For Australian politics to benefit from the breadth of capable potential candidates in Australia we need to review how we chose candidates.

Already, four candidates have dropped out of the race. With many weeks still to go of relentless media coverage it is likely that others will leave.

Labor Senator for the Northern Territory, Nova Peris, has decided not to recontest her position, after just one term for reasons that aren’t clear. She was pre-selected three years ago in controversial circumstances as a ‘captain’s pick’ by former Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

The Liberals' Sherry Sufi who was contesting for the seat of Fremantle, departed in circumstances related to mocking his boss’ accent and making sexually explicit comments.

Labor's Chris Brown, left the race (interestingly, while also competing for the seat of Fremantle), after he failed to tell the Labor party about spent convictions from the 1980s.

Labor's Carolyne Boothman, a teacher, withdrew from the Victorian seat of Gippsland after she became aware she would have to quit her job as a teacher while running for Parliament.

Together they are a reflection of a broader malaise.

Australia's Constitution limits who can nominate

Article 44 outlines who is prevented from running for Parliament, a list that includes dual citizens, government employees and criminals among others.

The preclusion of dual citizens is a throwback to a bygone era. While no records are collated on the exact number of dual citizens in Australia (or those, to quote the Constitution, “entitled to the rights or privileges of a subject or a citizen of a foreign power”), the Department of Immigration Affairs estimates this figure at around 5 million.

Neither the United States nor the United Kingdom have a similar rule, with the UK even allowing non-British Commonwealth citizens to become prime minister, although the US requires those running for president to be born in the US (they can acquire and maintain dual citizenship).

Teachers such as Carolyne Boothman and other public servants are considered as ‘profiting’ from the Crown and are precluded from running. While there is legislation in most jurisdictions to provide for the re-hiring of individuals who quit, for people such as Boothman who nominate in unwinnable seats, the cost of a two-month campaign makes it impossible for many to take the time off. This Constitutional clause affects nearly two million Australians.

Section (v) of Article 44 adds another controversial category. Anyone who is an owner of a company that receives contracts from the government is also potentially ineligible, though, an earlier case was interpreted by the courts in a way favouring aspiring politicians.

So if you hold a second citizenship, work for the government, have a criminal conviction with a prison sentence of over a year, or were at one stage bankrupt; then your aspirations to serve need to find an alternative route. Otherwise, the next hurdle is your chosen party’s pre-selection process.

Party pre-selection processes could be improved

For the Liberal Party in Victoria, when pre-selecting a lower house candidate, the next step is to progress through an internal pre-selection process.

This system is one of the most robust of any political party in Australia as the rules allow every member of the Party who is registered in the electorate and has been a member for more than two years to vote.

Depending on the size of this cohort, in addition, an inverse proportion of randomly-selected state delegates are involved (i.e. the larger the local contingent the smaller the state delegates).

This system eliminates opportunities for backroom deals and the influence of power brokers, empowers the people who are closest to the community that the political aspirant is vying for and tests the candidate on a large stage.

The process, weeks of examination by hundreds of voters through one-on-one meetings, question and answer sessions, numerous speeches and potential media coverage separate the wheat from the chaff.

While certainly one of the more robust systems it still has its shortcomings.

Candidates with jobs that allow or require them to engage with pre-selectors over the years leading up to a vote—political staffers and think tank researchers—or those with jobs that position them in the media spotlight are given a head start.

Small business owners or corporate heavy weights, in other words those highly qualified, but lacking the time to raise their profile among delegates and commit the time to the Party to earn standing are disadvantaged.

The pre-selection processes vary by party and again by state. For a summary of Victorian Labor Party processes, see their website.

Dr Denis Dragovic

Dr Denis Dragovic

Would Sufi and Brown’s past indiscretions have come to light earlier had the Western Australian divisions of both parties had a more robust pre-selection system? Possibly, but even if these issues were missed at least the Parties and the public would have better vetted candidates.

As for Boothman, we need to ask the question whether the current laws precluding government employees is reasonable in today’s age of transparency and accountability.

In the case of Peris, the question remains, had she gone through the rigours of a pre-selection process rather than being hand picked against the wishes of the Labor Party’s membership, would she have a greater commitment to serve in Parliament.

From the Constitutional rules that exclude dual citizen holders through to the way political parties chose their candidates, Australia would benefit from more effective rules that bring the best candidates forward.

Image credit: York Klinkhart/Wikimedia

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