Daily Media Quotation
Labor Party's Search For Electoral Answers Gets Personnel
December 10, 2004
by John Warhurst - Canberra Times
The controversy over Mark Latham's leadership of the Labor Party has distracted attention from an equally important question. That is the question of the relative quality of the candidates presented by the major parties.
This has been an issue since at least 1996. John Howard has always claimed that part of his success has been the quality of his candidates in marginal seats.
According to Liberal Party folk lore these grass-roots candidates, like Pat Farmer, Danna Vale, Jackie Kelly and Trish Draper to name just a few, have been especially good at winning and retaining marginal seats because of their superior community connections.
At the same time there has been criticism of the type of candidates that have been entering parliament on behalf of the Labor Party. Not only has there been plenty of criticism from the Coalition, led from the top by Peter Costello and Tony Abbott, of the so-called Labor dynasties, like the Creans, the Beazleys and the Fergusons, and the over- representation of former trade union officials within the Labor party's parliamentary ranks, but similar criticism has come from within Labor's own ranks.
This was one of former Labor Senate leader John Button's major laments in "Beyond Belief" (2002), his critical analysis of the party he served with distinction. Button lamented the narrowing of the pool of professions and occupations from which the modern Labor caucus was formed, compared with the caucus that he joined when he entered parliament in 1974.
Button contrasts the composition of the Caucus when he entered politics, describing it as a "pretty good social mix", a mix that was still recognisable in the Hawke ministry. Now he reckons that the parliamentary Labor Party has become a "cloistered profession".
Further, he reckons they are all chips off the one block: "What had replaced a broad spectrum of backgrounds was a new class of political operator who had been filtered through the net of ALP machine politics".
Button blames this state of affairs on a pre-selection process born of non-competitive party processes dominated by unions, factions and family ties.
"The trend points to the absence of a truly competitive selection process in which community stature and talent carry more votes than history and sentiment".
The Hawke-Wran party review reported, about the same time, that party members were worried that the dominance of party factions "drastically reduces local input and creates a situation where candidates are rewarded for their service to a faction rather than for their community links, perceived ability to win the seat, or their potential to make a positive contribution to the parliamentary Party".
Narrowing of the type of person elected to be a Labor representative does not necessarily mean that the quality of Labor representatives is not the equal of the Coalition representatives. It just means that the representatives may be too alike in their backgrounds with not enough diversity.
There are many excellent Labor candidates. One such candidate, Tony Burke, the new member for Watson, has recently been profiled in The Canberra Times. As Burke himself said in his maiden speech, as a former union official and political staffer for Graham Richardson and Michael Forshaw he fits the bill as the type of candidate with a narrowly political background that Labor is supposedly overflowing with. Burke is doubtless very promising. But it is still possible that he is part of Labor's problem because of his background. One Tony Burke is fine. Five Tony Burkes may be excellent. But a caucus composed of 20 Tony Burkes will lack the necessary diversity.
The Hawke-Wran review also reported concerns that the party was not preselecting the "best" candidates. The report contains a discussion of the qualities of candidates that is an excellent place for anyone to begin understanding this matter. It correctly makes the point that "candidate quality is a very subjective issue".
The goal can be to have candidates who are "representative of the communities they are drawn from". Or it can mean ability to win the seat or potential to make a contribution to the parliament. The question of social diversity relates also to getting the balance right between what the report calls "star" candidates as opposed to those with a record of Party activism, local standing and community connections".
Labor is certainly aware of this issue. Hawke and Wran report recommended that "It is the responsibility and obligation of Party officers and other influential figures to exert their influence to ensure quality candidates in all seats. The Party must also actively identify and encourage candidates from a wide range of occupations and life experiences".
Of course this is a long-term process. A diverse range of candidates can't just be plucked out of thin air in the year before an election. It may take a decade.
On several occasions since the election I have been told that Labor candidates were generally of poorer quality than those from Coalition.
Last weekend at an election workshop in Canberra sponsored by the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia there was considerable criticism by experienced political scientists from across Australia that Labor's candidates included a number who were "duds". These opinions were not based on any scientific evidence.
No-one really knew how to judge "quality" because the criteria are so diverse. But if there is any truth in these judgements Labor should act. One consolation for Mark Latham is that because he only became leader in December 2003 he bears no personal responsibility for the team of Labor candidates he took to the last election.