Don’t create an executive – empower our grassroots
Today’s Sydney Morning Herald is reporting on an email I sent to all local groups in the NSW Greens last week regarding a proposal to allocate significant parliamentary decision making powers to a small party committee. In the interests of transparency I reproduce that email below.
I strongly support the democratisation of decision making in the Greens, but believe that reform should empower the grassroots membership of the party, not give significant powers to a small committee of insiders. Modern technology means we can efficiently empower and consult our membership on difficult or significant decisions. The Greens should be about participatory democracy, not delegating democracy to a small committee. I outline some ideas for reform at the end of the email.
Don’t create an executive – empower our grassroots
By Jeremy Buckingham
A proposal is coming to the SDC that will create a party executive and leave the Greens vulnerable to accusations that decisions are being made by ‘faceless men and women’.
For many years there has been a debate in the party about whether we should give a Parliamentary Liaison Committee (PLC) the power to make decisions and direct the Greens’ Members of Parliament. Proposal GGDC 2 PLC Voting Protocols for decision at the coming State Delegates Council in Ballina on 6 December 2014 would enact such a power. This proposal would shift significant powers to a small group of party insiders who have very little accountability. This committee is not even mentioned in the NSW Greens Constitution, but would have the ability to direct members of Parliament how to vote on legislation.
This proposal represents a fundamental change that undermines the principles of the Greens NSW, grassroots democracy and facilitates factionalism in the Greens. This proposal does not reflect the diverse views within the Greens NSW, the submissions to Governance and Grassroots working group, nor the range of views that were expressed at the workshop on the PLC held at the last SDC.
While it may be superficially attractive to give a select number of ‘ordinary members’ the power to direct our MPs how to vote in parliament, it is in fact anti-democratic and presents numerous dangers for the Greens. When the Parliamentary Liaison Committee (PLC) was originally set up at the State Delegates Council (SDC) on 17 June 2000, the resolution specifically noted that “PLC be consultative and advisory only and have no decision making powers delegated to it”. For 15 years the role and need for the PLC has been debated in the party with a significant proportion of the party expressing concern at continual moves to make the PLC a powerful executive.
The current proposal finally morphs the PLC into a powerful party executive or politburo. Creating a powerful executive is not consistent with grassroots and participatory democracy. This is particularly true when the democratic mandate and accountability of such an executive is extremely limited. If this executive is given the power to direct MPs how to vote in parliament, then (rightly or wrongly) we will face accusations from the media and the public about ‘faceless men and women’ running the party.
Compare the democratic mandate of an MP compared to a PLC member. An MP goes through a rigorous pre-selection process where 3,000+ members can vote. They are then elected at a state election where millions vote. A PLC member is elected by a few votes cast by 30-40 local group delegates – the regional quota means a member can be elected with virtually no votes. In 2013 a PLC member was elected with only 3 local group delegate votes. While in principle local group delegate votes are meant to represent their local group membership’s will, the reality is many delegates are not instructed by their local groups how to vote and thus only a few individuals are making these decisions. Three people, or 1/1000th of the membership, could elect a PLC member.
An MP has many forms of accountability. They are held to account through parliamentary processes and law. As public figures the media holds MPs to account. MPs are accountable to the PLC as it exists now, local groups, 6 SDC’s and an AGM. MPs are accessible to members of the party and the public. Ultimately, they are accountable at preselection and election time. The PLC is not mentioned in the Constitution of the Greens NSW and yet this proposal would give it more power than the Party Room.
SDC elected PLC members have no accountability. Whilst the PLC covenor reports to SDC there is no reporting or accountability requirements for PLC members. There is no requirement they attend SDCs or even local group meetings. They are not public figures and are not easily accessible to members of the party or public.
Pecuniary and conflicts of interest
A Member of Parliament must abide by the parliament’s pecuniary interest requirements. Their financial interests and entitlements are publicly declared and can be audited by the parliament. They are likely to be investigated by the police or ICAC if they breach the requirements and rules of public office. A PLC member has no requirement to declare any interest nor any register of interests.
Giving PLC members the power to determine parliamentary votes means that any conflicts of interest could have serious implications, not only in terms of the outcomes of parliamentary votes, but of public perceptions of the party. In short, creating positions of power without proper transparency and accountability creates a significant corruption risk.
Undermines the Party Room
Creating the PLC as an executive effectively creates an alternative Party Room. It undermines the need for the Party Room to come to a resolution and consensus, as conflict can simply be referred to the PLC in the hope of a different outcome.
Political and parliamentary understanding
There can be a high degree of complexity in analysing legislation, understanding the political context, parliamentary procedures, and stakeholder liaison. MPs work full time in their portfolios, have professional staff and create ongoing relationships with stakeholders, so to outsource the actual decision making to party volunteers with limited time is fraught. In my experience the PLC discussions are dominated by MP’s who have the expertise and invariably provide the background and context for discussions.
The PLC risks becoming a forum for factional proxies to engage on behalf of MPs they are philosophically aligned with. As we have seen in the Labor and Liberal Parties, such committees can be used by the dominant faction to wield power and punish those of other factions or independents. While factionalism can never be eliminated, it is an increased risk when the selection of committee members is made by a small number of delegates at an SDC, rather than the broader grassroots membership at a preselection or plebiscite.
Crisis of authority
The significant differential in the democratic mandate between an elected MP and a PLC member means that if the PLC tried to bind MPs to a certain position that some or all MPs were uncomfortable with, there may be a crisis and a damaging split. While splits can never be avoided entirely, having a split within a Party Room where the democratic mandate is equal is a simpler proposition than a split between groupings with different democratic mandates.
Even if you ignore the issues described above and theoretically accept that a party executive is a democratically defensible proposition, there is still the issue of public perceptions. A party executive will be seen as anti-democratic by the public and will be seen as similar to the party machines of the Labor and Liberal Parties – which are largely resented by the public.
Ultimately representative democracy is a public endeavour and our party’s power comes from the hundreds of thousands of people who vote Greens. To move the point of parliamentary decision making from a Party Room of elected MPs, to an executive of unknown party members will be met with great suspicion by the media and public.
Rather than create a party executive we should empower the grassroots
Inevitably there will occasionally be irreconcilable differences in the Party Room. The Greens’ model of consensus decision making, rather than simple majority decision making, means this problem is exacerbated. Creating a party executive simply shifts the exact same problem to a different grouping with less accountability and less democratic mandate. It is not a solution at all.
A better model for resolving these differences is to empower and engage the grassroots of the party. We can do this with plebiscite votes of the membership, or quick decision making processes of local groups. Engaging the broader membership will provide the ultimate democratic answer to any question, without creating any crisis in legitimacy or accountability.
Recently the party has conducted several party-wide quick decision making processes to gauge the membership’s position on issues such as blocking supply in the Senate and the Party’s position on the indexation of fuel tax. These processes were successful in engaging the broader party membership in debate, revealing the sentiment of the broader membership, and doing so quickly and relatively efficiently. Many members enjoyed and appreciated the experience of being consulted on these issues.
With modern technology, quick decision making by local groups, or membership plebiscites can be done as quickly as convening a meeting of a committee. The PLC model of an executive committee is last century’s answer to party democracy. This century’s answer should be genuine engagement with the grassroots facilitated by modern technologies.
A sensible way forward
Rather than morph the PLC into a party executive, I believe we should split decision-making along the following lines:
Where the Party Room cannot form a position and the dispute is inter-personal in nature, it will be referred to the PLC for resolution with both PLC members and MPs participating in such a decision.
Where the dispute is about interpretation of party policy, political strategy, forming a position on legislation, other parliamentary matters, or anything else, the dispute should be referred to the SDC, or a membership plebiscite or party-wide quick decision making process – depending on the urgency of the issue.
Such a demarcation in decision making processes has already been discussed by the PLC members and MPs. It means the PLC can return to its original role of being a consultative and advisory body for MPs, while genuinely empowering the grassroots of the party with any difficult and major strategic or policy decisions.
For ten years I have served on the PLC as an elected member and now as an MP and I believe it is undemocratic and unnecessary to create an executive when we should be exploring mechanisms that trust and empower the decision making with the grassroots of our wonderful party.
All the best,