I don’t agree that Lee Rhiannon should’ve conceded this point to Uhlmann so readily:
CHRIS UHLMANN: You are in fact the only Australian political party which doesn’t allow access to its conferences.
LEE RHIANNON: I don’t think that’s actually probably true. I think you’ll probably mean of all the parliamentary parties.
CHRIS UHLMANN: Certainly you are a parliamentary party?
LEE RHIANNON: Yes, now a parliamentary party but when you said political parties I think there’s others that have closed doors.
CHRIS UHLMANN: But as a parliamentary party don’t you believe the media should have access to your…
LEE RHIANNON: That’s what I just said, I think there is room for us to change how we work here, and it’s an issue I have discussed with my colleagues. I think there is a real need to be more open and one always needs to reflect on how we can improve our own work.
The thing is, there are two main approaches to party democracy.
There’s the American system, where you have two pretty much permanent unchallengeable parties (with first past the post and no preference system, it’s virtually impossible for any new party to challenge them; as you grow, you cannibalise the big party that’s closest to you and put the big party you dislike the most into power). The two established parties become, effectively, government institutions. So those two parties supposedly contain all the different viewpoints, the vast spectrum on “left” and “right”, within them. There are only two parties, but they have very broad bases – because the entire population is expected to pick one or the other. This also means that you never know in advance what particular position such a party will take on an issue, because it depends on the internal makeup at any particular time.
This is the system that the Labor and Liberal parties here like to emulate.
In that system, it makes sense for the media to have full access to those parties’ conferences, because that’s where the democracy actually happens. In the election, it’s just a choice between two (often very similar) choices. What those choices are – that’s what is decided in the party conferences, or primaries.
So if you believe we have to have a Labor or Liberal government, then we need to know what the numbers are internally. We need to know whether they’re presently representing the views of the left, or the right. Note that we never see the internal faction conferences – and the bigger ALP and Liberal party factions are probably about the same size as the Greens – but we get to see, sort of, what happens when they thrash out what the policy of the whole party is going to be. And that makes sense, because that’s effectively like a limited parliament where the decisions are actually made.
The second approach to party democracy is one where the parties themselves are smaller and represent specific views. They don’t try to encompass opposite sides of the spectrum simultaneously. Where instead of groups A, B and C being contained within the Labor Party and groups D, E and F being contained within the Liberal Party, those groups are parties in their own right and the debates on policy take place in parliament. (This also means that just because A, B, and C agree on one issue, it doesn’t mean that they are lumped together on another – A, D and E might agree on a social issue, but with the big party system they’re prevented from voting together.)
Anyway, my point is that the Greens are an ideological grouping more like the factions within the big parties. They’re largely on the same side. The main effect of inviting the media in would be to create further factions within the Greens and start the party down the path to becoming just like the big parties. It would enable the media to focus on personality instead of policy. It would mean that the real policy decisions are, as they are in the big parties, made in another forum before the conferences. Refining a position is never effectively done in the full glare of the media – not by the Greens, not by any political party.
I’d rather the parties sorted out their positions and their candidates in their own time, and then presented their views for us, the voters, to choose between. And then they’d debate and negotiate, party to party, in parliament.
The extra scrutiny required of the internal workings of the big parties only comes from the fact that they appear to be, for many, the permanent institutions of government. As soon as that assumption changes, my need to know what they do internally will vanish as well.
And if you want to influence Greens policy, there’s nothing stopping you joining the party and going along to the conferences yourself.