Political Parties and Policy Formulation

I noted on the front page of The Weekend Australian a short time ago (June 2-3 2012) a lead for a story – “Australia’s relationship with China is immature and the federal government lacks clear policy on how to deal with the Country’s biggest trading partner in a climate where xenophobia remains, according to the West Australian Premier Colin Barnett”.

Additionally in a paper I read recently by Kaare Strøm, a Norwegian political scientist currently a professor at the University of California, San Diego, titled “A Behavioural Theory of Competitive Political Parties” I was intrigued by his views, written in 1988, about three models of competitive party behaviour.  The article discusses the relationships between vote-seeking, office-seeking and policy-seeking behaviour in competitive political parties.

In the past I have held a position as Policy Committee Chairman of a mainstream political party for over five years and, sadly, I find this topic of policy formulation fascinating.  Nevertheless, I’m a realist.  Let me give you my perspective on why policy seems so hard to formulate and indeed have it followed as doctrine worthy of the effort to produce.

Since 1965 I was the ninth policy committee chair spanning some four decades, we all had many issues in the area of Policy Formulation; not specifically with the Parliamentary Party but also with the organisational wing of this party.  Each of the other Chair’s stories were different.  This will ever be thus!

I concluded after my time that the concerns of any Division would never be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction but there are some givens as follows:

  •  Policy formulation is not easy and very, very few people on both sides, Parliamentary and Organisational are equipped to carry out the task.
  • The process of Policy formulation depends greatly upon the election cycle.  The third term Howard Government approached the process in a drastically different way than did the Barnett State Opposition.
  • In any electoral cycle, superimposed are the personal aspects, the attitude and disposition of policy chairpersons, leaders, presidents, delegates and members.  There are different people in place at every turn of the electoral age.  People change regularly in positions of influence and the political environment transforms habitually.
  • Political animals climbing the ladder will not follow a set format, as one should with a corporate process under say; an International Quality Standard.  Politics is not a business.

I further concluded that Policy formulation should stem from a solid philosophical base.  This is why most parties have a Party Platform, which defines their reason for being and their beliefs.

If policy is written for politically expedient or populist reasons; rather than strong philosophical reason to the betterment of the State and the Electors, then we must question why we follow that particular party.  However, in politics we are always going to have the political opportunist, the policy on-the-run protagonist.

When politicians are criticised for being populist it means that they are pandering to what is popular, reinforcing public prejudices irrespective of their validity, over-simplifying and distorting policy options, taking the politically expedient rather than optimal or principled course.

There seems to be no place in a political party for the Key Performance Indicator, reporting and compliance for the Public.  Some leaders will be dismissive of the role of an internal policy committee in the policy development process.  Some will consistently encourage the committee to proactively develop policy ideas and discuss these ideas.

To that end, I believe internal party policy committees become pragmatic beasts – after rigorously engaging in the policy formulation process or debate, they rarely influence the Parliamentary party.  They usually vow to continue the engagement of the entire party community for the betterment of their party ideals but sadly the incumbents are usually doing the numbers rather than focussing on Policy.

At the end of my particular time in the Chair (2004) I remember writing that “The debate on the ‘Policy Process’ is over.  It was an enormously successful progression but only led to the gratification of those concerned at the time.  Let’s now stop talking, roll the sleeves up, and work hard to win these next two elections.  Those coming behind us will debate this again, come to the same conclusions and move on”.

Functions of Political Parties


This site, ‘australianpolitics.com’, is the work of Malcolm Farnsworth a secondary school teacher in Melbourne.  It began as a site for students of the Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE) Political Studies course and originally appeared as VCEpolitics.com in 1995.  It is worth a read from time to time.

Malcolm writes that in a Westminster parliamentary democracy, such as Australia, organised political parties “are seen” as fulfilling a number of important functions.

  1. They draw together people who have similar political philosophies and ideas.
  2. The Parties are the chief means by which political power is exercised in Australia.
  3. Parties select candidates to contest elections for public office.  Since the parties provide the candidates for election, it follows that parties also provide the nation’s political leaders.
  4. In the parliamentary arena, political parties provide the government and opposition.
  5. In government and opposition, political parties provide organisational support.  The party machine, is responsible for organising and financing election campaigns, developing policies and recruiting members.  (note here developing policies).
  6. Malcolm Farnsworth seems strong on this aspect – Parties articulate philosophies and develop policies.  All parties have methods of debating issues and formulating policies to be presented to the electorate during election campaigns.  In government or opposition, parties utilise these policy-making processes to determine their attitude to legislation and issues of the day. (so organised political parties “are seen” as fulfilling this function)
  7. Parties are an avenue for community groups to influence the decision-making process.
  8. Parties are one of the main avenues for political debate and discussion in the community, and
  9. Parties are ultimately responsible for the structure of the machinery of government.

An Example

Sometimes there seems to be a perception within a Party that Policies are designed and adopted by the Parliamentary arm of the Party without serious reference and respect to the “lay” party.  To many, this is unacceptable as this serves to alienate the two arms of the Party in a time when cohesion is paramount.  To regain Government parties need to work together.  Without this partnership, they will not win Government.

The Constitution of one Party states that there must the establishment of a group of nine (9) standing committees – two of which are the Policy Committee and the Rural Policy Committee.

The role of the Policy committee is outlined in the Party Rules:

  1. to formulate and keep the policies of the party under constant review
  2. to make recommendations to State Council for alteration or variation of the policies of the Party or any additions thereto, and
  3. to consult with the Leaders of the Parliamentary Sections in respect of all policy matters

Another constitutional clause states:

Policy decisions of the State Conference or State Council shall not be binding upon the Parliamentary Sections but shall be dealt with as follows:

  • policy resolutions passed by State Conference or State Council shall be forwarded to the Leader of the relevant parliamentary Section for submission to a meeting of the relevant Parliamentary Section.
  • The relevant Parliamentary Section shall consider the policy resolutions and the Leader or his nominee shall communicate its decision in respect of such resolutions and the reasons therefor to the State Director who shall in turn communicate such decisions to the State President, the chairman of the Policy Committee or the Rural Policy Committee as the case may be and the secretary of the Constituent Body which submitted the resolution.

Constitutional Reality

Clearly, policy formulation is achieved at the behest of the Parliamentary Party and the level of communication with the lay party varies greatly.  At my particular time the Policy committee and the existing Parliamentary Party developed a set of protocols under which policy formulation could be conducted.  They were as follows.

  1. Ultimate responsibility for policy decisions should lie with the Parliamentary Party.  This is through the Parliamentary Leader, Shadow Ministers and the Party Room and where appropriate State Council and the Party Committees
  1. Every effort is made to ensure public comment and media releases are consistent and based on well-developed policy principles.  There are times, however, when Shadow Ministers are required to react quickly to issues running in the media.  Such statements are usually coordinated with the Leader’s office.
  1. More formalised policy statements will become the building blocks of our election platform.  To date, these have taken the form of ‘Position Statements’ that have been issued for public comment and feedback.
  1. These ‘Position Statements’ are developed by Shadow Ministers and circulated for comment prior to being formally adopted at a Party Room meeting.
  1. Unless there is some exceptional circumstance, the ‘Position Statements’ will also be provided to the Policy Committee for comment prior to being publicly released.
  1. The Policy Committee should also bring forward topics and points of view for ‘Position Statements’.  This is an important way of feeding through both philosophical positions and particular matters of concern to Party Members.
  1. Detailed policies based on these ‘Position Statements’ – which will include properly costed portfolio-specific initiatives – will be developed in conjunction with the Policy Committee and released in the lead up to the next State Election.

So an agreed position was taken and with a fairly dynamic policy committee, party members were invited to engage as much as they wanted but the quality of the input was marginal.

Another Example – Policy-making in the Democrats: Time for a change?


This site is the Australian Review of Public Affairs whose mission is: “To reflect upon and evaluate the design and redesign of Australia’s public policies and institutions, as well as Australia’s relations and responsibilities in the broader world community”.

The article argues, inter alia, that – “the party’s internal organisation continues to hinder the Democrats, especially in devising policy.  Although its policy processes have successfully served the party, the Democrats need to modernise these processes so the party can be more responsive in the current political climate”.  It is also stated that – “The Democrats remain unique in allowing all rank and file members direct influence in policy making”

The article goes on the explain how the Democrats make policy where it is again stated that the Australian Democrats pride themselves on being a political party in which ordinary people can have a real say on policy and can shape the direction of the party.

As an aside the article talks of the ‘iron law of oligarchy’ hypothesised by French political scientist Robert Michels (1959 p. 3), where, as a party grows, the direct participation of its members tends to decrease.  This is also my observation.

Apparently the Democrats once successfully avoided the erosion of internal democracy with a continuing commitment to actively seeking the direct participation of rank and file members.  The party’s ethos was based on consensus, participation, and non-confrontation.  Policies could be initiated by members, policy committees, or the national executive.  The policy committee then conducted research into the policy by checking consistency with current policy and by facilitating internal discussion and consultation outside of the party.

The draft policies that emerged from that process were published in the National Journal distributed to all members.  Letters and comments on the draft policy appeared in the subsequent edition of the National Journal and were discussed on the member’s forum on the Internet.  Members voting on the, if required re-drafted, policy.  Once the results of the ballot were declared, the policy came into effect, and was published in final form in the Journal.  These balloted policies formed the ‘basis for more specific documents for the Party’, such as issue sheets, platform, position and background papers.

The article goes on to explain that this method of policy formation is inclusive and demonstrates the Democrat’s commitment to pluralism within its membership. However, it is also time consuming, expensive, and can disadvantage the Democrats in the political process. Another problem is how long it takes from the initiation to the adoption of a policy, especially in an electorate with limited patience for politics.  Thus, it was argued that the ethos of participatory and consensual politics disadvantaged the Democrats.

The article goes on to site policy-making in the Australian Greens who also emphasise member participation in policy formulation.  However, the Greens’ procedure differs markedly from the Democrats’ where the Greens have a peak body of members (known as the National Council) comprised of nominated delegates and empowered with the task of co-ordinating policy at a national level.  Policies are adopted as official national policy only by the consensus of a National Conference.

Rank and file Greens members are entitled to participate in discussion, but the existence of a national body to oversee policy allows the Greens to employ a more organisationally ‘tight’ mechanism for policy development and adoption.

The article goes on to propose reform for the then Democrats and instead of holding the entire membership responsible for its entire range of policies, the Democrats should create Specific Policy Units (SPUs).  Each SPU would make policy for one area, such as health, or environment, and so on.  Each state division would have their own SPU on each major policy area.  Rank and file members would have the option of joining one or more SPU in the field of their interest or expertise.

SPUs in each state would need to meet at least every three months to discuss and formulate policy.  Members unable to attend a meeting could send a proxy.  All SPUs on the same policy would meet on the same date.  For example SPUs on health in all states would meet on the same date.  Each SPU on the same policy area would also be able to meet with their counterparts in other states, although this would not be necessary.  Policies must be adopted by consensus in the SPUs, or if a vote is taken, at least two-thirds majority of the members of that SPU must agree.  After a SPU has adopted a policy, the policy is sent to the state division for approval to ensure the policy complies with the goals of the party. The state division then forwards the policy to the national executive for ratification.

Sadly, this will never come to anything – the Democrats are no more, perhaps the party’s great strengths were also its most telling weaknesses.  Its members were entitled to vote according to their consciences rather than a party ‘whip’, and the national membership had to be polled on major issues.  This meant that internal disagreements were frequent and difficult to resolve.

After the 2007 election the Labor Government had to deal with a finely balanced upper house, but the composition of the cross bench was very different without the Democrats.

The Greens seem to have a tighter ideological approach, and now find it difficult to deal with legislation as openly as the Democrats did.


Political parties are made up of people some vote-seeking, some office-seeking but few displaying policy-seeking behaviour.

Policy formulation is not easy and very, very few people on both sides, Parliamentary and Organisational are equipped to carry out the task.

Party constitutions and rules deal with policy processes but people have to follow process and that just does not happen.

The “iron law of oligarchy” states that all forms of organisation, regardless of how democratic they may be at the start, will eventually and inevitably develop oligarchic tendencies, thus making true democracy practically and theoretically difficult, especially in large groups and complex organisations.  The relative structural fluidity in a small-scale democracy succumbs to “social viscosity” in a large-scale organisation.  According to the “iron law,” democracy and large-scale organisation are incompatible.


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