08 September 2015
by Syd Hickman

Parties without members

The almost universal abdication of ordinary people from any active role in political parties has resulted in a very weird political landscape.

The Liberal Party is engaged in a civil war between the dominant religious hard right conservative faction of Tony Abbott and the more rational, truly liberal faction of Malcolm Turnbull.

A steady stream of internal leaks continues to destabilise the government, with the main aim of driving down Abbott's poll numbers so that wavering MPs will join the revolution and remove him. Hockey's pro-republican stance, along with Christopher Pyne's gay marriage and pro-republican statements, could signal that they have signed on for Malcolm.

Meanwhile Abbott is revving up Scott Morrison as his replacement in the almost certain event that his continuation as PM becomes untenable.

One way to see this leadership contest is as a battle by more sane MPs to wrestle the party away from a conservative-dominated general membership, in the hope of reconstructing it when they are in control.

Even at the organisational level the problem of an extremely conservative membership has been recognised. The lack of ordinary citizens contributing as active members has now led to experimenting with new rules, including giving ordinary members more say in pre-selections. That these rules will be trialled in Labor held seats shows the lack of faith in the existing members wisdom.

And who can blame the Executive. The party membership is dominated by oddballs and very old people, but particularly by people in the 10% or so of Australians who still take religion seriously. The case of Phillip Ruddock is an interesting example. The story from insiders is that he has stayed so long in the parliament because his retirement would have seen a religious right MP, genuinely representative of his branches' membership, take the seat.

The ALP has a similar problem, but with the huge complication of union votes. The absence of members has led to weird experiments such as inviting non-party members to vote in pre-selections. This, completely predictably, has worked well for the far left because the great majority of ordinary Labor voters want nothing to do with the ALP organisation.

But the main impact has been an increase in union power, just as the unions fade out of the lives of around 90% of workers. A few years ago an assistant State Secretary of the ALP explained to me, making what he clearly considered a completely obvious point, that Prime Minister Gillard could not support causes such as euthanasia [which has 80% popular support] because the Shop Assistants Union would not permit it.

Attempts to engage the ALP membership by giving them votes for political and administrative leaders have had little impact. The last election for Party President attracted only around 10 000 voters.

The extreme idea for Labor is to split entirely from the union movement. This would remove some problems but would hand more power to the small and unrepresentative existing membership.

As with the Liberal Party, giving the existing members more power in the hope of attracting a more broadly representative membership in the future is a risky business. Despite years of talk not much has been achieved.

The Greens new leader, Senator Richard Di Natale, is probably the sanest, least obnoxious person to hold that position. But he was installed in a very tricky manoeuvre after the sudden resignation of his predecessor. This was necessary because the membership, given time, would have pushed for a more extreme option.

The Greens maintain a high level of secrecy about their internal affairs, and this is usually interpreted as part of their old far left heritage, but it could well be due to a need to hide the membership from scrutiny. Some relatively normal people who have attempted to join The Greens report that the branch meetings are rather scary events. One meeting is usually enough.

As Di Natale and his MP supporters try to make the party more electable the greatest opposition is likely to come from his own members.

The general public is way out in front of the politicians on issues such as gay marriage, euthanasia, promotion of alternative energy sources, population, the republic, and more. But the unrepresentative nature of political party membership stops the adoption of popular policies. The Greens have adopted some of the popular positions but their members' insistence on crazy economics and self-righteous moralising means they are not an option for most voters.

It is almost impossible to see the old model of a mass party, with well-attended monthly meetings in community halls, ever being revived. In the era of big-money politics the membership have little practical or financial value to the party leaders and the old ideologies are no longer sources of inspiration or fear.

Rather than trying to get sane citizens to sign up it could be time to try something radical and abandon the old idea completely. Parties could be registered as a form of company with very limited ownership. Each one would be dominated by Members of Parliament and candidates, and a few financial backers. Funds could still be raised from donors who supported the policy program developed.

In practice that would not be much different to what happens now, except that the need to appease weird and recalcitrant memberships would disappear. New, more specific and short-term ways to engage the general public could then be developed.

The link between citizens and politicians is one of the many social structures in transition. Being first to create a successful new model could deliver great success.