In Search Of Rank And File


On election day it is not simply the party with the best ideas that wins.

A political party, to be a viable force, must have more than policies and parliamentarians. It also needs to have a critical mass of activists who are members or supporters of the parliamentary party. These are the people who mobilise at election time to help the parliamentarians and candidates, as well as being the talent pool from which the parliamentarians and candidates are primarily drawn. The labour movement parties in Australia and in the other comparable democracies pioneered what came to be known as "the mass party", consisting not only of prominent backers and parliamentarians but also of "rank and file" members who would have a stake in its future.

Its key to electoral success was its effectiveness as a democratic organisation binding the parliamentary party to the people. In its early history the rise of the labour movement parties was meteoric, and they smashed the old informal parliamentary groupings.

In Australia, it was Robert Menzies who organised non-Labor into a mass party with a vibrant and loyal membership to rival Labor. Now, with Labor in the ascendant and the Liberals out of office everywhere but Western Australia, non-Labor is looking to democratic ideas once more as it seeks ways out of its current crisis.

In Victoria — once the heartland of Menzies’s Liberals — moribund branches and membership threaten to undermine the critical mass necessary for the Liberals to win elections. Meanwhile the National Party, perpetually under attack all over the country from the major parties and independents, is now taking an even more radical step to populate their ranks or perish, by introducing US style "open primaries" into their preselection process.

Non-Labor is in a race to change itself, and its success or failure at democratic reform now will play a major role in determining the fate of future elections.

At stake is not merely the colour of future governments, but also the way in which citizens participate in Australian democracy. Successful democratic reform within one of the major parties will revolutionise Australian politics, as a successful party will by necessity lead all others down the same path. Based on recent trends, such a revolution will likely bring Australia closer to the American experience of politics.

The Liberals and Nationals attribute their current malaise to an underlying decline in the democratic health of their organisations. Reformers in both parties see increased democratic engagement as the road back to victory.

In their "Liberal Renewal" project (2008), the Victorian Secretariat headed by State President David Kemp undertook "an intensive enquiry into the reasons for our failure to win elections". At its base was the recognition that "both our organisation and our parliamentary team depend on the support of a vibrant and effective grassroots party".

The project’s conclusions were that the Liberal Party did not have the members and resources to match on the ground the forces of the Labor Party and the ACTU. Current trends in membership and resources are also in "the wrong direction", it reported, especially in terms of the need to recruit "thousands of new members in the younger and middle age groups". While the median age of the Victorian electorate is 43, the median age of the Victorian Liberal Party is 62. A party organisation that boasted 50,000 members in 1949 now has a little over 13,000 members concentrated disproportionately around the federal seats of Kooyong and Higgins. In 1977, 67 Liberal branches had over 100 members, compared to just seven such branches in 2007. Retention is as serious a problem as recruitment, with a churn of nearly half the members and average membership span of just 18 months.

Liberal Renewal reported that the key to attracting members and supporters is "to provide members with a party where they feel they are listened to … where they can feel significant satisfaction with their involvement in politics". As well as a rejuvenated local Party organisation, there needed to be greater connectedness between MPs and supporters.

It is these findings that are behind the push to democratise. Internal consultation picked up "a sense that pre-selections and elections within the party at higher levels are ‘closed shops’ — the results are tied up beforehand and that ordinary members do not have the say and influence they were seeking when they joined". Among the solutions proposed by reformers were "pre-selections for lower house seats to be conducted by plebiscites of all Party members in an electorate", including for the senate.

Previously, democracy in the Liberal party has been of a far more indirect nature, with branches electing delegates to councils. With far fewer active members and branches however, the party believes that a shift towards more direct democracy will not just empower members, but eliminate much of the bureaucratic process within the local party organisation and free up energy for activist activity. Liberal Renewal sees the internet as a particular tool of such democratisation, urging "the establishment of a state of the art internet web platform" for the party to be a key plank in democratising the party as well as attracting younger and more activist members.

There has also been a significant cultural shift in Australia since the foundation of the Liberal Party. Where popular culture goes, so politics must follow. Australians have recently become far more exposed to direct democracy due to the rapid explosion of reality TV voting and to the high coverage given to the highly democratised practice of American politics during the 2008 primary season. Voting has in both cases also proven a highly effective impetus to money raising. The interactive nature of internet culture and its high prevalence among the younger generations has also laid the groundwork for a radically democratised political culture. It has raised expectations among those who join political parties that they should be able to participate, particularly through voting.

The National Party leader Andrew Stoner and party chairwoman Christine Ferguson have seen this potential and taken democratic reform a step further than the Liberal reformers by opening the party not only to "empowering members", but the broader voter base. The Nationals are already a democratic mass party with a large membership. This has been a key to their longevity despite all the phophecies of doom levelled against them by the city. But it remains a party besieged particularly by the trend towards Independent voting in regional areas. The proposal to open its preselection to the broader electorate is a way of building and retaining a connection between the local community and the eventual National candidates. The Nationals have seen the writing on the wall and are trying to head it off.

Both reform movements in the Liberal and National parties demonstrate the potential resilience of the party system at a time when Labor is looking hegemonic in its financial, organisational and political dominance. Whether these reforms will be seriously under way or bearing fruit within the current electoral cycle however looks doubtful.

Non-Labor is not yet ready to win again, which is why they are in no hurry for an early election. The current "loss of critical mass and vibrancy" threatens the very viability of the Liberal Party as a party of government. In terms of talented candidates, diversity of ideas and fundraising capacity, the Liberal party has fallen behind Labor. Of course, many of the entrenched elites of the non-Labor parties would rather sit it out and wait for Labor to fail. That is the main reason they are not yet ready to lead.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.