The Liberal Party’s principal problem is its shortage of grass-roots members, writes Jonathan Lightoller.
On November 24, 2007, the Australian people voted out of office the Howard Coalition Government. It was not the landslide some of the media claimed at the time, but it was a decisive win for the incoming Labor Government of Kevin Rudd. Only a 2 per cent swing is required to return the Coalition to office.
Nevertheless, the question remains why a successful government led by Australia’s second longest-serving Prime Minister lost after 12 years of effective government. This was after all the government that eliminated the previous Labor Government’s $96 billion public debt, restored Australia’s AAA credit rating, brought unemployment down to just over 4 per cent, lowered both inflation and interest rates, and boosted funding for health, education, defence and transport.
Was there a major tactical error in the Coalition, promoting in an election year its final plank in labour market reform, namely the controversial WorkChoices policy? Certainly, WorkChoices worked against the Coalition in the New South Wales state election of early 2007, when a Sydney Morning Herald/ AC Nielson poll found that 18 per cent of those surveyed nominated industrial relations as the most significant issue in the NSW election campaign. This is a significant but not overwhelming figure.
Moreover, the main impact in the NSW state election appears to have been in marginal Labor seats with a high blue-collar vote. This therefore does not explain the Coalition loss to the scandal-ridden state Labor Government of Morris Iemma, which on any measure should have been defeated. It is even less satisfactory in explaining the Coalition loss at the federal level. Though the overall national swing to Labor was 5.7 per cent, in the two dozen seats that Labor gained the swings were all over the place, and it is hard to detect any uniform connection to Work Choices.
Did the Senate majority enjoyed by the Howard Government in its final years encourage arrogance and a disregard for the Parliament and the electorate? Was the Senate majority in fact a “poisoned chalice”? Some, such as Andrew Robb, the federal member for Goldstein and now shadow minister for foreign affairs, have argued that it was.
There were some signs in the last year or two of the Howard Government of increasing remoteness from the electorate, but that could be just as much a long-running government suffering from its prolonged isolation in Canberra.
Also unhelpful in the 18 months or so prior to the federal election were the continuing leadership tensions between Prime Minister Howard and Treasurer Peter Costello. Intermittent leaking to the media by Costello supporters of a possible leadership challenge to John Howard did substantial damage to the Coalition’s re-election prospects. After all, it was much easier for federal Labor to argue that Howard had reached his “use by date” when Costello supporters had run the same campaign over the preceding years.
The absurdity of it all, though, is underlined by the fact that Peter Costello never, even remotely, had the numbers to take over the leadership. His firm base of support never exceeded 20 senators and MPs, or about one sixth of the parliamentary Liberal Party.
All of these negative factors on the Coalition’s side — that is, the impact of WorkChoices, possible arrogance from a Senate majority and in particular, ongoing leadership tensions — coupled with a clever, focused and professional campaign by the Labor Party, contributed in significant measure to the change of federal government.
The departure of the Howard Government highlighted the sobering fact that the Liberal Party, and for that matter its Coalition partner, the National Party, were no longer in government anywhere in Australia. This is a virtually unprecedented situation for a party that has dominated Australian politics since its formation in 1944, especially at the federal level where the Liberal Party has been the dominant Coalition Government partner for 42 years of the last six decades.
This core reason is the systematic shrinkage of the party organisation itself as a broad-based mass democratic party representing a diverse range of interests across the community. The late Sir Robert Menzies, and those who founded the Liberal Party together with him, envisaged the party as a wide-ranging inclusive body representing the entire community. They were determined to redress deep-rooted ailments of the Liberals’ predecessor, the United Australia Party, which by the end of the 1930s was an empty hulk manipulated by sectional interests. It was put out of its misery by the Curtin Labor victory of 1941.
The Victorian division of the Liberal Party is a classic illustration of what has gone wrong with the Liberal Party over recent years, though its story of woe is replicated on a lesser scale in other divisions. Once the jewel in the Liberal crown, the Victorian division is now a pale reflection of its former glory.
In the late 1970s, during the early and middle years of the Fraser Government, the Victorian division had over 30,000 financial members. However, by April 2008, membership had fallen to just over 13,000, only a limited proportion of whom are active. This attrition of membership is even worse when set against Victoria’s population growth over this time. Even the once great Young Liberal Movement, which in earlier times could boast nearly 40 branches across the state, at last count has only four constitutional branches.
As the party’s membership declines, lack of manpower becomes a crucial concern, especially at election time when manning polling-booths for successive elections becomes a near impossible task in many electorates. Fund-raising, particularly at the local level, becomes more difficult, though the growth of local supporters’ 200 and 500 clubs has overcome this to a significant degree. In addition, there are fewer Liberals available to become involved in local community organisations, to stand in municipal council elections and to generally represent the party at the grassroots level of society.
However, the most disturbing consequence is not logistical or financial; it is cultural. As the Liberal Party has shrunk in numerical size, so too has its capacity to be representative of the community at large. It is often argued that the smaller the party gets, the less it reflects the concerns, values and aspirations of mainstream Australia. In a parliamentary democracy, a major political party that is culturally isolated is in real danger of ultimate oblivion.
Moreover, a shrinking Liberal Party is even more vulnerable to the machinations of political factions. Some degree of factionalism, groupings around leadership aspirants, coalitions to fight causes, are an inevitable part of the political process. However, loose groupings around causes or individuals that change like anthills are very different to the unofficial but formalised factions that have taken root in the Liberal Party in nearly every state and territory division over the last 10 to 20 years.
The Victorian division has been one of the worst affected. It should be noted that the factions are largely based, and are at their most powerful, in the inner-city electorates. In the outer suburbs and the country they are largely viewed with a curious mixture of amusement, puzzlement and at times dismay. People in these areas are too busy earning a living, raising families, paying mortgages and running businesses or farms to waste time on factional game-playing.
The factions make only a minimal pretence of any intellectual or philosophical position; they are as factions have been since time immemorial about the pursuit of power, position and public office.
Since 1988, except for one relatively short period, the dominant faction of the Victorian division of the Liberal Party has been that run by merchant banker Michael Kroger and former Treasurer Peter Costello.
The factional warfare of the Victorian division has been accompanied by an increasing centralisation of power in the state administrative committee, a diminution of branch and electorate authority and vicious pre-selection battles often aimed at putting factional candidates into winnable seats with the object being to seize control of the federal and state parliamentary parties.
The really ugly side of Victorian factionalism was revealed in May of this year when it became public that two Liberal headquarters staff had been sacked over running from the state secretariat a website directed at denigrating the state Opposition leader, Ted Baillieu. Two other sackings followed in the aftermath.
This sort of undermining of Liberal leaders, MPs candidates by bloggers with outrageously fabricated material has in fact been going on for years. What is remarkable is someone finally got caught and that it happened out of the party’s headquarters.
The other extraordinary elements of the blogging scandal are the sheer bile of the material used and attempts, through leaks, by senior factional individuals to justify the actions of the bloggers and protect them from disciplinary action.
Where to now for the Liberal Party?
Michael Kroger publicly suggested a week after the federal election defeat that there needed to be a major revamping of branch structure, including branch amalgamations and aligning of branches with federal or state electorates. However, these proposals relate more to rationalising a shrinking membership base rather than dealing with the problem of a shrinking membership base itself.
The new federal Opposition leader Dr Brendan Nelson and others have suggested that a merger with the National Party would be one way of more effectively concentrating Coalition resources in an election. This and some other suggestions are not without merit.
However, in all of these suggestions the principal problem has been completely overlooked. That is quite simply the sheer lack of grass-roots members of the party to replenish and renew the denuded branch structure.
Branch members must be made to feel that they are not merely election cannon-fodder or manipulated pawns in the latest faction brawl. They must be able to exert real influence over events, contribute to more decentralised policy-making and be confident that decisions made at branch level will not be snatched away from them. Above all else, the Liberal Party must show to its own branch members that they matter.
To rebuild itself as a mass democratic party, the Liberals must demonstrate to the wider Australian community that it is an inclusive organisation that involves and represents the interests of all Australians.
It is not there just for middle Australia, or just for professional and business people, or just for skilled tradesmen and farmers. It is there for them all. When the Liberal Party can reach out from itself to do that, it will recapture the hearts and minds of mainstream Australia.
— Jonathan Lightoller is a political analyst based in Victoria.