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Political demographics re-aligned

By Greg Barns and Jason Falinski - posted Wednesday, 15 May 2002


Bob Hawke and Neville Wran’s current review of the ALP needs to be replicated in the Liberal Party. Like the ALP, the Liberal Party is facing the critical question of how it can become relevant again to the Australian community. As the recent French elections have demonstrated, if moderate political parties lose relevance to the electorate, extremists will fill the vacuum.

In the case of the Liberal Party, it needs to examine itself in the context of the faintly emerging fissure in its supporter base, that may one day tear it apart. That fissure is between the educated higher income earners who have traditionally voted Liberal, but who are turning away from the Party because of its populist right wing stance on a range of issues. And the new Liberal voters – the lower to middle income earners.

As the Australian National University's National Leadership Centre put it in its analysis of the last federal election, John Howard has ‘traded support from those living in Sydney’s inner north shore for people living in Sydney’s western suburbs. This is a significant demographic re-alignment in Australian politics.’

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If the Hawke/Wran review leads to a Labor Party that loosens the union ties significantly, and picks up ideas such as that of Queensland Premier Peter Beattie, such as "theme" branches, and if it empowers grass-root members, then many of those traditional Liberal voters might well feel very comfortable with a Labor Party that is socially and economically progressive.

The Liberal Party, like Labor, operates in a practical sense on a model of society that existed in the 1950s: local branches that meet at 8 o’clock in the evening with an agenda that consists of reviewing expenditure on mail-outs, and where policy debate is actively discouraged beyond moving motions that support your party's position. To an increasingly well-educated community, such a format is major turn-off.

So why doesn’t the Party examine discussion groups based around policy areas such as education and health or even stem cell research? And what about virtual branches that transact most of their business over email and come together two or three times a year for a major policy seminar? Or allowing Party members to feel as though they have some say in policy outcomes by forming coalitions with community organisations, educational institutions and professional groups to work with a backbench committee or a Minister on policy proposals?

The Hawke/Wran review appears to be heading towards such a cultural change where the Party accepts then promotes, internal dissent as a necessary and healthy part of a modern political party. They also appear to be encouraging the ALP to move away from factional and bloc voting.

At the moment the Liberal Party is going the other way. At the Party’s recent Federal Council, policy debate could have been mistaken for some slapstick comedy sketch, where everyone fell over themselves in a desperate attempt to be the first to agree with each other. The major exception was Malcolm Turnbull's innovative education reform proposals, prepared by the Party’s own think tank of which he is Chair.

The Education Minister, Dr Nelson, could not have moved faster to dismiss the proposals if he tried. Some were left with the impression that education is not an issue in Australia. The argument seemed to go: 'sure we don't have one single university in the top global 100, but why bother with any meaningful reform when Australians have always accepted substandard education as long as it is substantially free?' No one dared disagree.

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The Liberal Party needs a Hawke/Wran review. If those old warhorses are successful in designing a 21st century Labor Party then the Liberal Party will be in real trouble if it does not rebuild its own house along similar lines.

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About the Authors

Greg Barns is National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

Jason Falinski is managing director of CareWell a provider of furniture and equipment to the health sector, and a former national president of the Young Liberal Movement.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Greg Barns
All articles by Jason Falinski
Related Links
Australian Labor Party
Liberal Party of Australia
Young Liberals
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