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What are you doing here?

By Andrew Elder - posted Thursday, 29 January 2009

What does it mean to be a member of a branch of a political party? This is the sort of thing that the Liberal Party needs to think through over the long term, but will instead settle for a short-term fix ... if only one were available.

Members of political parties used to:

  1. raise funds for political parties at election time;
  2. hand out how-to-vote cards at polling booths;
  3. have a substantial say in who the party would choose as candidates; and
  4. contribute Liberal candidates from their ranks.

This is the traditional role of the party member, but it is not the contemporary reality:

  1. political parties raise much more money from donations and fundraisers than party members are capable of raising. A Millennium Forum function at a major hotel can raise sums in the tens or hundreds of thousands; a function run by a branch might get 20 people along to a dinner with $10-20 a head profit going to the administration of a branch, or making a small contribution in an electorate that might not prove decisive in a wider campaign;
  2. the average age of a Liberal Party member in New South Wales is well into their 60s. They are not physically capable of standing around a polling booth from 8am to 6pm in all weathers, then scrutineering afterwards, then going to the after-party to watch the result and congratulate/commiserate with the candidate for whom they have worked. The Liberal Party increasingly pays people to hand out how-to-votes, which doesn't make for much commitment at the very point of engagement with the wider public;
  3. partly as a reaction against branch-stacking, and partly to facilitate the imposition of head office candidates, the input of local branch members is diminished when it comes to preselections. Branch members find candidates foisted upon them who have no idea what they do, and who are not grateful to them because they didn't help them get preselection. A Liberal MP experienced in the ways of the party relies on his or her local branch members to smooth over problems or bring them to the MP's attention. The Liberal MP inexperienced in party affairs has no idea and assumes that stuff gets taken care of with the same assiduousness as their own preselection; and
  4. as above: Brendan Nelson, Jackie Kelly and other Liberal MPs had been party members for less than a year before they were first elected. Part of the difficulty of duchessing people into becoming Liberal candidates is that the experience prepares them poorly for the hard graft of political life. They do not relate to their local branch members, which demotivates them.

All of the above applies to the ALP as well. Anthony Albanese might be enjoying his boot-on-the-other-foot moment but it doesn't contribute much to the wider debate. When it comes time to get rid of duds like Morris Iemma or Julia Irwin, we'll see who's sick.

The recent kerfuffle over Scott Morrison's foray into political homelessness illustrates how the changing nature of political parties encourages cluelessness. Morrison was a former State Director, he should have made it his business to get to know Liberal branch members in the Cook electorate and find out which were good branches, which weren't. His performance in that job shows he has a talent for sucking up to those with status and ignoring those without. Simply plumping for a branch "near his home" was an act of such pissant carelessness that he deserves being shown up by someone like John White.

The latest contribution from Malcolm Colless is not well-informed or well thought through. The speculation surrounding Greiner is nothing but hype and is used as a hook to re-state the bleedin' obvious.

It is widely believed that the road back to the Treasury benches in Canberra must begin in NSW if for no other reason than it has traditionally been the breadbasket state for Liberal Party funding.


That, and the fact that 49 of the 150 seats in the House of Representatives are in NSW, and it's hard to form a majority therein without lifting your vote in NSW. On the state level - well, a win anywhere would be nice for the Liberals. It's possible for a party to have heaps of money and still pull up short electorally: the goal is to achieve the latter, Malcolm. A bit of digging on your part would have revealed that the Liberal Party's treasurer is not a well-connected Sydney person but some Melbourne grandee who probably can't operate a push-button telephone.

As the Liberal Party continues with the grim task of reviewing its future in the wake of last November's federal election defeat, it is abundantly clear that internal structural reform to break the stranglehold of any self-interested faction is what is needed ahead of any moves towards mergers or takeovers within the Coalition.

No shit. When that faction takes over state executive, however, it ceases to be self-interested and its interests become inseparable from those of the party organisation. That's the whole idea of why they're doing what they're doing. Those who stand against them simply haven't stood up.

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First published in Politically Homeless on March 25, 2008. This article has been judged as one of the Best Blogs 2008 run in collaboration with Club Troppo.

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About the Author

Andrew Elder was a member of the Liberal Party of Australia, starting off as a libertarian-punk, then as a moderate seeking to preserve rights and freedoms in a changing world; now he scorns the know-nothing Liberals, doesn't trust the left and disdains the other interest groups that flit around Australian politics, and does so publicly yet obscurely. He blogs at Politically Homeless.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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