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Is the Party over?

By Graham Young - posted Friday, 23 August 2002

During the last Federal Election Democrat Leader Natasha Stott Despoja let her hubris show when she declared that she would not participate in a debate with the Greens and One Nation because they were both minor parties and the Democrats were a "major party". The election result and the latest polling put the lie to that, but in an odd way the Democrats are showing some of the same stress fractures as the major parties. The Australian Democrats’ current problems, centred around the defection of Meg Lees and the strategic intransigence of Andrew Murray, are another species of problems that affect all the major political parties.

Natasha has now pulled the plug on her leadership, which raises all sorts of interesting questions on how the Democrat organisation replaces her. But, the problems with Senators Murray and Lees were never really ideological. They are management issues. If the party organisation had not inflicted a parliamentary leader on the party that the parliamentary organisation did not want, and if that leader had not over-estimated her power and on the basis of that tried too hard to assert leadership, then the problem would not exist. How different is this from what happens in the Liberal Party? Or the ALP? What are the common themes?

The first common theme is intolerance. Politeness seems to have deserted political practice. John Howard describes the Liberal Party as a "broad church". How broad is this church when the Tasmanian branch can disendorse ARM Chair Greg Barns as a state candidate because he speaks out, not against state policy, but federal policy? Or when Howard himself can refuse to allow members a conscience vote on issues like mandatory sentencing? Or where the Queensland Branch can toss out proven election-winning party office-bearers because they are from the wrong faction?


This doesn’t appear to be an ALP problem. Even when one faction controls a branch with a large majority, they still leave some room for the others. There are structural reasons for this. The ALP uses a proportional representation system for internal elections, making it a waste of time to try to completely dominate everyone else. Perhaps this reality feeds into unconscious behaviour so that even those who don’t understand the constraints observe the practice.

Yet the Labor Party does share one of the roots of the intolerance issue with the Liberals and Democrats, and this is the increasing professionalisation of the political elites. In fact, the Labor Party showed the way when it started using the unions as training grounds for its future leaders. Peter Beattie is a good example of this. Trained as a lawyer, he served his apprenticeship before becoming State Secretary of the Labor Party as a member of the Railways Union.

The other parties don’t have the union link, and as businesses are generally not keen to employ young people to further their political careers, there is no business training ground. But there are others, and one of these is student politics. Natasha Stott Despoja was a student politician, so too were Michael Kroger and Tasmanian string-puller Eric Abetz. In fact, the right wing in the Liberal Party is based around former student politicians. And even with the union training ground, ALP politics also has its share of student politicians.

But student politics teaches very bad habits. It is a battle where the strategic territories to be won are of no consequence to most students - generally control of the refectory and doling out funds to clubs and societies. As a result most students don’t vote and most students that run for office are regarded as rat-bags.

Their election tactics are often quite unethical, reflecting a short-term "whatever it takes" mentality. There is a multitude of tickets cooked up for the event, often with names designed to confuse as to their ideological alignment. In 1996 some student politicians turned Young Liberals attempted to stack a Queensland electoral council meeting using supporters with fraudulent membership receipts who were bussed in for the event. What did the supporters get for their trouble? A six-pack of beer and a chocolate bar. When we investigated we were told that they had come up with the idea because this was how you got out the college voters in union elections.

Student Union politics encourages short-termism and greed. While the fight might be about very little, it still usually involves some full and part-time jobs for the victors. As it is managerial rather than political, motivations are also more about power than ideology. This also means that personalities rather than policies are the greatest driver of electoral success. It is also a career that generally lasts no more than two or three years – less time than it takes to get the average degree. Student politicians don’t think too hard about tomorrow, because for them it doesn’t exist, and allies can be treated roughly because they may graduate before they get the opportunity to retaliate.


Someone reared on student politics would be likely to see leadership in terms of personality and strength and not understand that pushing someone around can have long-term consequences, particularly if that person is a Member of Parliament and holds office independently of one’s grace and favour. You might think I am talking about Stott Despoja here. I could be, but I could just as easily be talking about the Queensland Liberal Party where student politician types have set out to dismantle the remnants of the State Parliamentary Party. They regularly trash the State Leader (as well as Federal Front-benchers they dislike) in the media and imagine that the electorate doesn’t notice their blatant branch-stacking, rorting and gouging.

In fact, Liberal State Leader Bob Quinn is playing an eerily similar game of chicken to the one Andrew Murray has just successfully played. He has demanded that the state party reform, or he will resign as leader. The real test of the dominant Queensland faction will be whether they give him what he wants. Otherwise his gambit may be closer to that of Meg Lees, leaving them virtually without a parliamentary team.

The second common theme is that all of the parties now operate from a narrow membership base which is easy to dominate. The Democrats might have 5,000 members around Australia. A sudden influx of members can radically change the power balance. If you have a popular, charismatic leader, as Natasha undeniably was, then people who support her are likely to join and exert disproportionate influence. It means that in any one state the membership is less than 1,000, making state branches particularly vulnerable. The same thing happens in the Liberal Party. To some extent the ALP is immune, ironically because of the trade union base which Simon Crean is seeking to weaken, but it has its ethnic branch-stacking in the western suburbs of Sydney; in Victoria; and in South Australia. The Liberal Party in Queensland has around 5,000 members. It has become dominated by the Santoro/Carroll faction, largely on the basis of control of the numbers in just two areas of the party – Lilley and Ryan. Through a pyramid system it is easy to grab slightly more than 50 per cent of the votes, but 100 per cent of the power.

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This article was first published in The Brisbane Line on 22 August 2002.

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About the Author

Graham Young is chief editor and the publisher of On Line Opinion. He is executive director of the Australian Institute for Progress, an Australian think tank based in Brisbane, and the publisher of On Line Opinion.

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