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Parties without members

By Syd Hickman - posted Tuesday, 8 September 2015

The almost universal abdication of ordinary people from any active role in political parties has resulted in a very weird political landscape.

The Liberal Party is engaged in a civil war between the dominant religious hard right conservative faction of Tony Abbott and the more rational, truly liberal faction of Malcolm Turnbull.

A steady stream of internal leaks continues to destabilise the government, with the main aim of driving down Abbott's poll numbers so that wavering MPs will join the revolution and remove him. Hockey's pro-republican stance, along with Christopher Pyne's gay marriage and pro-republican statements, could signal that they have signed on for Malcolm.


Meanwhile Abbott is revving up Scott Morrison as his replacement in the almost certain event that his continuation as PM becomes untenable.

One way to see this leadership contest is as a battle by more sane MPs to wrestle the party away from a conservative-dominated general membership, in the hope of reconstructing it when they are in control.

Even at the organisational level the problem of an extremely conservative membership has been recognised. The lack of ordinary citizens contributing as active members has now led to experimenting with new rules, including giving ordinary members more say in pre-selections. That these rules will be trialled in Labor held seats shows the lack of faith in the existing members wisdom.

And who can blame the Executive. The party membership is dominated by oddballs and very old people, but particularly by people in the 10% or so of Australians who still take religion seriously. The case of Phillip Ruddock is an interesting example. The story from insiders is that he has stayed so long in the parliament because his retirement would have seen a religious right MP, genuinely representative of his branches' membership, take the seat.

The ALP has a similar problem, but with the huge complication of union votes. The absence of members has led to weird experiments such as inviting non-party members to vote in pre-selections. This, completely predictably, has worked well for the far left because the great majority of ordinary Labor voters want nothing to do with the ALP organisation.

But the main impact has been an increase in union power, just as the unions fade out of the lives of around 90% of workers. A few years ago an assistant State Secretary of the ALP explained to me, making what he clearly considered a completely obvious point, that Prime Minister Gillard could not support causes such as euthanasia [which has 80% popular support] because the Shop Assistants Union would not permit it.


Attempts to engage the ALP membership by giving them votes for political and administrative leaders have had little impact. The last election for Party President attracted only around 10 000 voters.

The extreme idea for Labor is to split entirely from the union movement. This would remove some problems but would hand more power to the small and unrepresentative existing membership.

As with the Liberal Party, giving the existing members more power in the hope of attracting a more broadly representative membership in the future is a risky business. Despite years of talk not much has been achieved.

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About the Author

Syd Hickman has worked as a school teacher, soldier, Commonwealth and State public servant, on the staff of a Premier, as chief of Staff to a Federal Minister and leader of the Opposition, and has survived for more than a decade in the small business world.

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All articles by Syd Hickman

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

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