I was once a member of the Liberal Party. Fresh out of university and eager to get involved with a party that broadly matched my philosophy, I attended a few branch meetings, distributed how-to-vote cards on election day and lapped up the atmosphere of a state conference.
Yet, life got in the way. I felt that with career and sporting commitments, something had to give, and dedicating time to a major political party would need to give way. Some people don't renew their party memberships because they lose faith in the direction of their party, but I suspect many equally part ways due to commitments beyond political volunteering.
Or, in most cases, they never join a party at all because they simply lack the time. Despite declining party memberships, there is undoubtedly strong interest in politics that exists in the community. The issue is barrier to entry.
The truth is that making an imprint on a political party, particularly a major party, takes work. There are the hours of volunteering, networking and keeping up appearances that reward the most committed; however, what this inevitably means is that the individuals who ascend to pre-selection come from a narrow field of party operatives.
One only needs to look at the make-up of state and federal parliament to see that the primary demographic represented is political staffers and former party presidents. Essentially, people who have spent their entire lives surrounded by like-minded individuals. What this means is that political parties, particularly the Liberals, are putting forward candidates who are not necessarily representative of the community.
The party's internal review has confirmed this, concluding that the party itself and the candidates it is putting forward "no longer represents modern Australia." Whilst I am loathe to engage in identity politics, there does come a point where a party needs to consider the demographic breadth of its candidates and membership. There is truth to the criticism that the Liberal Party is the party of white men. Granted, what is fundamentally important is one's ideological perspective, not their race or sex, but there is merit to the argument that a party of government should broadly reflect the society it seeks to represent.
Which brings me to the teals. Whatever one's view of the independent candidates who use this branding, they have tapped into an effective model to enhance community engagement and attract diverse candidates. Their method? Reaching out to the wider community for potential candidates to run in an electorate. Monique Ryan, now member for Kooyong, answered the call when Climate200 ran an ad in Melbourne's newspapers.
What the Liberal Party should seriously consider is beating the teals at their own game. Why not open pre-selection battles up to members of the wider community? Advertise the position and invite people to put their names forward. The inevitable consequence would be people from a wider cross-section of society battling it out to represent the party. The real shame of the teal wave is that many of these individuals (doctors, lawyers, business owners, journalists) should have been able to find a home in Australia's 'broad church' party.
Of course, there are obvious counter-arguments. There is a case to be made that parties live and die by the work of their volunteers. It is fair to assert that years of commitment should be rewarded. Undoubtedly, it would be unsettling for many party members to suddenly find themselves usurped by someone parachuting in from the outside. Yet the harsh reality is that interlopers have already crashed the party, winning the seat and not wearing the same colour.
Another serious reform the party should consider is one put forward by Peter Von Onselen in his weekly podcast, 'The Professor and the Hack.' He suggests that the party consider the worth of not taking a formal position on social and cultural issues. Essentially, an open conscience vote on all social and cultural issues where candidates can localise their identity and personalise their brand. This could alleviate some of the issues with teals and provide good product differentiation from Labor, a party which forces a single vote on all of its members.
This also promotes diversity that matters, that of perspective. Whilst the Greens and Labor promote themselves as diverse parties, they sing from the same song sheet on most issues. The LNP is home to farmers, small business people, lawyers, teachers, doctors. There are social progressives and social conservatives. There are climate skeptics and renewable energy enthusiasts. This divergence is often seen as a weakness but it could and should be harnessed as an asset and point of difference. If the party allows for greater internal democratisation in regard to voting and campaigning then all Australians could see something of themselves in various corners of the party.
The LNP could sell itself as truly liberal then, and where it could take more formalised positions is on issues regarding economic management, support for small business and so on. Part of the appeal of the teal independents is that they promote (at least at face value) economic responsibility but sell themselves as lone spirits when it comes to culture wars. It appears voters are taking to candidates that can individualise their brand.
If the major political parties wish to remain relevant during the coming decades, they need to find innovative responses to the disruption caused by Australians' increasing tendency to experiment with independents and minor parties. Beating the teals at their own game should be part of the conversation.