tip off

Australian political parties are dying, and fast

Julia Gillard has set the ALP a tall order in not merely halting the slide in its membership but in reversing it significantly by recruiting 8000 new members.

There are bigger issues at stake in that target than simply Labor’s long-term survival.

Public policy and the national interest benefit from active, engaged political parties that can call on support from a mass membership. Reversing the decline of mass membership political parties will be an important step toward reversing some of the unwelcome trends in public life, particularly the professionalisation of politics, which Labor suffers from most of all. It is important for Australian democracy that Labor, the conservative parties and for that matter the Greens continue as viable entities.

In her speech to the ALP national conference this morning, the prime minister recognised that Labor must find a way to adapt to the threats and opportunities presented by the internet. This should be about more than trying to mimic GetUp! or establishing an online branch. Like people everywhere else, Australians are using the internet to connect up and form communities online that would never have existed before the digital era. Political parties, like the media and like many other gatekeepers of the analog era, have struggled to comprehend this change and adapt. But the first political party to understand the significance of the online public space and engage in that space effectively will reap rich rewards.

The issue is whether Labor has the intelligence and the courage to attempt that. Australian political parties are cosseted by compulsory voting, public funding and exemptions in areas such as privacy. But despite those protections, they are dying, and quickly. Politicians of all stripes have to think hard about what it takes to keep parties alive.

  • 1
    Posted Friday, 2 December 2011 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    Given Julias performance so far as PM, if anyone can reverse the trend of declining membership she is the one to get the wheels in motion. This woman is action, she has a proven record.

  • 2
    Sean Doyle
    Posted Friday, 2 December 2011 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    Only probable problem for her though, David, is that the Greens will most likely get the credit for it.

  • 3
    David Eldridge
    Posted Friday, 2 December 2011 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

    for that matter the Greens”
    It seems to me, having tried the ALP long ago, that the Greens are the only dynamic political party in Australia. Not too hard to work out “what it takes to keep (the Greens) alive.” Relevant policy, engaged membership, grass roots support. No internal twisting on eg Gay marriage, Uranium, Wood chipping, climate.

  • 4
    Frank Campbell
    Posted Saturday, 3 December 2011 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    It is important for Australian democracy that Labor, the conservative parties and for that matter the Greens continue as viable entities.”

    Why? What would happen otherwise? Would different parties form, by implication less desirable than the current ones? Or does the author fear a parliament of independents? Or what?

    There is nothing inherently benevolent about mass membership. Gillard calling for thousands more members is cruel to the naive. Who else would work for free to advance careerists- and be patronised to boot?
    This “editorial” castigates the “professionalisation of political life”.”Professionalisation”? A weasel word. Ugly reality in a suit. Like Blair’s Alastair Campbell, the Gordon Ramsay of British politics .

    The ALP is an ideological shell run by a self-perpetuating clique of mediocrities, dominated by lawyers. Likewise the Liberals, but the ALP looks worse because it is supposed to stand for more than the preservation of capitalism and protection of accumulated privilege.

    Gillard is the nadir of this inexorable process: excruciating banality, tone deaf, devoid of any skills, culture or knowledge beyond the dexterity of a low-rent lawyer. Ideologically, Gillard is instinctively, unreflectively Rightwing. Recall her instant attack on Assange, and her lifelong hostility to the Palestinian cause. Yet she rose to power through the Socialist Left faction.

    Gillard’s conference speech is a window onto a vacuous landscape:

    ” We know ours is a people who work hard - and we deeply believe all deserve a share in the benefits of their hard work.

    This is the Labor way. This is the Australian way. We follow it simply because we are us.”

    Simon Crean exposed the terminal hypocrisy of the political party’s “mass membership”: “leaders get their way and so they should”, while Gillard said:

    We didn’t come here for a coronation or a campaign launch…We came here for debates, we came here for surprises, we came here to have votes.”

    So what does Crikey recommend as a cure for this dying patient? Better use of the internet: “understand the significance of the online public space and engage in that space”. Wow! How did we miss that?!

  • 5
    Posted Sunday, 4 December 2011 at 1:45 am | Permalink

    I grew disillusioned with and weary of Australian political parties pre-Howard, and Howard ‘s long reign tuned me off politics completely. These days if any pollie is on the screen I automatically flip channels or turn it off. I just don’t care what spin-doctored crap he is she is on about any more. I guess I’ve joined the great majority who don’t give a tiny rat’s rectum about political parties, so good luck Gillard et al on the recruitment drive.

  • 6
    Posted Sunday, 4 December 2011 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    There’s a reason political parties are not referred to in the Constitution. They are ephemeral.

  • 7
    Steven Warren
    Posted Monday, 5 December 2011 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    @Frank Campbell: Agreed. Federations like Germany manage to operate despite having 6 political parties holding large numbers of seats in the Bundestag.

    They even have another 5 parties holding seats on a State level, yet despite having 11 major political parties they still manage to get things done.

    Without a major shakeup to how the Labor party lets their members decide their policy, a break up or the complete decline of the party are inevitable.