Australia’s political parties are on the nose as they desperately try to sandbag dwindling membership. Crikey has investigated which parties, teams and clubs have the most members — and you might be surprised at the results.
There are more people on the waiting list to join the Melbourne Cricket Club than there are rank-and-file members in all Australian political parties put together.
Political parties’ dwindling membership — and the ambivalence or antipathy with which the public apparently views them — has been in the news lately. Gone are the days when the major parties had well over 100,000 members each (the Liberals once pushed 200,000). Nowadays, no party has more than 50,000 members; anecdotes abound of sparse meetings, attended mainly by older people.
That means parties may struggle to remain connected to (and representative of) society; decisions around political agendas, policies and personnel are being made by an increasingly small pool of veterans and party careerists. Where are the good ideas and fresh faces going to come from?
Both Labor and the Coalition have conducted high-profile internal reviews on how to reform their parties and lure more members. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has proposed rank-and-file members have a role in electing the ALP leader (50% of the votes would go to members, 50% to caucus; at present only the Labor caucus elects the leader). Rudd’s plan will go to a special caucus meeting on Monday; polls indicate the public likes the plan, and Rudd backers claim it will boost party membership.
Crikey decided to investigate which parties, clubs and societies Australians belong to. We found political parties are not popular — there are far more members in the RSL, the MCC and the low-profile Federation of Australian Historical Societies than in any party. There are more Scouts than Liberals, there are more Freemasons than ALP members, and there are more people in the Rebels Motorcycle Club than in Katter’s Australian Party (although membership may overlap on that one).
And this is despite the fact that political parties are comparatively cheap. It’s cheaper to sign up to the ALP or the Liberals in some states ($50-60 a year) than it is for a baby to become a member of Collingwood Football Club ($66).
Political parties do have quite strict and extensive entry requirements compared with other clubs. Parties insist people who join must not be members of any other political party, and some demand disclosure on previous political party membership (plus dates and branches). Members usually have to sign a party pledge, sometimes via a list of principles, and some parties require union membership (e.g. the ACT ALP) …
Victorian ALP members must sign the pledge above
NSW Liberals must come clean on previous party membership
One Nation members must agree to this
Interestingly, most party members Crikey spoke to said the major factor that boosted (or sandbagged) membership was the unpopularity of the other side. Liberal membership soared under Gough Whitlam; the Queensland LNP thrived in the final years of the state ALP government. Membership also tends to rise ahead of elections.
A note of caution: parties are notoriously secretive about their membership numbers. Crikey found the Freemasons were far more open and transparent on their membership than the Liberals, Nationals or Labor. No party goes public with its numbers, some put out fake figures, and some senior figures in parties do not know the answer. Crikey has the impression that no one in the Nationals actually knows how many members the party has. A complicating factor is that most are federations of state-based parties.
UPDATED: In a media conference on July 22, Kevin Rudd told reporters the ALP had 44,000 rank-and-file members. This comes after senior Labor figures claimed membership had risen in recent weeks due to Rudd’s plan to give members a say in electing the ALP leader.
Here are the results of Crikey’s investigation. The table runs from largest to smallest, with political parties in bold …
Party, club or society
Number of members
Cost of annual membership
Claims to have 632,000 ‘members’; may include everyone who has ever contacted them
Free to join, then solicits donations
Says it has over 240,000 members
$25-40 for ex-service personnel, $2 for community membership
Melbourne Cricket Club
102,800 members, a further 225,000 have paid to be on the waiting list
Entrance fee $900, plus annual fee of $475-609. 25-year waiting list. Dress standards apply.
‘Approximately 100,000 members’
$518 for professional engineers, undergraduates free. Strict entry requirements (certified copy of degree)