I’m rather surprised that no
one has made the case linking David Cameron, the new leader of the
British Tories, the fall of John Brogden and the Pittwater result.

Cameron
is 39. Obviously this makes him 27 years younger than John Howard, but
of far more significance is that Howard leads a government in which
there is only one minister Campbell’s age or younger. If you can’t
guess, it’s Peter Dutton, Minister for Workforce Participation.

As
Charles Richardson points out (7/12), the Liberal party has suffered a
precipitous fall in membership. Most of the members who remain are past
60, and the party is not recruiting anything like the number of young
people required to replace them.

True, as Charles notes, this
hasn’t stopped them winning federal elections, but it has probably
played a part in their troubles at state level. For one thing, fewer
members means a smaller pool of quality candidates, even allowing for
the occasional high profile recruit. For another it means fewer people
on the ground to do the work.

But the biggest problem is that it
makes the party so vulnerable to stacking. When the membership is large
stacking is madness – it alienates the genuine members and the number
of stacks required to make a difference is beyond most candidates’
capacity. But as the membership declines, stacking becomes easy.

Eventually
you reach the point where the grass roots cease to function. No one can
see the point of doing any real work, if they are thrust aside at
preselection time by a bunch of blow-ins. The only criteria for
selection is being able to ruthlessly bring in some stacks.

Brogden
represented one answer to this problem. For one thing he suggested
there was a place for moderates in the party. Had he become premier
(within a few days of his 38th Birthday) he would have suggested to
young Liberal supporters, whatever their factional stripe, that they
could make a real impact in the party.

Alex Hawke represents an
alternative solution. By recruiting large numbers of evangelical
Christians he has certainly revived the numbers of young Liberal
members. He’s persuaded a fair number of people to leave the party at
the same time, and his critics accuse him of branch stacking. However,
if the people he’s brought in become loyal to the interests of the
party rather than a factional warlord they could keep the branches
alive. And by having such an influence so young he may inspire even
those who disagree with him.

The problem for the Liberals is
that Brogden is gone, and it is hard to see who is going to fulfil his
role. The only Liberal under 40 in a position of any significance is
Matt Birney. The Victorian Libs don’t have anyone under 40 in the lower
house.

It’s too early to say that the option Hawke represents is
also a dead end street, but Pittwater was a significant straw in the
wind suggesting that handing the party over to religious hardliners may
not be the path to electoral glory. If Pittwater is indeed the start of
a trend then the question becomes whether the Liberals have any other
options for recruiting young people. So far their best idea seems to be
the hope VSU will drag other parties down to their level. Not the sign
of a party with a long term plan.

Peter Fray

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