Veteran Labor Senator Robert Ray has thrown his considerable weight into the debate over hacks, stacks and the death of popular participation in political parties. The timing’s good. We all know the big boys are dysfunctional and the minnows fractious. Ray has told the NSW Fabian Society:

One measure of a party’s political success is its membership level. Labor Party membership is in decline. This is disguised, to some extent, by branch-stacking in approximately 15 federal electorates across Australia. Once thriving branches in provincial towns all across Australia are now reduced to a mere handful of members. Branch meetings are desultory, the party is accused of being too hierarchical and democratic centralism is a popular modus operandi…

And he’s got some very cute lines about “daleks” and what he calls “the Stasi element”:

[A] whole production line of soul-less apparatchiks has emerged: highly proficient and professional, but with no Labor soul, control freaks with tunnel vision, ruthless leakers in their self-interest, individuals who would rather the party lose an election than that they lose their place in the pecking order.

If you want to find out what the punters think of all of this, just have a look at Judith Brett and Anthony Moran’s new book Ordinary People’s Politics.

Ray’s criticisms are nothing new. There was another fun Fabian forum in NSW last year which asked “Could Chifley win Labor preselection today?” Former NSW minister Rodney Cavalier said then:

Could Ben Chifley win a Labor preselection today? No…

Who can win a preselection today?

In the absence of intervention at the level of the parliamentary leadership, preselection in seats which matter falls exclusively to the inhabitants of the political class. The political class embraces union officials, ministerial and parliamentary staffs and party employees…

The problem isn’t restricted to the ALP. In fact, rather than regurgitating Ray, some journo with more time than me should try to stand this story of how the professional political class – and the wannabes – rips ordinary punters and ordinary party members off.

There’s a preselection currently going on for one of the Liberals’ safer seats, Barker. The sitting member, Patrick Secker, is a bit of drip and seems to have fallen out with his faction. He’s facing three challengers – who, senior sources indicate, are relying on the publicly funded resources of the offices of one Senator and two Members of the House of Representatives to support their campaigns.

That’s Stasi stuff – with all the patronage and lack of accountability that goes with unpleasant regimes.