Everybody agrees that there are no longer any normal people in the Liberal Party, that normal members are a species now extinct… The membership consists of three types: the mad, the lonely and the ambitious… My own conclusion would be that everybody in the Liberal Party was classifiable as either a Rotarian, a hack or a stack, a little old lady or a freak.
That’s former Young Liberal activist John Hyde Page in his recent book, a volume that featured a front-cover endorsement from Mark Latham. Latham’s blurb read: “The Young Liberals are horrendous and, if anything, Young Labor is worse.”
Now, there’s no love lost between Latham and the man he calls “Heavy Kevvy”, described in The Latham Diaries as both a notorious publicity hound and, possibly, a CIA agent.*
Nonetheless, if Rudd’s going to continue playing Mini-Me to Howard’s Dr Evil, he would do well to consider Latham’s assessment of the internal state of the party.
In his Quarterly Essay of 2002, John Button described the ALP as an empty shell, consisting entirely of dysfunctional branches and an inactive and cynical rank-and-file. He quotes one Lynn Fraser, a party activist who had formerly “done the letterboxing, the handing out of cards on polling day, the talking up of the party to outsiders” but no longer would.
She didn’t like the ALP toadying to the electorate when it should have principles of its own that it stood up for… You know,’ she added, ‘I think there are lots of people who think like me, but these days there are more of them outside the Labor Party than in it.’
Does that matter? The Liberal Party – as the natural defender of the status quo – can probably manage with branches that are, to pinch a phrase from Herman Melville, asylums of the perverse and havens of the unfortunate. But the ALP traditionally depends upon its rank-and-file to counter the inevitable opposition a reforming party faces from the right-wing media.
Back in the day, each Labor activist ran a one-person push-poll on key issues in their workplace or neighbourhood, providing a counterweight to whatever scare stories the press barons cooked up.
Rudd’s political ‘Me tooism’ will inevitably demoralise the shrinking number of ALP members even further. You join the Labor Party because you care about civil liberties or the environment – and a leader who tells you that the other mob is actually doing a bang-up job on anti-terrorism and forest policies is scarcely likely to fire you up for branch meetings and leaflet distribution.
Which might not matter just now, with everything going Rudd’s way. But without the support of Labor activists, a political persona based solely on media spin can crumble very, very quickly.
Just ask Mark Latham.
* “[T]here are some missing periods in his CV, plus a general mystery about the guy.” The Latham Diaries, p. 212.