Watch out, Brendan’s about.

Before heading off on his “listening tour” (is he taking the motorbike?), Brendan Nelson left a YouTube video threatening to “be in and out of servos, shopping centres, farming communities, everyday Australians, barbies, morning teas, you name it.”

Whom the lucky everyday Australians are that Nelson will be in and out of has not been revealed. Either that, or Nelson meant “everyday Australians’ barbies”, which will comfort any elitists planning BBQs, knowing they’ll be safe from unexpected visits from the Leader of the Opposition. And Nelson’s right to steer clear of them – they only serve chardonnay at such dos anyway.

Post-election listening tours are a form of political self-flagellation, undertaken by penitent politicians recently chucked out of office, with the goal of expunging whatever sins the electorate thought they were guilty of when in government. Whether the politicians actually listen doesn’t matter a great deal. They have already heard the electorate’s message, loud and clear on election night, and it is usually something along the lines of “you suck” or “your party is utterly out of touch”.

Anything more sophisticated than that isn’t going to be gleaned from getting in the way of motorists trying to fill up, or shoppers trying to get their groceries. That’s why political parties normally spend quite a lot of money “listening” via qualitative polling, not by hanging around the local supermarket, however good that might look to the punters.

Nelson’s timing turned out to be a bit unfortunate. It was the day after the Queensland Liberal Party had declined to ask its membership what they thought of the merger proposal. And shortly after David Kemp warned that the Victorian party faced a declining and ageing membership, with numbers down to 30,000. This is rather more than Queensland, where according to The Australian today, there are a mere 2,700 members – a third of them in the well-stacked seat of Ryan. Alex Mitchell suggested last year the NSW Liberals’ membership was under 10,000. The ALP isn’t much better, with about 16,000 members in 2005 in NSW. The Victorian ALP says it has about 14,000 members. And it too faces the problem of an ageing membership.

Based on these figures, there is a wide and growing disconnection between our two major political parties and “everyday Australians”, particularly if the decline in trade union membership is added to the mix. The effect can be seen most clearly in NSW, where a Labor Government simply doesn’t have the ministerial talent to run complex service delivery portfolios and the Liberals struggle to overcome internal feuding to compete. A continuing decline in political party membership may mean that NSW in 2008 is the template for State government in the future. Federal politics will always attract talented individuals, but State and Territory Governments – particularly under the 21st century centralised model of federalism – may end up being the preserve of the Joe Tripodis of the world.

If Nelson’s listening tour is to be anything more than a masochistic stunt, the Liberal Party leadership should think hard about establishing a permanent mechanism that enables grassroots input – particularly from people who have gone to the effort of joining the party – into its policy development process. And yes, shock horror, this may actually involve less control and more accountability for elected officials. Nelson has consciously adopted a more consultative style compared to the top-down approach of the Howard years. Christopher Pyne has suggested providing the membership with a vote in electing the party leader as a way of attracting new members. But only an ongoing process that gives members ownership of the party and what it stands for is likely to generate real interest.

The Australian Greens, with a far more democratic decision-making structure, claim to be the country’s fastest growing political party, but their national membership is barely 10,000. As Nelson makes his way round the shopping centres of the country, he might consider the benefits of applying that logic within a major party.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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