Headlines in the quest for Liberal Party renewal have been dominated recently by the Queensland division, with its innovative tactic of reinvention via suicide. But the party’s Victorian division, with little media fanfare, embarked this week on an equally interesting program, with the release of a radical discussion paper on internal reform.

The paper, “Liberal Renewal”, has been produced by a committee under the imprimatur of state president David Kemp. Although technically not a public document, it might as well be; the executive summary has been sent to all party members, and any member can order a full copy from the party’s website.

Needless to say, it was not difficult to get my hands on one.

That slightly coy openness, quite apart from its recommendations, is a major part of the paper’s importance. No political party engages in such frank public self-examination unless driven to it by desperation. The most important step in psychological change, whether individual or collective, is acknowledging the existence of a problem: the Victorian Liberal Party, after years in denial, may finally have taken that step.

And this is a matter of national importance, since the party’s federal president, Alan Stockdale, is himself a Victorian and is believed to be fully on board with the reform proposals. No-one suggests that other states are less in need of drastic change. The paper’s authors are probably not far wrong in their evident conviction that, despite its problems, the Victorian division is still the healthiest in the country.

Those problems are certainly serious. The paper’s figures show that party membership has declined from about one voter in 30 in 1950 to about one in 257 today. More than a quarter of the members live in just three federal electorates, and a demographic breakdown shows that 27% of them are over the age of 75. The median age is 62; 60% are over 60, while only 6% are under 30.

Some statistics can surprise even close observers of the party. The “churn” rate is huge: of the more than 10,000 members who have joined since 2000, 47% have since left. And the geographical skew is sometimes extreme; in the state seat of Kororoit, site of a recent by-election with 40,000 enrolled voters, there are no Liberal Party members at all.

The reforms proposed to deal with all this — letting all members vote in preselections, de-emphasising branches in favor of state and federal electorate conferences, proportional representation for internal elections, opening state council to broader policy debate — strike me as sensible. But the real question is whether structural reform of whatever sort will be enough to save the party.

Like many political documents, the discussion paper is most notable for what it doesn’t say. There is almost no mention of ideas or policies; no suggestion that renewal for the Liberal Party might involve not a reassessment of its structure, but a reassessment of its philosophy and what it actually stands for.

The implicit message from the paper’s authors is that structural degradation has gone so far that the party is simply in no shape to conduct such an examination: the overriding priority is to broaden and expand membership. They may be right about that. But if reform fails, expect the internal debate to get nastier still.

Peter Fray

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