Australia Day is generally a slow news day, so it’s not surprising that Race Mathews, former federal Labor MP and former Victorian minister, got good coverage for what The Age calls a “reform-or-die call to arms” for the ALP.

According to Mathews, the parlous state of ALP membership is “a recipe for extinction”. He says that when the party returns to opposition, its “predicament at that point in the absence of a numerous and active rank and file will be truly pitiful”.

The Age article at least mentions the fact that the Victorian Liberal Party studied the same problem last year, when an internal discussion paper pointed to a crisis in membership and recommended a package of reforms to address it, which were adopted at a special state council meeting in October.

A comparison of the two diagnoses suggests that the parties are in similar shape. Victorian Liberal membership had fallen from one voter in 30 in 1950 to about one in 257. If the figures in The Age are correct, Labor has gone (these are national figures, not state) from something like one in 13 to one in 273.

Mathews says the average age of party members is about 50, but that compares favorably with the Victorian Liberals, who admitted to a median age of 62. It’s also generally accepted that Labor’s membership does not have quite the extreme geographical skew of its rival’s. But, as Mathews points out, at least the Liberals are taking their problems seriously.

Individual membership has always been a doubtful guide to Labor’s fortunes, since so much of its strength comes from the unions. As the Liberal Party discussion paper put it, “The voluntary character of the Liberal Party distinguishes us from our major political opponents … The ALP relies on the trade union movement to provide paid campaigners and receive [sic] significant funding from levies on trade union members.”

But since trade union membership has also been in a steep long-term decline (with a slight uptick for the WorkChoices campaign), that just means Labor has been the victim of a double whammy.

At least from the media reports, we don’t know what remedies Mathews is proposing. But again a comparison with the Liberals is interesting. The reform package that the Victorian Liberals endorsed last year included rank-and-file preselection plebiscites, proportional representation for internal elections, and greater emphasis on electorate-level structures.

But those are all things that the ALP already has. If they haven’t worked there, then they’re probably not a magic bullet for the Liberals either. And if both parties, despite their different structures, have similar problems, then it’s a fair bet that those problems run deeper than anything that structural tinkering is likely to fix.

More likely, the malaise in our political parties has underlying social causes that neither of them is yet willing to face up to.

Peter Fray

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