Julia Gillard has set the ALP a tall order in not merely halting the slide in its membership but in reversing it significantly by recruiting 8000 new members.

There are bigger issues at stake in that target than simply Labor’s long-term survival.

Public policy and the national interest benefit from active, engaged political parties that can call on support from a mass membership. Reversing the decline of mass membership political parties will be an important step toward reversing some of the unwelcome trends in public life, particularly the professionalisation of politics, which Labor suffers from most of all. It is important for Australian democracy that Labor, the conservative parties and for that matter the Greens continue as viable entities.

In her speech to the ALP national conference this morning, the prime minister recognised that Labor must find a way to adapt to the threats and opportunities presented by the internet. This should be about more than trying to mimic GetUp! or establishing an online branch. Like people everywhere else, Australians are using the internet to connect up and form communities online that would never have existed before the digital era. Political parties, like the media and like many other gatekeepers of the analog era, have struggled to comprehend this change and adapt. But the first political party to understand the significance of the online public space and engage in that space effectively will reap rich rewards.

The issue is whether Labor has the intelligence and the courage to attempt that. Australian political parties are cosseted by compulsory voting, public funding and exemptions in areas such as privacy. But despite those protections, they are dying, and quickly. Politicians of all stripes have to think hard about what it takes to keep parties alive.