Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Factions, friction and direct election: a Liberal manifesto

If the Liberal rank and file do not take back ownership of their broad-based organisation party soon, then it may not survive in its current form. It would be a huge loss if the Liberals ended up as a right-wing version of GetUp!.

Fortunately the Liberal Party has not yet got to that point; it is still sufficiently diverse that it can represent broad views at large in the Australian community within a general commitment to liberal principles.

Polls, focus groups and online conversations are useful political tools but a broad-based party gives much more. It gives the party a rich lode of common sense and understanding that can inform and influence opinion on who should be MPs and what policies should be adopted. The right to be heard and the right to choose the local MP are therefore fundamental elements of Liberal success. And they are also fundamental reasons why people join the party. So, the more these simple ideas are embedded into the way the party is run, the more members of the public will join and the more representative the party will become. It is a virtuous political circle.

Some Liberal divisions are doing better than others. Membership in the Queensland Liberals is growing strongly; they won 70 per cent of the federal seats in the last election and look like winning the state election.

Despite Queensland and other examples, generally political parties in western democracies, are struggling. Membership has been falling. We know political parties can attract members if they can truly say, 'Join us and you will be heard and you will have a say in deciding your local MP'.

So it was a mistake for the Liberals to close the Advisory Committee on Federal Policy which allowed for the party organisation to talk, behind closed doors, with the parliamentary party. Hopefully, after the hullabaloo of recent weeks, the committee will meet soon.

Another problem for the Liberal organisation is that it has become too subject to the parliamentary party. Do not believe those cynics who say this has always been the case. Federal presidents like John Elliott have not been "yes men". Elliott had a good sense of the balance required between the parliamentary party and the organisation whereas, another federal president, John Valder, probably spoke out too much. Robert Menzies was a towering political figure but he also knew the need for balance and respected the powerful women's groups behind the Victorian Liberals. The organisation has to ultimately have its independence. The party needs its independence so it can speak its mind and so it can preselect its MPs without fear of parliamentary meddling. Parliamentary leaders come and go but the party goes on. When the situation is otherwise, the end result is an organisation that is run from the top rather than from the bottom. In the last 10 years or more the federal organisation has become a fiefdom; run by the parliamentary leader, who is so busy confronting Labor that the federal organisation is, in practice, run by the Liberal federal director.

There are numerous options to remedy this. The strongest signal of change is probably the hardest to achieve.

The federal president should be directly elected by party members. The most democratic way to provide the president with authority to speak for the rank and file is by giving the president a mandate through the ballot box. Labor has adopted a similar proposal but, like the Liberals, a single reform is not nearly enough. A majority of MPs would oppose direct elections because MPs think an election would be an assault on their authority and right to make policy whereas it is just a rebalancing of a system that has got out of touch.

Another concern of MPs on both sides of politics is that any controversy is seen as bad news. One senior MP suggested recently that "the decision to have a publicly-contested election was a bad idea and it should have been handled through a 'conciliatory transformation process'" i.e. a 'secret backroom deal'.

The alternative to a broadly based and democratic party already has its advocates. They want a party of true believers, all compartmentalised into tidy factions, the right, the hard right, the religious right, the moderates, the national hard right and the national left. And of course the factions are always run by factional warlords, lobbyists, apparatchiks, and pollsters all of whom relish "conciliatory transformational processes".

Nothing more repels ordinary people from joining a political party than the thought that if you join a political party then you will be allocated to a faction and then be expected to do and think what you are told.  Factions are the anathema of a diverse broadly-based party.

There is no single reform that will provide the magic answer to the issues that must be addressed by political parties. But democracy, elections and transparency are a good starting point. The Liberal Party is Australia's most successful political party and its destiny must be to reform and remain relevant. Nothing less is acceptable.

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