21/06/2005 - 22:00

Joe Poprzeczny: State Scene - Liberals shrink power base

21/06/2005 - 22:00


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Since State Scene recently highlighted the state Labor Party’s dismal electoral performances – measured by the number of primary votes Labor gained in the 1989, 1993, 1996, 2001 and 2005 state elections – in the interest of balance perhaps it’s time the L

Since State Scene recently highlighted the state Labor Party’s dismal electoral performances – measured by the number of primary votes Labor gained in the 1989, 1993, 1996, 2001 and 2005 state elections – in the interest of balance perhaps it’s time the Liberals’ effort was more closely considered.

Unfortunately for the Liberals, the picture is at least as bad, perhaps far worse in the longer term.

In each of the first three contests – 1989, 1993 and 1996 – they failed to reach the 50 per cent primary vote mark, while in the next two contests of 2001 and 2005 they couldn’t even reach the 40 per cent mark.

The WA Liberal Party, which until the late 1970s had close to 30,000 members, is now a warped shell of its old self. Membership has slumped to below 5,000, some claim well below this number, and there are fewer branches.

Even the party’s hard core of activists has shrunk to fewer than 50, whereas even in the late 1980s it was close to four or five times that figure.

The main reason for this is that the party’s new powerbroker group prefers having fewer members.

Having a large membership is basically a nuisance for party bureaucracies and its powerbrokers, since the more members there are the more difficult it is to oversee factional disputes and threats, and the larger the number of branches to monitor.

Moreover, members insist on telephoning party headquarters to ask questions; they expect to be serviced with literature and the like, and they often want to know things.

All this takes up valuable time and costs parties a lot of money.

Powerbroking cliques in both major parties thus prefer fewer rather than more members, since lower or leaner memberships is something those at the top can more easily deal with, especially when it comes to controlling the party’s peak decision-making councils which decide endorsement.

All this, it should be noted, is in marked contrast to what occurred during the 1970s to mid-1990s when Noel Crichton-Browne (NCB to his loyalists) and his large number of backers packed (opponents claimed, stacked) branches and were constantly establishing new ones across Perth’s suburbs and the state.

During those years the party even employed field officers.

At times there were as many as five such officers and they actually spent a large part of their time organising and undertaking membership and other drives.

The Liberal Party of those years approached the realm of a mass party, which was reflected in its electoral support, despite a series of quite bitter factional squabbles with the smaller faction headed by former senator, Fred Chaney.

NCB inevitably attracted loyal followers during his time at the top. People sought him out, since he was able to ensure pre-selection and therefore the launching of parliamentary careers.

The current two best examples of this are Howard Government ministers Senators Ian Campbell and Chris Ellison, joint leaders of what is increasingly called, The Camell Faction (from the first three letters in their surnames).

Now, it’s a long time since the WA Liberals had field officers.

Today the 500 Club, a conduit into Perth’s wealthier set, is more highly valued than the boosting of rank and file and branch numbers.

Little wonder that former state Liberal leader Colin Barnett, in the dying days of his leadership, entered a private behind-closed-doors deal with Labor’s Electoral Affairs Minister, Jim McGinty, to institute taxpayer funding for their parties.

What both were attempting to do was to make their respective parties – with their dwindling memberships – financially viable since they recognised they could no longer rely on rattling the can to a broad group of backers. No-one in WA Liberal ranks any longer shares NCB’s outward-looking view that the party should re-emerge as a mass organisation.

The main change in Liberal ranks since his expulsion has, therefore, been not only a sharp slump in members, but a complete disinterest in seeing that state of affairs reversed.

This has been a 180-degree turnaround.

And there’s no reason to believe it will be changed in the foreseeable future.

Indeed, all the signs are that this trend is likely to be further intensified, that is, there are likely to be fewer branches and an even smaller statewide membership base.

The Eagles and the Dockers are therefore in no danger of finding themselves with fewer members than the Liberal Party.

One reason this situation is likely to further deteriorate is because the party faces another major milestone event – the coming release by the WA Electoral Commission of the boundaries of the new seats arising from the McGinty one-vote-one-value electoral changes.

All the predictions from within Liberal ranks suggest the party faces a bleak prospect here, meaning there are likely to be fewer safe Liberal seats.

If this occurs, what will slowly follow is that many of those aspiring to becoming politicians won’t join the Liberal Party because it will not have enough safe seats to offer.

Ambitious political aspirants would understandably look at the political landscape and note the obvious, that Labor has more safe seats.

And such people will gravitate to Labor.

It’s worth noting that one reason many individuals seek out membership of parties is not because they abide by a particular ideology, but rather to become politicians.

That’s precisely what happened in Senator Campbell’s case. He first joined the Australian Democrats.

But he quickly noted there was a limited future in that corner of the political paddock, so turned to the Liberals, and in particular, to the NCB faction.

And that ploy paid off handsomely.

For his part, Senator Ellison made a bid to win endorsement for a safe state seat but failed.

So he too gravitated toward a powerful patron, namely NCB.

In both cases, NCB still had enough leverage to help them gain senate endorsement.

But with fewer safe seats, particularly at state level, potential candidates will do precisely what senators Campbell and Ellison did, except in their cases it will be to look to the other, the Labor, side.


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