Earlier this year the Liberals launched a national publication called Looking Forward. Since it attracted a degree of publicity in political circles, State Scene resolved to get a copy to assess the standard of its articles
Earlier this year the Liberals launched a national publication called Looking Forward.
Since it attracted a degree of publicity in political circles, State Scene resolved to get a copy to assess the standard of its articles.
And last week a copy of one of its articles, titled Facing the Facts, and written by Senator Nick Minchin, was sent to State Scene.
The reason it was posted by a Liberal contact was to draw attention to the senator’s highlighting of the use of plebiscites – meaning all party members voting in pre-selections – to choose Liberal candidates.
This is in stark contrast to the current practice in Western Australia, where factional chiefs gain control of branches and divisions – often by stacking the former – to ensure they dominate the tiny delegate panels that do the pre-selecting.
Because State Scene highlighted the plebiscite approach in a recent column, claiming it was democratic and a far more inclusive way of pre-selecting, the contact felt the senator’s comments would interest me.
Here are the senator’s views.
“Some divisions [meaning states and territories] now have a form of augmented plebiscite which allows all members in an electorate to vote in pre-selection, alongside state executive members.
“However, only the ACT division allows plebiscites for Senate contests.
“When the ACT recently held a contested Senate pre-selection, around 80 per cent of members attended, and had the vote not been on the main trading day before Christmas with many small business members working and other members visiting relatives interstate, member interest suggested that well over 90 per cent would have attended.
“Were the larger divisions [states] to replace delegate structures with plebiscites, the evidence suggests that member involvement could be huge.”
Western Australian rank and file Liberals should be indebted to the senator, because the inclusive and democratic plebiscite approach isn’t overly publicised here, possibly to ensure things remain unchanged and that candidate pre-selection remains the preserve of microscopic numbers of carefully selected and positioned members.
But other issues in the Minchin article were equally telling.
Before considering some, it’s important to note that Senator Minchin is very much a party machine man, that is, he never gained senatorial pre-selection by coming from a farm, business, university, law firm, or worse still, an MP’s staff, as is the case with increasing numbers of Labor MPs.
Instead, his brief curriculum vitae in the article says: “Prior to entering the Senate in 1993 he was state director of the South Australian Liberal Party (1985-1993) and held a number of positions at the federal secretariat, including deputy director (1977-83).
“He is only the second Liberal state director to have been elected to the Senate.”
No Canberra MP is thus as conversant as Senator Minchin on internal Liberal Party affairs.
He was in the party’s federal machine just three years after John Howard entered parliament and two years after Malcolm Fraser had displaced Labor’s Gough Whitlam in 1975.
And, 30 years after that tumultuous national re-emergence of the Liberals following Mr Whitlam’s sacking by Governor General Sir John Kerr, Senator Minchin is a key figure within John Howard’s inner sanctum.
That said, what of his other contentions?
First and foremost, he believes the Howard Government is far from firmly ensconced in power.
“At present the Liberals Party has 247 parliamentarians in state and federal parliaments, to which we can add 64 Nationals and 12 CLP [Northern Territory] parliamen-tarians,” the senator wrote.
“By contrast the ALP has some 428 state and federal parliamen-tarians, giving them an advantage of 105 MPs along with their electoral offices, staff and electorate allowances.
“Moreover, the ALP political message is amplified by ministerial staff and other government resources in six states and two territories.”
Despite this, he said, nearly 5.5 million Australians backed the conservatives nationally, well over a million more than voted Labor.
But he added that of this figure a huge 1.5 million “deserted us at the state level”, so he dubbed that 1.5 million as “soft conservatives”.
Senator Minchin added that, in 1949, when Robert Menzies first gained power, the party had nearly 200,000 members in 1,652 branches, an average of about 120 per branch.
In 1983, when Australia’s population was about double that of 1949, there were just over 100,000 members – about half that of 1949 – so down by a factor of four.
Last year, when the population was about 20 million, membership stood at just 80,000, which State Scene suspects is probably an over-estimation.
But here’s the Minchin kicker.
“In may be possible to win elections from government with a limited membership, but when we are next in opposition federally, we will confront serious competitive disadvantages.
“Weighing up alongside Labor are allied battalions of well-funded unions, noisy self-interested pressure groups, a sympathetic media, an opinionated host of academics divorced from all reality, developers with close relationships to Labor-controlled councils, and a big business community increasingly nervous about offending Labor state governments.”
It would be difficult to put it more succinctly and bluntly.
As Senator Minchin says, things aren’t rosy for the Liberals even though they control Canberra from where John Howard is increasingly centralising Australian governance according to Labor’s post-1921 blueprint.
The last time State Scene said something similar of the WA Division (‘Liberals struggle for vision’, WA Business News June 30 2005), several local senior Liberals were quite upset.
That column highlighted – and backed – moves by some within WA’s division who want candidate pre-selection by plebiscite adopted here.
They want to replace the present exclusion of rank-and-file members, believing that would add meaning to membership, and would probably boost numbers significantly, thus making it more likely that the Liberals gain government in WA.
Senator Minchin firmly backs State Scene’s view on this.
“The larger our party membership the less chance of the organisation being controlled either by internal cliques or factions or outside interests.
“A major finding in market research presented to the 2003 National Convention was that members felt they had insufficient say in party affairs.
“Complex divisional structures are expensive to maintain, are conducive to creating an internal focus, foster factional competition over fiefdoms and divert resources from the real task of winning government.”
And there’s the important question of party finances, which are likely to be healthier if the Liberals controlled state treasury benches and had more members.
On this Senator Minchin wrote: “The financial position of many divisions has been alarming in the past two decades with three states facing severe crises and some party buildings sold to maintain solvency.
“The donor base is shrinking and divisional staff numbers have been under long-term decline. Campaign staff are often the first to go …”
It’s perhaps worth noting that WA’s division sold its West Perth HQ in the early 1990s. Earlier it sold two adjacent North Perth properties.
To be fair, its asset base has recently improved. Although the party carries some debt it has about $2 million in funds and investments.
That said, clearly, Senator Minchin, like State Scene, believes Liberal divisions should be fully democratised.
Let’s hope, therefore, that the backward-looking conservative clique now controlling the WA division doesn’t prevail on the democratising issue when it is debated at next month’s state conference.