31/08/2011 - 11:22

Libs push membership credentials

31/08/2011 - 11:22


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Whatever the true figures, both sides of politics needs to work a bit harder to increase their membership.

THE state director of the Liberal Party, Ben Morton, engaged in some political one upmanship over party membership when he addressed delegates at his party’s recent conference.

Political parties have been reluctant to reveal membership totals for some years, mainly because they have been heading south on nearly all fronts. But there’s been something of a turnaround, within Liberal ranks at least.

“One of the things this party should be most proud about is our membership,” Mr Morton said at the conference. “Membership in WA has increased from around 4,000 three years ago to now over 6,300, and growing by over 100 people each month.

“Our membership growth is critical to our success in many ways. We can engage more people in campaigning, and financially it’s not so bad either. But the important thing about a strong-growing membership is a great pool of experiences, people of all sorts of areas and therefore a greater range of ideas and perspectives on issues.”

And then the punch line: “This is something that our WA Labor opponents will struggle with as their membership recently dipped below 2,000 people and is declining.” 

When I put this to Labor state secretary Simon Mead, the response was terse to say the least: “His guess is well short.”
Mr Mead declined to comment further.

While the National Party boasts a stable membership of about 1,300 – a creditable total given the size of its vote – Labor’s total has varied according to the politics of the day. For instance, after the Whitlam dismissal, the party experienced a surge in membership from supporters answering the leader’s call to ‘right the wrong’.

I recall veteran union leader Bill Latter urging Labor’s state executive at the time to embark on a mass membership drive to build the ranks up to at least 25,000 in WA. But enthusiasm eventually waned.

Branches play a key role in providing foot soldiers at election time to undertake leaflet drops – far cheaper than direct mail outs – and hand out how-to-vote cards on polling day. But so thin has branch membership become, Labor is now increasingly relying on unions to take on that legwork.

Former Liberal senator and one-time party powerbroker, Noel Crichton-Browne, says the time is ripe for his old party to sign up thousands of new members.

“The Labor government is on the nose; small business owners are doing it tough and they are just ready to sign up – all it needs is for someone to go out with a receipt book and ask them to join,” Mr Crichton-Browne said.

And he ought to know:  “I reckon I signed up 10,000 members myself when I was active in the party. And we opened branches in places like Girrawheen and Balga, very tough areas for the party. And they weren’t just paper branches. They were active, functioning operations, and state membership peaked at about 30,000 in the mid-1980s.”

One of Labor’s key federal advisers, lobbyist Bruce Hawker, wrote in The Australian recently that the party had an estimated active national membership in 2005 of 7,500, compared with a total membership of 370,000 in 1939.

Currently, the Liberals seem to be doing far better in the membership stakes than Labor, but the recent performance of both sides points to public apathy when it comes to getting actively involved in politics.

Or maybe, as Mr Crichton-Browne says, it’s a matter of giving supporters a reason to join, then going out and signing them up. Then that increased membership the WA Liberals have experienced could become a surge for both major parties. And that can only improve the level of political debate.

Nationals’ boycott

ALL is not well between the innovative Western Australian branch of the National Party and the party’s federal body, which is just a pale imitation of the potent political force it represented during the Fraser years.  

The WA branch normally sends up to 10 delegates to the party’s national council meetings; but when the council met in Canberra last weekend, for the first time anyone can remember the local delegates decided to boycott the meeting.

Trouble has been brewing between the state branch and its federal cousins for some years. 

For a start, the federal body was reluctant to get behind the innovative Royalties for Regions policy, saying in essence that it would not work at a national level. 

The fear is that such a policy, nationally, could end up pitching one state against another when it comes to the financial carve up. 

But federal officials were distinctly unimpressed when, after the initial euphoria of Tony Crook’s stunning federal election victory over Liberal veteran Wilson Tuckey in the seat of O’Connor, Mr Crook decided to sit on the cross benches rather than as a fully fledged member of the Canberra Nationals.

The WA president, Colin Holt, says Mr Crook’s action essentially points up his opposition to the Nationals being in coalition with the Liberals in Canberra. The Nationals have avoided a formal coalition with the Liberals in government in WA, and insist that the federal MPs should do the same.

The WA party supports Mr Crook’s view that his best chance of getting a good deal for his electorate is by keeping at arm’s length from the coalition in opposition.

Mr Holt downplays the significance of the WA boycott.  He says it would be hypocritical for WA delegates to attend the council meeting and help shape policy positions when Mr Crook does not attend party meetings in Canberra that plan their implementation.

The Nationals in Canberra face a dilemma. Compared to the Fraser years (1975-83) when the party had heavyweights such as Doug Anthony, Ian Sinclair and Peter Nixon exerting their influence in government, it is now short of heavy hitters. Warren Truss is a reliable but low-key leader, and the high-profile Senator Barnaby Joyce is seeking a lower house seat.

The WA party believes the alliance arrangement in government with Colin Barnett’s Liberals works well. And with $1 billion being carved up annually under the Royalties for Regions banner, it’s hard to disagree.

But with Tony Abbott and the federal coalition comfortably ahead in the polls, everything points to them forming government in 2013. Should this happen, it would be hard to believe that Tony Crook would remain sitting on the cross benches, rather than attending party meetings to ensure a good deal for his electorate. Provided, of course, he wins a second term.

The perceived federal-WA grievances would be quickly sidelined as the local delegates took their places around the council table.


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