16/04/2002 - 22:00

Membership drive a road to nowhere

16/04/2002 - 22:00


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LIBERAL leader Colin Barnett desperately wants to become Premier, just as Geoff Gallop did in the years leading up to his election win.But, unlike Dr Gallop, he’s unlikely to get two bites of the cherry.

Membership drive a road to nowhere
LIBERAL leader Colin Barnett desperately wants to become Premier, just as Geoff Gallop did in the years leading up to his election win.

But, unlike Dr Gallop, he’s unlikely to get two bites of the cherry.

The reason – he’s unpopular with too many parliamentary colleagues.

Recall how he got the leadership last year – only after Federal Liberal Curtin MP Julie Bishop pulled out of the race.

Mr Barnett has the extraordinary distinction of being the only Liberal leader to be faced with losing the post to someone not actually in the party room, someone not even a member of the same Parliament.

So, before Christmas, he resolved to jot down his thoughts on the party’s malaise – declining funds, collapsed membership, and so on.

Soon after, he sent copies of his jottings to several senior party members.

They read and filed them, and nothing happened.

That’s where things may have remained had someone not leaked a copy to the press, which meant the party’s well-known trials and tribulations became news for a day.

Several days later Mr Barnett issued his electorate newsletter, Points of Order, calling for his thoughts to be given thought.

One thought was to ask lost members to rejoin.

This is seen as a nifty way of getting two MPs he’s very close to – Independents Phillip Pendal and Dr Liz Constable – back to help boost his parliamentary numbers against an expected challenge from Kalgoorlie MLA Matt Birney.

It also could mean inviting back Dr Janet Woollard, Alfred Cove’s Liberals for Forests member.

She toppled Mr Barnett’s long-time bitter rival Doug Shave and would only join Liberal ranks if the party guaranteed her Alfred Cove’s endorsement, thereby conveniently blocking a Shave comeback.

So, a case of magnanimity being beneficial.

Another was that “a 30 per cent increase on current membership levels within three years is certainly achievable”.

Not everyone agrees.

Firstly, because Mr Barnett isn’t overly popular with many MP colleagues, few are likely to join a membership drive.

Added to this, most MPs aren’t inclined towards seeing more members in their branches, because that means a greater likelihood of challengers emerging for their seats.

As one put it: “I wonder how Colin would respond if he suddenly found 1000 young members in his Cottesloe branches, particularly if some began commenting on his thinning hair and receding hair-line?”

Liberal leaders, like some clergymen, mouth off about wanting more members but when it comes to the crunch, unlike clergymen, those at the party’s upper echelons don’t actually want them.

Fewer rank-and-file members means there are fewer people each MP must cultivate to ensure they’re not challenged.

Moreover, it’s generally accepted by those in the know that WA’s Liberal Party currently has about 2000 genuine paid-up members.

Compare this with the 10,000 or so throughout the 1950s when WA’s population was about a third of today’s.

Whether Mr Barnett knows it or not, the fact is the party’s most successful membership recruiters have never been Liberal Party officials or MPs.

On the contrary, the two who stand out were both NSW Labor Party heavyweights – the late Ben Chifley and Gough Whitlam, both prime ministers.

Chifley in the late 1940s set out to socialise Australia along the lines of Clement Attlee’s Great Britain.

That threat sparked one of the biggest membership surges the Liberal Party was to witness, and its impact lasted well into the 1960s.

Then, just as the Chifley socialisation threat began losing puff, along came another threatening NSW politician – Gough Whitlam – so party numbers and funds again skyrocketed.

Interestingly, it was about this time that an energetic person app-eared on the party’s doorstep, Noel Crichton-Browne, NCB to mates.

Young, brash, outspoken, very rich – he’d just made millions from the nickel stockmarket boom – he decided to make politics his full-time occupation.

With so much spare time he launched new branches all over WA, filling them with hard-nosed anti-Whitlamites.

Not coincidentally, he became party president and soon after gained Senate endorsement.

NCB’s backers – many of them recipients of his support for endorse-ment into State or Federal Parliament – peddle the view that he was the party’s greatest-ever membership booster.

What they never say is that NCB’s years neatly coincided with the anti-Whitlam impact – the real reason for the second membership surge and consequent funds boost.

Interestingly, when a third widely disliked NSW-bred Prime Minster, Paul Keating, emerged in the 1990s, people voted Liberal but never joined the party.

Why the difference between the 1990s, and the 1950s to 1970s?

That question is never asked, so has never been answered.

My guess is that it’s because most West Aussies twigged a decade earlier that whoever they backed, the inevitable outcome was higher and rising taxes, and bigger and more intrusive government, with the local Liberal Party machine simply there to prop-up ambitious do-little office seekers.

Mr Barnett should give this serious thought before jotting down more thoughts.


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