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State Scene - Joe Poprzeczny: No guests at this party

THERE’S no law of politics that postulates political parties are essential for the effective operation of our representative form of democracy.

Parties emerged across Australia’s colonies well after Westminster acceded to demands for colonial self-government.

Most Australian colonies had parliaments a generation before parties emerged.

Between about 1870 and 1900, political cliques, loosely bound parliamentary factions and changing alliances functioned quite effectively.

To voters of those times they seemed like the only way things could, and should, be.

And when such alliances gravely faltered, extra-parliamentary reformist groups such as Victoria’s Kyabram Movement emerged to compel politicians to make reforms.

Those investigating that time will find late 19th century Australian democracy offered stable government, thereby showing parties aren’t necessary pre-requisites for governance or political stability.

Australian parties emerged largely because of demands by union leaderships seeking to direct MPs, who Laborite associations had endorsed, to implement programs agreed upon at conferences.

Thus a labour party emerged, later called the Australian Labor (without the ‘u’) Party.

MPs not associated with employee unionism – generally backers of free trade (mainly from NSW) and protectionism (mainly from Victoria) – responded by fusing to form countervailing, but looser, party structures.

Since the early 1920s these have split and reformed as Nationalists, United Australia, and lastly, the Liberals, with ruralist non-Laborite loyalists creating a Country Party (now the Nationals).

Labor too, had splits.

The first came during the Great War, over imperial loyalty, the bitter conscription question.

It was followed by disputation over debt repayment and national economic management during the 1930s Depression.

And in the 1950s it split over the labour movement’s relationship to the Stalin-controlled Comintern and the American alliance, with some, like the late Dr Jim Cairns, claiming to be idealists and preferring to proselytise for totalitarian Moscow.

During the past century formalised parties have come and gone, been renamed and refashioned.

Notwithstanding such changes, they’re wrongly seen as essential to Australia’s governance.

It helps to remember the pre-1900 decades when considering Australia’s parties, especially the Liberals and Labor, which are presently experiencing difficulties attracting members.

Although membership numbers are confidential they’re

occasionally leaked, and show Labor and the Liberals are now in a slump.

Both are shells of their once great selves.

So much so it’s now possible to imagine an ALP and/or Liberal Party with fewer members nationally than, say, the Greens and Democrats, which themselves have perilously tiny memberships.

A day could arrive when they’ll be virtually without members.

Growing numbers of voters believe parties are increasingly manned by people who are either fake or on the make.

Those on the make are there only to gain parliamentary seats, perks, pensions and life-long gold passes, while the fakes are there to ensure mates or relatives on the make have the numbers to gain and retain endorsement.

Increasingly the story is far from salubrious, with persistent media reports of branch stacking, jobs for buddies, special favours for big party donors, and declining memberships.

Most voters regard ongoing petty intra-party squabbles as unedifying, something to be avoided, which explains why so many who join are only briefly members. 

Declining memberships have also meant room for less talented people to move up the ranks.

It’s also meant party bureaucracies have had to look for electioneering funds elsewhere, namely from taxpayers.

Australian parties now survive largely because of Federal funding.

Party members who became MPs saw to that.

Without such funding most would have been wound up long ago – the situation’s that bad.

After each Federal election parties receive much welcomed cheques because of the $2-per-vote allocation.

MPs’ staffers generally double as party workers.

MPs’ electorate offices – faxes and photocopy machines, printing facilities, mobile phones, travel allowances, computerised databases to monitor constituents – are all taxpayer-funded, costing hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

MPs stopped kidding themselves decades ago that their parties could survive on voluntary member contributions.

The question now is whether it’s possible to return to the healthier past, to when parties weren’t increasingly dipping into taxpayers’ pockets.

State Scene says, unequivocally, yes.

Here’s what should happen.

Federal Parliament must legislate a time limit on all forms of party taxpayer funding – say, January 1 2010.

All parties should adopt constitutions that absolutely ensure impartial administration.

For too long internal administrations have manipulated rules to ensure those in the ascendancy win out.

Parties should evolve into also being active educational and information venues, not simply focal points of bitter factional infighting and campaigning.

In other words, they should increasingly sponsor specialist talks, lectures and seminars on public affairs and legislation, so as to attract civic-minded individuals.

They should move for adoption of citizen initiated (not solely politician initiated) State and Federal referendums, thereby drawing voters into the legislative process, something our politicians fear and don’t want.

Such a culture of learning, inquiry, fairness and broader involvement is more likely to ensure survival and healthy nationwide party networks than the present path of increasing use of taxpayers’ dollars to keep them alive.

Presently parties are on a road to nowhere, and are costing taxpayers ever more.

The alternative path is far more likely to lead to a renaissance, somewhat like that effected by Victoria’s Kyabram Movement a century ago.

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