Bury our bodies close to the light… Resurrecting party membership

I’m not a member of a political party.  Given how much the major political parties are clanging on about engaging with the next generation of voters, I’m rather surprised that I — a mid-twenties political tragic — have absolutely no interest in joining a political party.  It could be that I’m a conservative and I doubt I could look myself in the mirror each morning if I were associated with the Liberal Party (as it currently stands; perhaps some future iteration might be worthy of its excellent past).

But I think there might be something more to it.  I’m also not a fan of sports teams, and I would be far from the first to point out the similarities between Australian politics and sport.  I don’t understand people who identify so intensely with particular teams.  I would rather watch two teams in peak condition compete with each other until, at last, one triumphs over the other.  Watching brutes pound the snot out of an indistinguishable group of meatheads isn’t made more interesting by virtue of them being (nominally) my brutes.

And the same is true for sports teams.  Aha.  Obvious punchline.  I’m so witty.  (Also, I have rather a nasty ‘flu.  Please forgive any indelicacies.)

But I can understand the sentiment that some people have that parties should (somehow) represent their members.  Unfortunately, parties and their place within democratic societies is far from the simplest aspect of political philosophy.  Should a Member of Parliament represent her views, the views of her electorate, the views of her Party, or the views of her Party’s membership?  They’re not mutually exclusive answers: she can listen to each of those to a certain extent at different times.

Edmund Burke, for example, thought that politicians were elected to follow their consciences.  It was that tradition which inspired the capacity for Liberal Party members to cross the floor without (direct) censure.  The union movement, which gave rise to the ALP, was all about solidarity: no matter how stupid an ALP policy is, ALP politicians can be expelled if they don’t toe the line.

Things are even more hairy in the Senate.  Senators are rarely elected for their wit, charm, or intellect (hence Abetz, Hanson-Young, and Conroy).  Instead, they’re almost unanimously there by virtue of party machinery.  Should senators be permitted to express their own opinions when they’re not directly elected?  After all, people voted for the Party, not the candidate.

The ALP — for all its many faults — is at least trying to grapple with these questions.  The same cannot be said for the Liberal Party (which is so lousy with hacks that it’s difficult to see a future for it if it doesn’t go down the Tea Party path) or for the Greens (who have a bafflingly complex Constitution to explain why party members will never ever have a say in policy, not ever — it’s also the reason why Bob Brown wasn’t able to negotiate about Telstra, if you remember correctly: the shadowy National Council nixed him).

Alas, it doesn’t seem to be grappling with the questions in a meaningful way.  Over on his blog, Thomas McMahon argues that there’s no point getting hung up about esoteric questions of voting procedure when there are so few members.

 Who cares about valuing the membership if no-one else is a member? Who cares about factions when there are only 2 people in them? [Source: McMahon, ‘The Labor party: fighting over the first class seats on a plane that is about to crash into the mountain’]

McMahon outlines the ALP path to power:

  • You have to be a member of a union, which can cost over 500 dollars per year
  • To have any power or real involvement you must attend countless meetings and join bizarre committees that have no influence in and of themselves, but you will get to know people through them
  • You have to be interested in adversarial, political discussion where you could well be harassed for just having an opinion on something [Ibid]

I see no reason to think that he’s incorrect.  I do, however, think that his cure is wrong-headed:

The party needs to provide an avenue for ‘low intensity’ party engagement. We need to invite people to become a part of the centre-left political debate in Australia who are reluctant to commit to fully joining a party. Once people become involved, providing they like what they see, they will naturally join the party.

Labor needs its equivalent of GetUp and it needs it fast. I don’t even care if it’s called something lame like eLabor or iLabor 2.0. It’s not expensive, but it will mean taking some risks. It will also mean that people will say things that don’t fit the focus group tested, will-go-down-great-in-Western-Sydney worldview. But so what – have you seen Newspoll? It’s not like that is working great anyway. The risk from inaction is far greater than the risk of action. [Ibid]

If there’s one thing we don’t need more of in Western politics, it’s slacktivism.  Mein Gott, the barrier to political participation should be slightly higher than a few clicks on a website.

We have fashioned a society where you never have to challenge your views.  If you believe that asylum seekers are all economic migrants, that drinking a can of Coke proves that carbon dioxide isn’t harmful, or that free market entrepreneurs will somehow break the speed of light (making fibe-to-the-home networks obsolete)  the media have made it exceptionally easy to ensure your beliefs will never be challenged.  After all, you might stop reading/listening/watching something which tells you that you’re wrong.

But it’s so easy to laugh at the dimwits on the Right.  Meanwhile, the same is also true for the halfwits on the Left.  If you believe that the Refugees Convention includes an inviolable right to entry (and that Article 2 doesn’t exist and that you can ignore inconvenient clauses which say the opposite of what you want), that pricing carbon is necessarily the only way to reduce carbon emissions, or that restricting access to particular websites is a heinous attack on your freedom to do whatever the hell you please, then you can sign up to receive GetUp! e-mails which will only tell you what you already think.  Plus, it makes it easy for you to agree with them without thinking: you don’t even have to read the e-mail.  Clickity click.  You’ve been a part of social change and you didn’t even need to know the issues, details, or arguments.

The problem with parties is that they don’t clearly distinguish between public democracy and party democracy.  Members of the Party should have no ongoing influence over individual candidates elected by the broader public.  Contrariwise, the broader public shouldn’t have such influence and control over parties.  As it stands, people questioned for NewsPoll have greater sway over who leads the parties than the members who paid to join.  People in marginal seats are listened to; members are not.

But there should be an obvious line between the role of the membership and the role of the broader public.  We do not directly elect the leader of the parties.  That should be a matter for the membership (and, dare I say it, there should be an amendment to the Electoral Act to ensure that members directly decide who will lead the Party: not unlike shareholders electing board members and chairpersons).  If people wanted to choose Rudd over Gillard, that should be a matter for the broader membership; not ‘faceless men’ watching poll numbers.

All of this assumes, of course, that political parties should continue to exist.  I’m still not entirely sure that they’re not a vestigial organ of a long lost political landscape.

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Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based blogger and policy wonk who writes about conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

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