For decades the involvement of the public directly within political parties has been decreasing. More and more is the membership base falling on party hacks, lifetime members and those with more extreme views. These days the major parties have around 40,000 members each. For comparison, the MCC has a waiting list of 225,000 people.
This is creating many issues for the parties; however, I am only going to discuss three:
According to news.com, the Liberal Party spent around $40 million, and the ALP $35 million at the 2016 double-dissolution election. Both were left with some degree of debt, $3.7m and $1.8m respectively.
For the Liberals, they were spared red due to generous donations from Malcolm Turnbull ($1.75m) and Ros Packer ($500,000).
In comparison, memberships fees (excluding fundraising and extra donations) may have raised somewhere between $2-$4m for the Liberal Party.
While many more millions would have been raised from members with the specific aim of fundraising for the election, there is an ever growing gap of how much elections needed to be funded by members and how much needs to be funded by large donations from individuals and corporations. Thus, to fill this gap, MPs are required to spend more of their time running events and scrounging for cash rather than engaging with their community. It also creates a more substantial disconnect between the electorate at large and the paying memberships of the party. MPs may be required to pander more and more to a decreasing pool die-hard party supporters as to ensure they have the funds to win at next years election.
This can warp the views of MPs making them less moderate and aware of cross-party line issues or, making more issues political, furthering disrupting the present age of furious partisanship. For the Labor party, this means becoming more ingrained in the matters of Unions, which in themselves are being more politically isolated due to their decreasing membership numbers. This poses a political detriment to Labor as the Unions have become less popular over time.
For the Liberals, they suffer from a reliance on wealthy members. This entrenches views that they represent the rich and powerful with little care for the economic woes of the average Australian. With Malcolm Turnbull out of the picture now, the Liberals may see a greater windfall at the 2019 election. Ultimately this issue of decreasing membership culminates into a simple problem – a narrowing of the funding base. Fewer members are required to put up more funds making involvement in the political system harder. This results in fewer funds to the parties pushing them towards more undemocratic means of revenue raising.
This was loosely touched on before, but fewer members result in more radical policy. This was seen recently when the Queensland Young Liberals put through and passed a motion to privatise the ABC. It should be noted, policies adopted by members do not have to be taken up by the federal caucus, resulting in more idealistic policies over effective policies. However, what it shows is the existing systems of moving policy through the party is becoming more ideologically driven. These policies start in local branch policy meetings where members of the branch debate and vote on whether the motion should be moved to the state assembly. This is repeated by the State Assembly before being passed onto the Federal Assembly. Along the way the policy moves up through layers and layers of more ingrained party hacks, individuals who have proven their allegiance and networked well within the party. With a smaller pool of members to vote for individuals to these assemblies, debate and vote on the policy at a local level and to nominate policy in the first place, we begin to witness a political echo chamber form, perpetuating and pushing views that are often unchallenged.
From there, their views gain a platform on the Federal Assembly stage and have the potential to become part of the official party platform.
The other mechanism by which policy changes is by fundraising and other events with these members. Small discussions with members will certifiably change your views and values on an issue. If enough of your members appear to support a particular policy which you may not agree with, you may be compelled to vote for it merely to retain the support of your branch’s members and their wallet.
Preselection is the apex of where individuals can exert political power as a member. This system for deciding who can run for a seat determines whether a candidate is moderate, an insider, a friend, a radical.
Having more members, especially those who are more moderate and represent the average voter better, means that the candidate selected is more likely to represent a wider portion of society.
The small membership base we are currently seeing means that candidates usually know who’s on the preselection committee, have made connections with these individuals and have already come to some outcome on the candidate. For international factions in the party, these means getting friends to become members to vote you into the administrative wing, onto certain committees or to encourage your internal political dominance. This means that certain political factions, if not controlled, can take over entire branches or electorates from the inside out. While there are some degrees of oversight, a camp can retain incumbency by the domination of the Membership Secretary’s position, filtering out individuals who they may deem to have politically incongruent views.
This is turn reduces membership size further, perpetuating a cycle.
Dwindling membership numbers are making our parliamentarians more undemocratic from the inside out. Their creating reliance on a narrow membership base for campaign finance is resulting in greater power to those with the money to influence politics. Fewer members are creating larger internal-echo chambers and fuelling the factional politics that both parties are suffering. Finally, candidates themselves are becoming more partisan and reliant on the partisan system than their experience and ability as citizens to become members of parliament.