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More discussion on the Liberal leadership issue.

PETER THOMPSON: The Federal Liberal Party, of course, is rupturing at the top, particularly in the last four or five days, more prominently than, I guess, in the previous few months. But it seems the problems facing the party run right down to its core. One leading Liberal is suggesting that until the party straightens out its structure and how it operates, the Liberals will continue to remain in the political wilderness.

Michael Warby is a member of the Liberal Party's powerful Federal Council, and he's accusing the party of failing to attract new members and to keep in step with modern Australian aspirations. His views are published in the latest issue of Quadrant magazine. Michael Warby joins me now. Thanks for coming on. How are you, this morning, Mr Warby?

MICHAEL WARBY: Fine, thank you very much.

PETER THOMPSON: Now, what's your assessment of what's going on in the Liberal Party's parliamentary arm?

MICHAEL WARBY: Oh, well, the Liberal Party's a rather curious structure where essentially, because it is a confederation of independent State divisions, the Federal body has no power over its organisational elements in the various States - unlike the ALP -and because it has no effective way of debating issues of general direction in the organisational wing - because the parliamentary party has absolute and complete policy sovereignty, controllable policy - that means that the key position is the leader.

So all tensions in the party eventually fall on the shoulders of the leader. Now, if you're in government, you've got the event, the proof of success and the ministerial cars and all the rest of it. It's relatively easy to hold that together. But if you're in Opposition - at worst, you've lost an election so therefore you don't have the image of success - it becomes extraordinarily difficult to hold all that together.

The massive reliance on the leader to fill in the directional details makes the position of a Liberal Opposition leader extremely invidious, particularly at the Federal level.

PETER THOMPSON: Given that the parliamentary party has control over policy, as you say, is that the reason why there are seemingly such violent U-turns? For example: We're all for Fightback; now Fightback's a piece of history.

MICHAEL WARBY: Well, exactly. The people in the parliamentary party and their staffers obviously feel this freedom to manoeuvre is a good thing and they want to keep it, and they also tend to have a fairly low opinion of the membership's capacities in this area. But it has some very distinct disadvantages, and one of which is - do you think the electorate out there has a firm idea of what the Liberal Party stands for? I think it's about two U-turns too many.

And it's a matter of - if your organisational wing doesn't ever seriously debate policy because nothing it says is seriously important, well, of course, its ability to deal with policy will be poor and what policy debates do take place will be of low quality because no one will invest much time or effort in them because they don't matter.

PETER THOMPSON: I think one of the core issues you identify is the problem of who belongs, who makes up the membership. Who does?

MICHAEL WARBY: Yes. Well, the membership is elderly; it's strikingly so. You go to a Liberal Party meeting - and I've talked to a lot of people around the country about this - and the membership is, well, the medium age, the middle age will be 55-60, maybe older. It's because these are the people with the time to go to all the rather boring meetings and so forth, and it's also because these are people of the generation who naturally tend to join things. We have a situation in the modern days where people aren't joiners in the way they used to. It's not a natural thing to do, to join your RSL, join your local Rotary, join your local this or that, so organisations which want a large membership have to work harder to get members, and the Liberal Party's not working at all.

PETER THOMPSON: Well, of course, organisations that are growing, tend to be more participative - for example, conservation groups where membership has grown enormously.

MICHAEL WARBY: Yes. And also, focused. I mean, you can see directly what the thing is about and that it's focused on a particular area, so your investment of time in the organisation has a clear outcome.

PETER THOMPSON: It seems that membership of both major political parties is declining quite sharply.


PETER THOMPSON: But are you saying Labor Party members have more to do, more effect, than Liberal Party members?

MICHAEL WARBY: Yes. It's quite striking that the Labor Party members, although there are fewer of them - and, of course, there always have been fewer of them - have a much higher level of activity. Just elementary things like in getting the members out to hand out how-to-votes. I mean, I'll take a smaller, more active membership over a larger, less active one any time.

And also, the level of debate in the Labor Party. The Labor Party's not afraid of political debate internally. The Liberals tend to have the attitude that if you're debating stuff it's a sign of disunity and that's bad, as if everyone's automatically going to agree on everything.

PETER THOMPSON: On another matter concerning the Labor Party, you suggest that the faction system which was really implemented at the time that Bob Hawke came to power, more or less, has been highly successful in maintaining sort of a tribal balance.

MICHAEL WARBY: It's had its successes and failures. People who look at the ALP's faction system and say 'Oh, that's what we need in the Liberal Party', don't understand the Liberal Party. I mean, Liberal conservative parties are never going to have that sort of - or are very unlikely ever to have - that sort of type factionism, just because of their nature and the outlook of the people who take part in them. But it's certainly true that the ALP looked at its problems and evolved a system to deal with them.

What I'm suggesting the Liberal Party should do is look at its problems and evolve a system to deal with them - not necessarily, just copy the ALP because the ALP is coping with different circumstances.

PETER THOMPSON: Given all these problems you've outlined and the apparent unattractiveness of belonging to the Liberal Party, where do they get strong leaders from, or the sort of leaders that you want to win elections? I mean, for example, has the Liberal Party waited in vain for someone to emerge from business - like, for example, a John Elliott?

MICHAEL WARBY: Oh, I think the wish, in some areas, for a business messiah is profoundly silly and it shows a rather amateur and low opinion of politics. It doesn't treat politics seriously as an activity in its own right. I must say that after eight years of Liberal Party activism, I have a fairly low opinion of the political activities of businessmen. They don't understand politics very well, by and large. They certainly don't understand mass politics. I mean, their idea of politics is all being behind closed doors, which is an aspect of politics but a fairly narrow one. And well, I have to say that this extends more broadly. The quality of business lobbyists in this country as political operators is poor, largely because the people who are hiring them don't understand what's required.

PETER THOMPSON: Are you talking about groups like the Business Council?

MICHAEL WARBY: Yes. Oh, the Business Council is better than average, but - well, take, for example, the recent debate over Mabo. I thought the mining industry's lobbyists did a remarkably poor job of arguing before the general public what was going on. They obviously assumed that their successful scare campaign in Western Australia was simply replicable. But at times, their spokespeople's performance on the media was embarrassing compared to that of the Aboriginal activists.

PETER THOMPSON: Michael, we have only a few seconds left. As a member of Federal Council, is John Hewson going to survive?

MICHAEL WARBY: Federal Council has no power over this matter whatsoever. He lacks that aura of success. It's going to be very difficult for him to survive, I should think.

PETER THOMPSON: So it's just a matter of weeks?

MICHAEL WARBY: Oh, I couldn't give you a time frame.

PETER THOMPSON: Thanks for joining me, Michael Warby, who is a Victorian member of the Federal Liberal Council, and he recently wrote an article in the latest issue of Quadrant, which was the basis of the discussion we've just been having - timely for the Liberal Party to think about its structures.