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Liberal Party looks to attract more young people as members.

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MARK COLVIN: Fewer and fewer young people are joining the major political parties in Australia and that’s got the Liberals worried. To beckon them back, one federal Liberal MP, Christopher Pyne, is calling for changes to his party’s structure to make it more attractive, but he hasn’t yet convinced his colleagues in the Young Liberals that his ideas will work. Michelle Fonseca reports.


MICHELLE FONSECA: These days, the problem for the major political parties could be that for many young Australians life is just a tad too comfortable. Faced with wars, depression and the rise of communism, their grandparents signed up with political parties in droves, but Liberal MP, Christopher Pyne, says as domestic life has stabilised and living standards have crept up, the level of interest in politics among the young has tumbled in the opposite direction.


CHRISTOPHER PYNE: What young people find is that the economic issues they seem to think are somebody else’s problem. Their parents talk about interest rates, their parents talk about current account deficits, inflation, unemployment etc. Young people, being so, I guess, optimistic about the world when they come out of school or university or just start work as apprentices and things just don’t think about—to the same extent as their parents would—those sorts of economic issues, and I guess they just look a bit dull to them.


MICHELLE FONSECA: In a speech to the Sydney Institute tonight, Christopher Pyne will call for changes to his party’s structure in an attempt to broaden its appeal. He says, rather than joining branches based on geographical groupings, special branches could be established specifically for 30-somethings. One of the problems for the Liberal Party has been retaining its members after they leave the Young Liberals. Christopher Pyne says one way to stem that flow could be to tweak the definition of young. He is advocating lifting the age cap for the Young Liberals, so rather than being forced to opt out at 30, they could stay until 36 or even 40 as Young Republicans in the United States do.


CHRISTOPHER PYNE: A lot of people who are 35 or 34 don’t see themselves as being members of a senior party, especially when they attend the senior party branch and find the membership is much older than that, and they might be more prepared to stay in the Young Liberals for a longer period because the Young Liberals do have great access to the party.


MICHELLE FONSECA: But that idea has already been hosed down by the Young Liberals. President, Ben Franklin, believes lifting the age cap to allow middle-aged Liberals to qualify as young is a lazy option.


BEN FRANKLIN: We have to do something smarter. We can’t just say that because we don’t have enough 30 to 45-year-old members of the Liberal Party—which we don’t—the thing to do is to raise the Young Liberal age limit. What we have to do instead is to look at new and vibrant and invigorating ways to entice the 30 to 45-year-old members into the party.


MICHELLE FONSECA: And what would your suggestion be?


BEN FRANKLIN: We need to understand that they are people often with kids, certainly with responsibilities and commitments—perhaps to a mortgage or a family—and we need to make meetings and involvement in the party much more user friendly. Perhaps we need to change branch structures from being involved in a draughty church hall at 8 o’clock on a Tuesday evening to perhaps a professional drinks meeting in the city at 6 o’clock on a Friday afternoon.


MICHELLE FONSECA: The Liberal Party is by no means alone in struggling to attract young people. As part of their review into the ALP, Bob Hawke and Neville Wran are also looking at ways to broaden the party’s membership base, but Monash University political scientist, Nick Economou, believes both parties are fighting an uphill battle. He says grassroots activism is on the decline in Australia and those young people who are inclined to get involved are gravitating towards parties such as the Greens where they believe their voices will be heard.


NICK ECONOMOU: In both major political parties the branch system is not the most exciting way of getting involved in the political debate. You should remember that most theorists who have written about political parties, especially major parties, have argued that there is really one reason for branch membership, and that is simply to aggregate financial and human resources to run elections and run election campaigns; so the most important thing that a branch member can do, presumably, is hand out how-to-vote cards and raise money for the party. These days, I think the ordinary members want to have more of a say in what is going on, and they are asking: Why should I waste my time sitting around in boring branch meetings if that which I am deciding or discussing doesn’t have an impact?


MARK COLVIN: Political scientist from Monash University, Nick Economou, with Michelle Fonseca.