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Grassroots support for the major political parties is declining

KERRY O'BRIEN: Are the main political parties, as we know them, dying? Party membership is in decline, and where does that leave democracy? Australia's big two political parties are in decline. For two decades, their membership has been tumbling, yet under our system, they must provide the leaders of the future.

MARTIN KENNEDY: How can we attract members? What, in your opinion, are the reasons that people would want to join a political party?

JOHN DELLA BOSCA: If the current trend continued by sheer numbers, then the ALP would, as I said, virtually cease to exist.

KERRY O'BRIEN: The threat to Australian democracy of the disappearing members, that's our story tonight. Theoretically, the strength of most liberal Western democracies hinges on a vibrant party system. The major parties must have the ability to reach into the community and tap its ideas and its talent, not to mention its financial resources. Traditionally, this has been done by having large party memberships that represent significant sections of the community. Today, in Australia and most other Western democracies, that is no longer the case. The ALP has under 50,000 members; the Liberals about 70,000; a tiny percentage of the Australian community, and a very small base from which to draw the leadership of the nation. Tonight, we examine why it's happening, the consequences if the decline continues, and whether there is anything that can be done to reverse the trend. We start with reporter, Don Greenlees.

ROBERT MENZIES: It is my great honour to stand here tonight as the apostle of liberalism, as an apostle of a political religion which is founded on the individual in Australia.

DON GREENLEES: In 1949, Robert Menzies set out his political vision. He created the United Australia Party, the forerunner to the modern Liberal Party. While Menzies sought to capture the aspirations of a growing suburban middle class, Labor leader, Ben Chifley, rallied the working men and women of Australia. Both parties had mass memberships and represented the division in Australian politics. The issues were black and white. Menzies elicited fears of communism, and Labor, then a socialist party, was an easy target.

ROBERT MENZIES: The communist pressure all round the world, has been very very cleverly designed. It's a very very grave problem.

DON GREENLEES: Since then, the division has become blurred. Politics has changed and so have the people the parties represent.

LINDSAY TANNER: Thirty or forty years ago, I think most people were content to actually see themselves as small time and prepared to actually let the great and glorious and powerful leaders run everything and make all the decisions, and sit at the meeting and politely applaud at the right time. People these days won't cop that.

DON GREENLEES: Olive Smith has been a member of the Liberal Party for twenty years, joining after the election of the Whitlam Government. Her home is often the meeting place for local Liberals. There are forty-four people in this branch on the North Shore of Sydney. Three years ago, there were sixty-three. Only about twenty turned up for last Tuesday night's meeting. Both the Liberal and the Labor Parties are used to seeing only a handful of people make it along to the average branch meeting. Party officials can cite branches in which there isn't a member under sixty years of age.

LIBERAL PARTY MEMBER: The young ones are not assuming their responsibilities. The younger members, I mean, not necessarily very young. It's got to come from them. They have got to realise they are citizens.

MARTIN KENNEDY: We have got over that born-to-rule phase that people tend to talk about a number of years ago. That's obviously not the case any more. You have got to get out there, like anyone else in a marketplace, and compete for these members.

DON GREENLEES: Behind the hype of party conventions, both Labor and Liberal are finding new members hard to come by. The need for tough economic decisions, particularly in the past decade, has confused old philosophical differences.

KEN BRIMAUD: There is a great deal of apathy generally, in the electorate, and the more politics becomes controversial or volatile and the more politicians are in the news in controversial circumstances, the more people tend to turn off that.

DON GREENLEES: Decline in the membership of the major parties is not a recent phenomenon. Hard economic times and disillusionment with the policies and leaderships of both parties undoubtedly has something to do with the loss of party faithful. But according to senior Labor and Coalition figures, the problem is far more fundamental.

LINDSAY TANNER: We have got a situation where for example, entertainment options and leisure options have expanded enormously in the past twenty or thirty years, and ultimately, political parties are in a market competing with other options for people's discretionary time, so that people have got a wider range of choice with things to do.

DON GREENLEES: A year before Menzies scraped home in the 1961 election, the Liberal Party's membership peaked at about 150,000; in 1983, it was 103,000; by 1989, it had fallen to 67,000; this year, membership is estimated to have crawled back to 73,000.

Estimates for the Labor Party are difficult, but when Gough Whitlam was dismissed in 1975, membership surged briefly to about 75,000. This year, the party claims about 45,000. In the recent Wills by-election, Labor struggled to muster support, even among its own members, and one of Labor's safest seats went to an Independent. In a report to the national executive on the Wills by-election loss, Labor official, Gary Grey, warned, 'Labor's grassroots participation is at a low ebb, and in the Wills electorate, the vast majority of our membership were unwilling to join the campaign. This is a growing trend as party members redefine their own level of political participation'. Labor's National Conference every two years is meant to give party members a voice in policy, but each year, as many as a quarter of branch members leave the party, often expressing frustration at their lack of influence.

JOHN DELLA BOSCA: The parties have been fairly conservative about their structures and their processes and the ways in which they do things, and younger people, and people coming from a different sort of environment or living in a different sort of society, really don't respond well to the virtually 19th century processes that a lot of the parties exercise themselves in.

KEN BRIMAUD: I think that is one of the challenges the Liberal Party is facing today, to find the right mechanisms to give the rank and file member a voice in policy.

DON GREENLEES: But many supporters of both parties are pessimistic that even bold reforms to their outdated constitutions will be enough to arrest the decline in membership and community support.

LINDSAY TANNER: I think it would be a very brave person to suggest that in ten years time, we will have a Liberal Party or Liberal-Country Party and a Labor Party both scoring 40 percent-plus of the national vote.

JOHN DELLA BOSCA: If the current trend continued, by sheer numbers, then the ALP would, as I said, virtually cease to exist as an organisation, in another twenty years, but I don't see that happening.

DON GREENLEES: As branch numbers dwindle, staunch supporters on both sides of politics are worried about the absence of new faces at their meetings.

OLIVE SMITH: Finding new blood or getting new blood into a party is a very difficult matter and it takes a lot of work, a lot of effort, and we haven't been getting that commitment from a lot of people.

DON GREENLEES: Whether it is because of changing lifestyles or simply apathy, the branch faithful know that these days, fewer people are turning up for the party.

KERRY O'BRIEN: And what would we do without the afternoon teas and the campaign barbecues? Our reporter was Don Greenlees. So to our guests: Nick Minchin is the State Director of the Liberal Party in South Australia, and one of the most respected machine men in the party. He is likely to be elected to the Senate at the next election and has just returned from the United States where he took an inside look at both the Republican and Democrat campaigns.

Senator Stephen Loosley is the former National President of the ALP, and former State Secretary of their New South Wales Branch, as well as being a keen student of different party political systems. And joining us tonight from Washington, to give this debate an international perspective, is William Schneider, political analyst for the American Enterprise Institute, for CNN Television, and a regular contributor to the national journal, The Atlantic, and the Los Angeles Times.

Gentlemen, welcome to the program. Nick Minchin, what do you think are the common threads around the western world that have contributed to lower and lower grassroots participation in the political process?

NICK MINCHIN: I think there are a number of factors, Kerry, both political, financial, social, organisational. Politically, there is increasing cynicism and disillusion with government's capacity to deliver and to do what voters ask of them. The business of government has got so difficult and complex that ordinary grassroots people feel a sense of frustration. I think there are a lot of social factors. I think TV has made a huge difference. Politics around the world is becoming a spectator sport that we sit at home and watch on television, these days. I think financially, it's becoming very expensive to run political parties. The parties rely more and more on their members for financial support, and that tends to turn the members off. And organisationally, I think certainly, in the case of Australia, the political parties do need to change their structures to make them much more modern, responsive to modern lifestyles. I also think a factor often overlooked is that the parties have relied on women who have not been in the paid work-force and throughout the Western world, there has been an explosion in the number of women in the paid work-force which has depleted the voluntary organisations of the political parties enormously, in the last twenty years.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Steve Loosley, do you broadly agree with that?

STEPHEN LOOSLEY: In very large measure, I do, Kerry. We are witnessing a cultural phenomenon, that this is not unique to Australia, this decline in organised political activity. I think we need to recognise we live in a microwave age of politics where people tend to expect instant results, and as one of your earlier observers made the point, fundamentally, the party structures in Australia are of a 19th century nature. Even in a country like Germany, which arguably has the best financed, best organised political structure in the world - the parties there have been in decline of recent years. Even the German Social Democrats, for example, lost members during the twelve months period just ended. So there are problems internationally, for organised political parties. Australia is no exception to that and we really need to take stock and respond. I think the parties in their own way, are all endeavouring to respond, to broaden their approach, and to become more accessible, and to show that political activity can be very meaningful, but we have got a long way to go in that process.

KERRY O'BRIEN: To what extent, when you agree with Nick Minchin, that television is a substantial factor, what is the problem about television? What is it about television that has perhaps built a bigger barrier between politicians and the people?

STEPHEN LOOSLEY: Television is the main element in the political technology which has tended to make the process superficially accessible, but has actually denied people the capacity to be involved, the capacity to participate. Because the technology has been located in fewer and fewer hands as the campaigns have become more sophisticated and more complex, the days of the street meetings on corners, in parks, in church halls and the like, are long gone. Now it's very complex campaigning methodologies that are required to communicate with millions of people, not only in Australia but in every Western democracy, for example.

KERRY O'BRIEN: But it's not just campaigning either, is it? I mean, it's the whole government process, where government leaders, Government Minister, will talk through television, and presumably, have much less contact, direct contact with people.

STEPHEN LOOSLEY: That's true, and if you could point to a single element of disenchantment, for example, that's confronted the Labor Party from time to time, it's the necessity in government to respond or react to changed circumstances, which has brought the party into some level of conflict with the Government over, for example, a platform matter. Take the issue of uranium sales a few years ago, or more recently, the changes in aviation policy. Now, because governments are required to respond much more quickly in terms of time, we no longer have a situation where the party platform is seen as being set in stone for years to come. Now that will lead to a level of disenchantment from time to time. That's one example.

The communication medium is television, not only for campaigns, as you say, but for the normal process of politics and of government. But it goes beyond television. It goes to other technologies, which have tended to mean that rank and file people in all the political parties, are not involved as much in the political process as previously they once were, and that leads to a greater level of disillusionment. We have not yet reached the position that's been reached in the United States, where the American political parties largely define and redefine themselves against the political candidates which they endorse. We have not yet reached that stage. I hope we never do. But if we are not careful, we will go well down that road.

KERRY O'BRIEN: William Schneider, you have got a slight grin on your face. In responding also, to what you have heard so far, and applying it to your own experience, how weak do you consider the party system to be in the US, and what is the cost of that?

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER: Well, the party system in the United States is virtually non-existent. Parties have no particular organisation. Every campaign is dominated and controlled by the candidate himself. The parties meet once every four years for four days, nationally, and most people consider that about three days too long, to get through the business of nominating a candidate, which is already done in the primaries. The Democratic Party right now, is nothing more or less than Mr Bill Clinton, the Governor of Arkansas, and its nominee. He defines the party; he is the party; and no-one controls that, except the primary voters. The result of this total collapse, this void of political parties, is that we have a system in the United States of independent political entrepreneurs. Politicians are literally in business for themselves. Each politician builds up his own personal base of support; he cultivates that himself; he doesn't depend on anyone else; he certainly doesn't depend on a party organisation; and he does with that base of support as he pleases. If it is in his interests to support the party or to support the President, he will do it. If it is not in his interests, he won't do it, and the result has been the gridlock that really affects American politics and makes it very difficult to get anything done.

KERRY O'BRIEN: So presumably, if he or she is not wealthy, they don't get a look in, or if they don't have a strong support base from some other interest.

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER: That's right. Raising money is one of the more difficult problems and they have to get money usually from either contributors, and the law requires it to be a large number of small contributors, these days. If the candidate is independently wealthy, they can use their own money. Parties make some contribution but there is also a lot of influence of special interests and single issue groups that give to candidates, but the most important part of politics these days is raising money. And 80 percent of the money that is raised and spent in politics, is spent on television because that is the only way you can communicate with an electorate as vast as that of the United States.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Now, to what extent have politicians, and they have certainly taken to television eagerly in Australia, as I imagine they did in the United States when they realised its power, to what extent has television turned politics into a game of imagery and personalities, rather than of policy and substance?

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER: Well, here in the United States, it's almost entirely imagery because a politician's source of power - let's take the President of the United States, although it would apply also to say a Governor of a State - the President depends for power on his popularity. Here in Washington, a President's approval rating, that single figure that comes out almost weekly, is like the Dow Jones stock industrial index. It tells you, it's a fever chart of how things are going in Washington. If a President is popular with the American people, he is literally powerful. It is a source of power. He cannot rely on any political party for support. If a President loses popularity, as President Bush has done now, he cannot even count on his own party for support. There are lots of Republicans out there who are saying the Republican Party ought to dump George Bush because he isn't popular, and the same with his Vice-President, Dan Quayle. If a President has a high approval rating, literally his stock is high and members of the opposition party will support him. Why? Because it is in their interest to be with a winner. If the President is unpopular, even his own party won't support him because it is not in their own personal interest as independent entrepreneurs, to work with a loser.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Nick Minchin, if we do not arrest the decline in the grassroots link, if you like, between the grassroots, between the people and the parties and government, in the end, is that the way we are going? Are we heading down the road, more and more, towards the United States' reality?

NICK MINCHIN: I don't think so. I think we are a long way from where the United States is at, and God forbid that we ever get into that situation, but I think we can overstate the problem in Australia. The Australian political party system is, relatively speaking, still very strong, particularly compared to the United States. I mean, you know, 83 percent of Australians still vote for either the Coalition or the Labor Party. Party membership is still relatively strong, and in fact, the Liberal Party's membership has stabilised and in some States, is increasing.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Hang on, when you say it's stabilised, it's stabilised over the last couple of years. We are talking long-term trends.

NICK MINCHIN: Yes, the long-term trend is down and I think all Australians should be very mindful of the dangers of moving in a direction like that of the United States, where their House of Representatives is basically 400-odd Independents, totally beholden to whoever has the greatest power in their particular electorate. They are really in the grip of the strong pressure groups in their electorates. The parties cannot protect them from those pressure groups and it means that the national interest suffers and individual politicians make their decisions based on which way the wind is blowing in their particular electorate, and I think that's very dangerous for national government, and I think Australians need to take this issue very seriously. I am delighted that a program like yours is dealing with it seriously, and Australians need to decide whether they want a strong effective democracy.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Yes, but it's all very well to say that, and it's a fine sentiment, but they look at the democracy we have got; they look at many of the people that represent them; they feel alienated; they feel that those people have let them down in government. They feel those people don't really listen to them, they listen to opinion polls and then cleverly frame policies accordingly and go to television and picture opportunities, if you like, to sell those policies and rope the people in. Why wouldn't the people be cynical? Why is it .... how do the people find a way in?

NICK MINCHIN: It is a two-sided coin. There is a lot that the parties have to do. I think that a lot of the disillusion is for example, on our side of the fence, the perceived lost opportunity of the Fraser years, the in-fighting in the '80s, and a lot of the turn-around in the Liberal Party, frankly, is because that has gone. There is unity in the Liberal Party and a leader who says what it is like. He tells it like it is and I think that's where someone like Hewson is quite refreshing. I mean, a lot of the old political die-hards think that what John Hewson is doing is pretty odd, but in fact, I think it is a very refreshing and honest approach to politics, and I think that is what is absolutely required, honesty in politics.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Sorry, just let's pick up on that point. Tell me, how much do you think of the policies that John Hewson is espousing and that John Hewson has believed in, I think from the time before he came into the Liberal Party. The central elements of what John Hewson is about, he carried with him into the Liberal Party. How many of the policies that he is espousing today have come from branch meetings like the one that we saw in the background piece tonight, and how many of them have come from the top down?

NICK MINCHIN: Well, there has been an outcry from going back to the Fraser years, at branch meetings, about the need to do something about our tax system, about the need to bite the bullet on industrial relations. The greatest perceived failure of the Fraser Government was the failure to deal with the trade union, industrial relations problem. Now, you know, Hewson and Howard, in that role, are seen as honest, can-do men who are saying, this is the problem we are going to deal with, and I think, certainly the grassroots of the Liberal Party, is responding to that. They are saying, at last we have got some people we can trust and believe in and our membership is responding.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Steve Loosley, at what point does democracy lose its legitimacy? I mean, I am not saying we are close to that now, but if we walk down this road, you reach a stage, don't you, where democracy does lose its legitimacy?

STEPHEN LOOSLEY: Yes, there is no question that you do. The democratic system loses its credibility, and its legitimacy evaporates as the political parties themselves, evaporate, so that we would reach a point of fragmentation as exists in the United States. The point that Mr Schneider might also have made about the current American system, particularly as applies in the Congress, is that overwhelmingly, the political action committees, for example, support incumbent Congressmen and Senators, so you get very little change in the American political progress, at the level of the legislature. Overwhelmingly, incumbents are returned, and that's not the case in Australia. There is a good deal of change in the different Houses of Parliament.

One of the reasons our system is superior to the US is because we have retained the system of compulsory voting, so that everybody is obliged, everybody in the country, over the age of eighteen, is obliged to take a decision to be involved in the decision-making process, even if it is only for a few minutes on a certain Saturday. The Americans have denied a great many people the capacity to be involved in their processes, through their registration system and through their system of voluntary voting, a system which the Liberals incidentally, are looking at introducing in Australia, and I really hope we avoid that. The other way in which we can draw a contrast between Australians and Americans, just at the moment, since we have different political systems, is that you do not find a philosophical debate occurring in the United States, along the lines as one that is occurring between the One Nation statement and the Fightback alternative. In the US in the presidential year, overwhelmingly, the debate is about personalities: Al Gore as against Dan Quayle; Clinton as against Bush; Perot comes in and announces his candidacy live on Larry King on CNN. This type of political barnstorming, built on personalities, is the norm in the US. That's really what we have to avoid. I think accessibility .....

KERRY O'BRIEN: It's not all that far from the norm in Australia. I mean, there is some policy debate in this country, but there's ....

STEPHEN LOOSLEY: It's a long way from the norm in Australia, Kerry, a long way from the norm, still.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Well, you look at .... well, why do the major political parties in this country, spend so much money finding out what people think about Paul Keating as against John Hewson?

STEPHEN LOOSLEY: It relates to campaign strategy.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Why did opinion polls place so much ....

STEPHEN LOOSLEY: It simply relates to campaign strategy.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Why did opinion polls play so much of a part in Bob Hawke coming into power over Bill Hayden and Paul Keating coming to power over Bob Hawke?

STEPHEN LOOSLEY: Because judgments are made on the basis of leadership as it relates to the electorate at large. There is not doubt that Australia is in a similar circumstance to every Western industrial democracy in that regard, but we haven't reached the stage, as the Washington Post commented at the end of last year, at the end of session of the current United States Congress, the Congress has grown very good at symbols and sixty-second commercials. Now, our Parliament is still an effective legislative body. There is an on-going policy debate in Australia that's built on much more than simply television grabs. We have not yet reached the position the Americans have reached. God forbid that we ever reach it, where the political action committees dominate the political process. We need to be able to respond effectively. It's a cultural phenomenon, we have got to respond in ....

KERRY O'BRIEN: We are nearly out of time but I have got to let William Schneider back in. Sitting on the fence in Washington, what do you say about what you have heard?

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER: Well, let me say something in defence of the United States and our system. It may be disorganised but it is infinitely flexible, that is, a man like Ross Perot can come up and say, what the politicians are talking about doesn't mean anything to most Americans. And the fact is, party politics just doesn't mean anything to most Americans. The Republicans say less government; the Democrats say more government; and Ross Perot comes in and says, here is what Americans want to do, they want to make government work. He said he could do that and he immediately jumped to the top of the polls. When he got out of the race, he got out of the race and Americans don't know that, but there was a tremendous response to him and even though he is not a candidate, he has transformed American politics because both parties had to respond to his challenge, and his challenge was talk about how you are going to solve problems, stop bickering about Right Wing and Left Wing party philosophies that have no meaning to the vast majority of voters. That's the kind of flexibility and adaptability that our system really has.

KERRY O'BRIEN: What, so the policy packages of both parties are now substantially, are more detailed, carry more substance than they did when Ross Perot came into the debate?

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER: I think what both parties are trying to do is to explain to American people how they are going to solve problems, particularly Bill Clinton, who picked up a lot of the Perot vote. He says over and over again, I am not a liberal, I am not conservative, I am talking about making things work, about solving problems, and he accuses the incumbent, George Bush, of not being able to do that, and Bush is now attempting to regroup in preparation for the Republican convention this month, and to prove the same point.

KERRY O'BRIEN: So it's just my strategy is better than your strategy. You know, I mean, it is still pitching a message and adapting to the feedback you are getting about what the people want to hear, isn't it, rather than anything of substance?

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER: Well, it is, but it was a warning to both parties that they were not saying anything that people wanted to hear, and it shook them up, because here is a guy with a lot of money who suddenly is running first in the polls. I mean, there are a lot of things wrong with our system, among them the fact that barely half the voters vote in a presidential election, and that's as high as it gets, which immediately undermines the authority of a President or any office holder. I mean, as I said, the President depends on his public approval, his standing as the source of power. Well, if he gets only half of half the electorate, that is, if half the electorate votes and he gets barely more than half of the support from those who do vote, then he is starting out at a very difficult position because he has to rally public support to be an effective President. That is a problem in our system. Someone else pointed to the fact that we keep re-electing incumbents. That also is a problem in our system, and special interests have a lot of influence. All of those are very serious problems and they all come about because our party organisations are so weak, and one of the main reasons for that, aside from television, is that the party debate, the issues that separate the two parties, just don't have a lot of relevance or meaning, particularly to younger Americans, who don't think of themselves in terms of class conflicts that defined the parties two or three generations ago.

KERRY O'BRIEN: There's obviously a number of spin-off questions that we might pursue at other times, on this, but we are going to have to leave it there, for now.