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Democracy is failing if the majority are alienated from politics
Carmen Lawrence, Labor MP for Fremantle, is a Webdiary columnist. Carmen Lawrence's SMH Webdiary archive is here and here.
Every election produces its peculiar set of certainties about the future of the losing party, certainties that later analysis often proves flawed. Knee-jerk analysis crowds the airwaves and advice is proffered by opinionated commentators about what must be done to avoid permanent oblivion. I've done it myself.
Much of the finger-wagging this time comes from the increasingly smug right-wing columnists who appear to be outraged there are still misguided souls who insist on voting Labor and who like to pretend that they are lonely champions holding the barricades against a multitude of influential left-leaning elites spouting anti-Howard propaganda. The opposite is true. Those who dare suggest there may be other ways to run the country are the ones marginalised and denigrated.
This year's results will be pored over for a while yet. But it's likely few people will pay attention to the rot infesting both major parties and eroding the political culture: the steady decline in membership and the diminished participation by Australians in the business of shaping political values, designing policy and selecting candidates. The major parties are failing our democracy.
Political parties are central to the functioning of modern democracies, ours included, and any assessment of the health of democracies must include an assessment of the health of the political parties, especially of the extent to which they mediate the relationship between the community and their elected representatives.
John Menadue, a former senior federal bureaucrat and ambassador, has written that "politics is too serious a matter to be left to politicians. Unaided they will not reform our political outlook." Menadue is not just bashing politicians. He is making the more serious point that improving the health of our democracy depends on a greater involvement from party members and the community at large.
Many Australians are critical of politicians. Most hate the factional manoeuvring and backbiting, the branch-stacking and Byzantine alliances that dog both major parties. Sometimes this leads them to a third party vote - Greens or One Nation or Family First.
But there is no avoiding the fact that government will be formed by Labor or the Coalition; it is their structures and processes, their values and policies - or lack of them - which feed into government and determine the future of our country. And very few Australians are involved in this. Most people would probably be shocked to learn that the "party machines" are just a few paid officials and MPs with occasional input from an ageing and increasingly disenfranchised membership.
Paradoxically, as parties are declining at the electorate level and members have less influence on policy and strategy, the influence and control of central party organisations on campaigns and at the parliamentary level is stronger than ever.
None of the parties has a substantial membership: less than 1 per cent of Australians are members and the number is declining. Nor are these members typical of the community. Real power is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. Factions control the branches - and in Labor's case, the union delegates - and manoeuvre for control of seats or regions which then become their fiefdoms.
These problems are not confined to Labor. One need only look to the vitriolic campaign for preselection in Wentworth for a colourful example on the conservative side.
Many Australians seem to reject involvement in party politics because they are not prepared to be used as factional pawns and volunteers when elections are on and ignored when policy is being developed. Members are often expected to fall in behind policy positions that they had no hand in developing and about which they were not consulted.
Many people of goodwill are looking to Labor to recapture its central role in Australian political life and to stimulate debate about the future direction of our country beyond the appeal to short-term self interest. Federal Labor needs to recruit these people as active members to help generate the culture of progressive ideas and the sense of possibility that is a necessary precursor to Labor victory.
To do this, we need a major recruitment drive, especially of those active in their communities. If these members are to make a contribution, factional power and patronage must be relinquished in the interests of ensuring members a more adult role in the party. Being told what to do and think is humiliating, and most thinking Australians won't stand for it.
Carmen Lawrence is the federal president of the Labor Party.