This is my third commentary on Australian politics, following my reading of Paul Kelly’s Triumph and Demise over the holiday period. A brief introduction points to the weakening importance to most of us of the political parties, and especially of the feeling that we should be members or, at the very least supporters, of one or other of them. Once the parties defined Australian politics. They don’t do that today. They’re not exactly a sideshow, but they’re no longer at the centre of everything, despite the attention devoted to them by the media, especially television.
I’ll start with party membership, which is notoriously difficult to measure accurately. In the 1940s the ALP is thought to have had 400,000 members at its strongest point, at a time when most workers belonged to trade unions and most trade unions were affiliated with the ALP. In 2010 the Bracks et al review into party structure and membership estimated 36,000, in a population more than three times larger than in the mid 1940s. The Libs are thought to have rather more (but not many more), and the Nationals may have 15,000 to 20,000. Add them up, and you get less than 100,00.
As a comparison, the World Wildlife Fund of Australia (WWF) has 80,000 or so ‘supporters’, and WWF is simply one of 49 non-government organisations that are accredited by the Commonwealth Government, which means that they can benefit from public funding. All 49 are involved in voluntary work overseas, doing good in other countries. The include CARE Australia, the Fred Hollows Foundation, World Vision and many smaller bodies. Nearly all of them are creations of the last half-century, all of them have thousands of members of supporters, and all benefit from substantial financial contributions from their members — and, I would argue, a lot of emotional energy as well. On the face of it, the WWF pulls in about 30 per cent of its income from the government.
The list of non-government organisations in the health field is almost endless. The Commonwealth directly funds more than 160 of them, which include a dozen or so from Western Australia. If you go to the state level, the Western Australian Government funds another 60. Go the city level: the Sydney Health Area alone funds 29. All of them are active, have members, have projects and are doubtless preparing proposals for further funding even as I write. And they are doing good work — I have no quarrel with them at all. Almost anyone can set up a foundation, and some of them attract large support from the community, like the McGrath Foundation, with its pink Cricket Test at the SCG, and its funding of more than 100 breast-care nurses. The health field probably contains a majority of Australia’s charities, which you can see in the A-Z list of around 1100 Australian charities— again, the great majority of them creations of the last generation.
As I’ve written before on a few occasions (here, for example), Australia has a great tradition of voluntary activity. An ABS review of the voluntary sector in 1910 found that 6.1 million of us had acted as volunteers, that many people worked as volunteers for more than one organisation, and that those who volunteered reported high levels of satisfaction with their life. Sport and sporting organisations attracted the largest numbers, but there were sizeable numbers for church, educational, SES, training, and community activities. Setting religion and party membership aside. Australia appears to lead the world in voluntarism.
That’s probably enough data. You get the picture. Why aren’t the political parties enjoying the same kinds of voluntary support? The various reviews of the ALP, and one’s own knowledge, third-hand from party members, suggests that there’s little satisfaction in doing so. It’s hard to believe that you are improving the world, or that you can see real results from what you do. The outcomes aren’t immediate enough, they are too diffuse, and sometimes you actually get something (or someone) you didn’t want. The Crikey.com.au website did a piece on party membership a year or so ago, and one of the commenters provided this summary; I guess it could stand for many, in all parties:
I’m a previous member of the Liberal party (a country Vic branch). It bored me to tears. I was in my late 20s then and few other branch members were under retirement age. The agenda items were trivial rubbish and the state conference spots were hogged by stalwarts. Presumably things haven’t improved, in which case it’s no surprise membership is lagging. There’s no forum to be active, no way to influence policy and nothing interesting to talk about at meetings.
The emotional force, energy and financial support once critical to the parties in their struggle seem to have gone to other activities. I’m not at all critical of the shift. As I’ve said, voluntary activity is one of the things I like about Australia, and I’ve been a volunteer since I was an undergraduate. But it has an effect on the political parties, doesn’t it. The people who join and go to party meetings are relatively few in number. A lot of them are ‘stalwarts’ (my party right or wrong), and have been there forever. The young come in because politics fascinates them, and they see a career or a purpose in it, but they are small in number.
For the millions who support the community organisations, the health foundations, the sporting bodies, the single-purpose lobby groups — for them, politics is to the side. It becomes important if the MP, or even better the party, takes an interest in what the organisation is doing, and promises to do great things if it is elected. In that scenario the party becomes a means to an end, the end being what the organisation is for. What follows is the familiar bidding game, in which the major parties try to outbid each other in caring for the new cause, the new organisation, the new issue that has sprung up from the ceaseless voluntary activity that characterises our country. And that makes some sort of sense.
Paul Kelly’s worry is that not one of these multitudinous bodies is actually interested in what the whole game is for. There is a widespread assumption that the national ship is sailing on a steady course with skilled crew and a far-sighted captain, and that the rest of us, passengers, can get on with our lives and our concerns. Do we know what the course actually is? Do we know what rocks and icebergs lie ahead? Kelly says that we don’t, and that no one is paying sufficient attention to these possible problems.
I agree, and in the last of these exploratory pieces I’ll set out my own view of the way I would like to see politics go. I think I would be the traditional voice crying in the wilderness.