Gary Humphries and Zed Seselja. Photo: Colleen Petch
The Liberal Party in Canberra shares with many other political parties the problem that it is organisationally weak while still maintaining a dominant part in our political process. Worldwide political party membership has fallen, and even major parties, while perhaps not dysfunctional, are not as organisationally vital or active as they ought to be.
Yet these parties effectively select most MPs, because their candidates stand a very strong chance of being elected given their established brand and profile. This applies to seats in both the ACT Assembly and in the Federal Parliament.
Not only are these candidates preselected by the relatively few active party members, but often only a surprisingly small percentage of those members take part in preselection votes; some absentees are strangely disinterested and others can't vote because they have not met the party eligibility requirements.
Relative disinterest applies across the board to party members in most political parties. For many members, paying their party dues is a symbolic statement of affiliation and support rather than a first step towards more active involvement. They are effectively nominal members whose membership commitment more or less ends with their financial support. Other members enjoy being active by handing out how-to-vote cards on polling day and attending social functions, but have little interest in attending meetings, generally seen as the most boring aspect of party life.
Yet it is meeting attendance that determines eligibility to vote in party preselections. This rough-and-ready measure is common to most parties. It is the method chosen to separate active from passive members and especially to prevent membership being ''stacked'' by ambitious and unscrupulous candidates. Branch-stacking can even involve party memberships being paid by king-makers and/or prospective candidates.
Once elected, the incumbent MPs in safe seats often serve long terms because incumbency is a great advantage, not just in election contests but within their own political parties. Not only do incumbents have inherent advantages in communicating with party members, but incumbents tend to stick together and to have the support of their parliamentary leadership. One consequence of this phenomenon is that MPs in safe seats have long terms and some of them, like federal MPs such as Peter Slipper (former Liberal), Laurie Ferguson (Labor) and Bruce Scott (Nationals) stay on far too long.
The brouhaha surrounding the contest between Senator Gary Humphries and Zed Seselja for the ACT Liberal Senate nomination illustrates many of these general trends in the interior life of parties. Whatever the relative merits of the two candidates and whether or not the contest has been fairly played so far, we have learned a lot about the party. The federal parliamentary leadership has backed the incumbent, while the challenger appears to have greater influence in the party organisation.
The Canberra Liberals are less influential in Canberra than their Labor adversaries, but they still support and produce from among their ranks eight members of the ACT Assembly and one Senator. Yet they have been revealed as a party that has about 600-650 members; and it appears that only about a third of these paid-up members have been active enough to be eligible to vote in this Senate pre-selection contest.
That gives those 200-250 members an overly important role in effectively determining ACT political representation. Yet that quite small number of voters is not particularly unusual in party preselections around Australia, Labor and Liberal, even when a safe seat is at stake.
The very public arguments on this occasion also reveal other things about the party that are not particularly unusual. Even at a time of heightened political activity both federally and in the ACT, its party meetings apparently have often failed to reach a quorum, meaning attendance has been insufficient.
Yet this is happening at a time when the party has just shown itself to be resurgent in the ACT election last October; and when the federal party is flying high in the polls under Tony Abbott, leading up to this year's federal election. One would think that ordinary Liberal members would be so excited about the almost certain prospect of returning to federal government that they would be flooding to meetings. The internal politics of parties is often conducted along factional lines. Factions, whether or not they are called by that name, are active in all parties. In effect there are parties within parties according to ideological predisposition or leadership personalities. It is a complete furphy that the Liberals are not divided along factional lines of some sort, even if they are not as tightly organised as Labor's factions.
The other thing about parties with relatively small active memberships is that some individuals end up wearing more than one hat, such as branch officer and staffer, which is far from ideal. This happens with Labor and with minor parties like the Greens too. Activists with multiple hats come to dominate the workings of the party. The division between the party organisation and the elected party members becomes fuzzy. So in the case of the Canberra Liberals, the party president has also served as a political staffer to the Leader of the Opposition. In these circumstances there can be crossed wires and even perceived conflicts of interest. This can happen despite scrupulous adherence to party rules.
Given the predominant place in Australian politics of a few political parties, it would be much healthier if all our parties had larger and more active memberships. When that is not the case important democratic decisions are left to an elite few. This is a weakness in our democracy and it is up to active citizens to fix it.
John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University.