Liberal Party Membership – Where To Go?

This isn’t easy. I’m writing about people I like, in a Party I believe is the only viable option for decent government in this country. The problem is that right now that option just isn’t good enough.

In a recent post I pointed out that the impact of Liberal party membership for ordinary people is, well, overstated. That it delivers little value and little political engagement. And that the Liberal Party, like others, is controlled by a small coterie of people who’ve been drinking together and screwing each other for the past 20 years, who are accountable to pretty much no-one, and who are utterly isolated from any sense of normality or sensible policy priorities. But several people took those observations to mean they shouldn’t join, or rejoin, the Liberal party.

That doesn’t follow at all. At least, not immediately. Suspend your judgement.

Face it. For anyone in midlife, joining any political party is like choosing between starvation and eating rotten meat. You make the necessary choice, but that doesn’t remove the smell or the lingering bad taste in your mouth.

It’s the price you pay for a political engagement that extends beyond hashtags and automatic credit card donations and well-applauded snide remarks at gatherings of humanities graduates. It’s a price most people are unwilling to pay.

The question is, for how long are you willing to put up with the aftertaste?

Succumbing To The Machine

The great temptation on joining a party is to succumb to the political machine – factional patronage – for the sake of advancement within party structures. It’s the pathway to pre-selection, or committee membership, or staffer roles for the younger zealots, or paid head office roles for the older hands. Being taken seriously by major players is seductive; and they rely on that to build personal loyalties whose benefits only run one way.

And if you hang around long enough and do sufficiently little of substance, you just might find yourself in the Upper House.

Hey, I was pre-selected as a candidate in the 2011 NSW State election, and I know it had nothing to do with my innate talents or winning personality. It was because my mates had mates with factional influence, and because the electorate was nominally under a faction’s control. I did everything I could to sell myself to pre-selectors, but I know damn well that was far less important than a nod and a deal from factional types.

The problem is: this combination of ambition and tribal allegiance destroys real political action.

For those that succumb to the machine, joining the Liberals (and Labor, don’t kid yourselves) is like begging to attend a local house party. Except you leave your brain at the door, your spine on the coat rack, and after a few beers, handshakes and slaps on the back, your integrity ends up in the downstairs toilet.

The only difference between the party you’re at and the one down the street is that you kinda like the people where you are.

The result is that real political commitment and a belief in changing the way government operates are replaced by tribal, factional and personal loyalties. Add ambition and a desire for insider status and you get spineless cheerleaders who follow whatever fad, and whichever player, they think makes them seem the right sort of person in the eyes of their factional peers.

As an example, for many on the Liberal soft left, that means ostentatious ‘caring’, embracing cool, slavishly following the latest fashionable academic trends, and sweating on a tag of the ‘good Liberal’ from the NGO/academic/media world. For the conservatives, that can mean being patriotic, monarchist, strong (whatever that means), apparently moral, pretentiously religious, maniacally contrarian, and a tag of righteous from a tight and judgmental subculture.

Of course, this is just indicative. Don’t for a minute think that these two ‘straw factions’ represent what is actually going on in the NSW Liberals. It’s much more messy than that.

But succumbing to the machine involves more than just factional loyalties, good soldiering and an empty brain.

It leads to people who care about policy morphing into the personal minders of those that deliver patronage. It leads to an entire political culture that believes that appearances trump reality. It leads to political players who refuse to address the cultural roots of political problems. It leads to governments that do what seems rather than do what matters.

An Oligarchy of Apparatchiks

For those who do come to Liberal politics with a philosophy, it’s disappointing that the Liberal Party operates as the opposite of what it stands for.

Members of the Liberal Party have been real fighters for fundamental freedoms. Party members are justly proud of that. By comparison, as much as it pains the true believers, in the 20th Century all the Left stood for was a bunch of apparatchiks directing other people’s lives through a dysfunctional bureaucracy. Oh, and if you didn’t like it, you got shot.

The irony is that the Liberal Party operates in precisely that fashion. Except with no expectation of the heights of Soviet competence, and a little less reliance on firearms.

The Party functions as a bureaucracy directed with a degree of opacity worthy of a Politburo. Oddly enough, Cabinets and State Executives have more than a little in common with that institution. There are plenty of faceless men in the Liberals; they control numbers, money, pre-selections, allocations of campaign funds, and the distribution of whatever spoils they can manage to extract from government and private opportunities. Thank God those opportunities are so much more limited in this country than in, say, the United States.

A few key players in and out of government have their hands on all the levers. Combine that with a strange willingness to allow Parliamentary leaders to concentrate power in their own offices, and to mistake their own brainfarts for brilliance, and you barely have enough people with power to call it an oligarchy.

With an oligarchy of apparatchiks – elected and otherwise – all that matters is to be in government. What you do in government only matters to the extent that the electorate and the party grassroots give a damn. So you play the politics of seeming, and calibrate it constantly not against a coherent view of policy, but against how at risk your job and status might be. All those motivated youngsters beavering away in Ministerial Offices slowly slide from policy idealists to jobsworths monitoring the security of their current income and their opportunities for turning it into something substantial when they leave office.

And with that comes short-termism, incoherence and an utter lack of political courage. In short, politicians without politics, ideologues without ideology, planners without execution.  The very problems that plague the entire democratic developed world.

The Distraction of Plebiscites, Committees, Councils and Constitutions

For the best part of five years the NSW Liberals have been arguing over pre-selection structures. In the same way, there’s been similar in the ALP about the 50-50 Union engagement in the ALP’s Federal structure. These sorts of things, along with token gestures like policy committees that are ignored, State and Federal Councils whose motions have no teeth, and a Constitution that allows executive fiat, are all a distraction from the real nature of politics.

Unless you have numbers, or money, or both, you may as well be joining a social club.

If you don’t have access to a large family, an ethnic ghetto, a religious clan, a University club, or a bunch of like-minded GPS schoolmates, your chances of a successful branch stack are pretty small.

If you don’t have seven figures to throw around various electorates to butter up factional bosses, or at least 6 figures for your own and a few nearby, don’t even think about entering politics in midlife without prior factional backing. Oh, there are some really competitive pre-selections for safe seats where the result is unknown till the very end; but don’t imagine that factional support, numbers and cash aren’t the most important element.

All the accroutrements of institutional participation are irrelevant next to numbers and cash. Only tribalists buried in deep denial would see it any other way.

The US Experience And Liberal Failings

One of the benefits of the US system is the release valve of local primaries. Because of the structure of the US Congress, and their system of pre-selections, different, critical voices can be heard. Those voices have the stamp of party endorsement but not the approval of party hierarchy.

There are several insurgent forces within conservative US politics, the fiscally-driven Tea Party, the Paul-focused libertarians to name but two. These types of groups are demonised by both left-leaning media and the Republican establishment. They are by no means homogeneous, and they are far from being as they have been portrayed in media outlets. What they have done is give the Republican party, one that has become quasi-dynastic and isolated from its base, a pathway to incorporating organisational innovation. The change hasn’t worked its way through the GOP yet; indeed, it may not, but it has changed something.

The nature of Liberal pre-selections, the discipline of both factional politics and of a Westminster system that relies on the control of the Lower House, all act against that sort of release in Australian State and Federal spheres. There is no institutional pathway to real innovation in Liberal politics.

What economic and organisational history teaches us is that when there is no institutional pathway to change, then disruptive innovation – what Schumpeter called creative destruction – is the only way forward.

As in the public sector, that other crusty bureaucratic remnant filled with apparatchiks, the Liberal party will only change under the pressure of crisis, either competitive or external. If organisations can’t reform from within, they will be competed into non-existence from without, or crumble under the weight of change.

It’s important to realise that political parties die, and aren’t reborn. There’s no reason the Liberal Party should exist forever.

The Danger of a Lack of Critical Voices

When independent thought is eliminated because of factional and party structures, and when power resides in an unaccountable elite with perverse policy concepts, then there is no place for dissent to dissipate. There is no corrective to the Emperor constantly preening his nakedness.

The real danger can be identified in a list of proper nouns: One Nation. UKIP. PUP. Front National.  Just imagine the possible impact of a combination of substantial cash and a moderate-voiced populist with commitment. Add a world-wide crash, perhaps oil-driven or following the failure of the USD as a reserve currency, and anyone who gives a damn about politics can see that the political parties’ lack of credibility is a problem.

Winning Matters

This dissatisfaction has been squashed for a long time under the heading of winning government. That is, “Shut up or we’ll have another Labor disaster”.

That is a fair consideration. Much better an average Liberal government than a typical Labor one. That has been the tool by which the apparatchiks have repelled challenges to institutional structures that let them mosey on their way.

Winning does matter. But if the people you bust a gut to get into office don’t act with courage, commitment and competence, then discouragement sets in. And discouragement breeds discontent. And discontent breeds rebellion.

The past 5 years of Liberal government around Australia have been the most disappointing of my life. Here is not the place to list failures, misplaced priorities, poor communications, lack of spine and policy incoherence. But as Glenn Reynolds (kinda) said at in a Harvard keynote, the real problem is that: “we have, in many ways, the worst political class in our country’s history.”

The Suck-It-Up, The Whinge, The Departure, The Sign-Up and Fight

To be a Liberal, or not to be, that is the question for many longstanding Liberals. For those who desperately want to protect Australia from the ideology and incompetence that makes up the contemporary Left, this is a difficult question.

I have been approached by four Liberals to be part of new political parties or bodies. I have been approached by two Liberals to engage in independent guerilla campaigning. And I’m a nobody.

Some of this dissatisfaction crosses the Soft Left-Libertarian boundary. Some of it is strictly Soft Left. Some of it is strictly small government, economic conservative. It matters not the mix. What matters is that the dissatisfaction is real, it is strong, and it is being ignored.

This might seem like the dummy spit of a disillusioned idealist, or the bitterness of someone who’s been passed over. Oh, were it so.

I entered politics because I wanted to drive government to do what matters, and do it in a practical way that would work. Limited, realistic, informed by a sceptical personality.

So with all that I’ve said above, why did I renew my Liberal membership last week?

Because there are really only four things you can do in a political party if you give a damn, and you think the future needs something better:

  • Suck it Up. This reduces to a choice to be a factional solider and make minimal incremental differences, while you gain status and your soul withers. I see many friends on this path; I see few differences emerging.
  • Stay in and Whinge. At base, this lacks mature responsibility-taking. Whingeing without action is hardly better than not being politically engaged at all. Implicitly it relies on someone else solving the problem you identify. It is the worst sort of damsel-in-distress thinking – you don’t have to dirty your hands, but you demand that someone else should, and to your benefit. Up to now, to my eternal embarrassment, that has essentially been what I have done.
  • Shut up and Leave. After you leave you doing absolutely nothing, start another party or spend your time attacking the party you left. As I noted, over past months Liberal members to my left and right have talked to me about starting another party. Philosophically, I can see little reason not to. The Liberal Party is not acting as a classically liberal party; nor is it acting as any real sort of conservative party. But realistically, winning is important. Union-controlled government is a disaster. The top-and-bottom alliance of Obama’s administration is the future of the ALP, and that is a disaster as well. Splitting the vote may not cause the problems under Australian preferential voting it causes in the US or UK, but it ain’t positive.
  • Stay in and Fight. If you care, don’t moan to your party buddies. If you care, don’t write a blog post only party insiders read and ignore. Organise. Build coalitions of like minded people. Call out the oligarchs in open forums. If you can, build numbers and take a branch. If you can’t, build money and create a campaign. Talk to engaged community people, explain the issues and take up the fight (see Carly Fiorina’s latest interesting move here). Build infographics and posters. Pose a threat. Accept you’ll be burned. What Liberal Party insiders have delivered is the inadequate exercise of power, and true power can only be taken. Don’t wait for a patron to pat you on the head after years of branch stacking and handing out how-to-votes – that isn’t power, that’s servitude.

So perhaps you can see why I renewed my Party membership despite all its pointlessness. Because it gives me entrée to action that I, and many people I know, have avoided for too long.

Upshot?

There’s a broad cultural fight that needs winning that no Liberal politician seems willing to take on. There’s a communications void that no Liberal politician seems to have the skills to address, despite the efforts of some remarkable people (I hope you know who you are). There’s also a role as an internal organisational gadfly that has to be met.

So what do I really think about Party membership? Stay in. Organise. Make a stink. Hold the Party oligarchy accountable. The greatest liberty comes when you act as though you have nothing to lose. Eschew the career, embrace the conflict. For the simple reason that if we don’t, we’ll get something worse.

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