I was interviewed for the show and they used a few comments of mine in their final broadcast.
Given how central political parties are in our political system, I can’t see them disappearing anytime soon. But how they change over the coming years will still be very important.
In general, membership numbers in political parties are declining. When looking at the role of political parties into the future, I think the key issues are:
- transparency and regulatory standards for political parties;
- how parties are funded and structured;
- opportunities for particiation in key decisions within a party.
Given that political parties effectively decide who gets put forward as a candidate, in many cases the party can play as significant a role as the voter in influencing the outcome of who gets to be elected to Parliament. Yet the requirements for the operation of a political party are very thin – much weaker than your average sports club or other community run organisation.
The potential impact of large donors on decisions made by a party is also well recognised, and there are reasonably promising indications that some significant progress in this area will occur.
Giving members a direct say over matters like policy, pre-selections or party leadership positions may help maintain membership numbers, as it gives members a direct role of influence. Whilst there is occasional talk in Australia of exploring US-style primaries to determine who a party’s candidate will be, there is not really any discernable momentum towards giving greater power to members of political parties.
In fact, in many cases, the Australian Democrats used to be subject to ridicule for having what were seen as overly democratic processes. I don’t think that complaint is valid, but it was certainly made a number of times, accompanying suggestions that having party members decide on an issue is too cumbersome and time consuming.
But there are examples of how involving members in decision making can work. It can take a bit longer, which often frustrates those who want instant answers, but it a valuable way of ensuring a wider legitimacy for the eventual outcome.
A fascinating example I read about recently involves the Green Party in Ireland. The Irish Greens have been part of a coalition of parties constituting the current government of Ireland. After the fallout from the global financial crisis – which hit Ireland particularly badly – there was a need to negotiate a new accord or agreement between the parties which would keep the government together. This required the Greens to decide whether or not they would continue to be part of the government, or quit the governing coalition.
Even though it was effectively a decision as to whether the party would stay in government or not, Green Party members were allowed to vote in this enormous decision about whether to accept the new agreement with the main governing party or not – which they did, by 523 votes to 99.
Giving your members a direct say in key policy and other decisions might be seen as cumbersome, but it gives a more meaningful role for those members and provides a greater mandate for the decision that is endorsed.