Blue Sky Democracy, Part 5: Democracy Dollars
In parts 3 and 4, we increased the size of Parliament and the size of the electorate.
Now we’re going to make our political parties bigger too.
Australians aren’t big joiners.
In post-war period, it was a good chance you were a member of a trade union, progress society or fraternal society, a regular at church and the RSL — and probably a member of a political party. These political institutions, with their structured membership and activities, created a stable, social base for political movements, as well as creating spaces for political dynamism and spontaneous activism.
Today, rates of membership in political institutions, from parties and unions to radical New Left hotbeds like student and environment movements to even tradition-reinforcing movements like Scouts, Freemasons, churches and historical societies, have dropped to the point of being barely socially relevant.
We don’t actually have great data on how many members each political party has. We know every party needs to prove they have at least 1,500 members to be registered federally (unless they’re grandfathered in or have a sitting MP, so that’s not even a particularly good measure).
Otherwise, parties tend to keep their actual membership numbers — especially their active membership numbers — very tight to their chest.
The best data we have is from Elizabeth Humphrys, Simon Copland and Luke Mansillo’s 2021 Anti-Politics in Australia: Hypotheses, Evidence and Trends, which pulls together the few academic datapoints available on party membership.
According to that article, the current national membership levels are 45,000 for the Liberals, 54,000 for Labor, 14,000 for the Greens and 100,000 for the Nationals.
This might seem like a lot, but comparing that to each parties’ votes, that’s about 1 member for every 100 of their voters — except for the Nationals, where shockingly 1 in every 7 National voters is a member.
So with the exception of the Nationals, parties aren’t even particularly representative of their own supporters, let alone the population at large.
The picture’s just as grim when that’s compared to the total population: less than 1% of Australia’s population are members of political parties. Doing only a little better, only 6% of Australians (or 14% of employees) are trade union members.
Compare that to less formal democratic participation rates, in the last three years, 4% have taken part in a political campaign, 6% have been to a political rally or march, and 7% have been to a political meeting.
Why is this a problem? If they’re completely unrepresentative, why are parties even relevant in the 21st century?
It’s become fashionable to be anti-party today, even among political activists. Political elites have become enamoured with “independents” and “deliberative democracy” to circumvent the distasteful messiness of the agonistic politics parties embody — and surveys on trust in politics find that the strong “anti-politics” “populist” streak in the Australian electorate is really anti political party (or perhaps more accurately anti-politician).
Advocates of deliberative democracy especially like to talk about how things like citizen’s juries would close that trust gap — but the arguments for broadening their scope beyond elaborate “consultation” mechanisms on a local policy issue, as Tom Daly argues, result in these deliberative democracy organs “simply being used as “bypass institutions” to avoid the difficult and overdue work of reforming existing underperforming political structures such as parliament by creating a new body to replicate what, ideally, parliament should do.”
And fans of independents in Parliament spruik their ideological flexibility and willingness to compromise — values many Australians don’t actually value in their politics.
Which leaves us with formal Parliamentary political parties as the heart of a healthy democratic culture.
At their most basic as Democracy 2025 argue, parties fulfil three complementary roles in democratic politics: governance (that is creating structured en-bloc interconnections with Parliament and having predictable processes for formulating policies and selecting leaders), community linkage (that is capturing and aggregating the concerns and values of like-minded people) and integrity (that is entrenching and enculturating people with the rituals and norms of liberal democracy).
All of these functions are important and a broad, diverse membership (if not the social base of a classical mass party) supports their function, creates a pipeline of talent into the political elite, directly connects leaders to public sentiment and politically-exposed communities and lends legitimacy to a party’s collective decision-making.
There’s a fourth connected role that we don’t talk about much anymore (except in a particularly silly moment of Twitter discourse on the value of doorknocking): political education.
Parties aren’t passive actors, merely reflecting the timely desires of the public. Parties shape public opinion and raise new ideas in the public consciousness. They act as shortcuts to help people see the cleavages and contradictions in society and the economy. They create a space for activists and supporters to explore, interrogate, debate and develop their political opinions. They link an issue that invigorates someone to political action to broader political structures and ideologies. Parties are agents of political change in themselves, independent of the individual members within it.
So what are the barriers to joining political parties?
Cost probably isn’t the biggest barrier to participation in political institutions. Critics correctly point out that football clubs have a higher annual membership fee than most political parties do.
There’s also a multitude of other barriers to joining political institutions: the time investment might not be worthwhile, an overexposure of news and political advertising elsewhere in their life, parties’ own eligibility criteria — from not being a member of another party, to agreeing to a party’s platform or be subject to rules on social media use, parties’ legacy requirements to physically attend meetings to be a member, cultural issues within the party — especially racism, sexism, transphobia or a history of mishandling sexual harassment or bullying allegations, to something as simple as there not being a party that aligns with their values.
This wouldn’t fix any of those nor will it fix the rot at the heart of Australians’ dwindling engagement with the institutional public sphere and the alienation at the heart of capitalism — but it’s a good a stopgap as any to start restore legitimacy to our disengaged and disinterested political elites.
Parties don’t necessarily want more members, especially “parties of government” — often called cartel parties in academic literature. More members mean less internal cohesion and more avenues of threats to the party leadership and incumbent MPs. Members are also more likely to be highly engaged politically and demand their party respond to their policy expectations.
Compulsory voting incentivises parties to appeal to the “disengaged middle” — that last ten percent of the population whose vote is soft mostly because they don’t follow the news and probably wouldn’t vote if they didn’t need to — and converge on similar forms and platforms, but that also creates a disincentive for people to join political parties. A party’s base is going to vote for them regardless, because they can’t not vote. Party elites aren’t motivated to appeal to or activate their membership and to the average activist, joining doesn’t instinctually make it more likely for the party to change its position nor are they enticed to go out and sell their passions on the doors to get like-minded voters out on polling day.
With the growth of “independents” and growth of digital-first issues campaign vehicles (both of which get disproportionate attention from the Press Gallery), it could fairly be argued that the old party structures should give way to the new.
After all, as Anika Guaja points out in the Guardian, “campaigns are on the rise while organisations are declining” and “increasing levels of disaffection with political institutions and traditional advocacy groups, coupled with people’s changed preferences to participate in politics on the basis of issues and on an ad hoc basis”. This echoes similar research from Ariadne Vromen on the growth of campaign organisations like GetUp and the Australian Youth Climate Coalition. On the face of it, this seems like a benign realignment as younger, time-poor and tech-rich people frustrated with intransigence on the climate and housing crises move to a more bespoke activism that suit their lifestyle.
There are however deeper political problems with campaign outfits taking over from legacy political institutions. This treatment of activism as consumer choices, buying your political gewgaw on the free online marketplace of ideas, risks exacerbating the atomisation and alienation younger people already suffer in their workplaces and in an increasingly desperate economy. Political institutions might grapple with policies and questions you don’t personally care about or might not be relevant to you, but they force you to be exposed to those ideas and debates, and contribute to the crystallisation of your internal ideology. Caring about climate change doesn’t prefigure what a climate-resilient world looks like.
Generalist campaign outfits like GetUp and the Tomorrow Movement are better, but they still often lack strong internal democracy or pathways for institutional capacity-building for engaged activists outside of their employed organisers or designated leaders. Despite the huff of conservative commentators, these organisations fall short of the “digital party” Paolo Gerbaudo talks about, those digital-first insurgent parties like Momentum, La France Insoumise and Podemos that swept Europe in the mid-2010s. While they share a lot of the same attributes, especially with their online presence, they seem to have no intention of translating that insurgent support to taking direct political power or even activating their membership in a deeper way. The upshot usually means that the way the average supporter engages with those organisations, on a campaign-by-campaign basis or to share the occasional social media post, still doesn’t build that political cohesion necessary to build a strong movement. Any social media driven political movement is, fundamentally, not a democratic one — they are, as Peter Chen describes, participative but illiberal and are more therapeutic or status-signalling than any challenge to power.
I believe deeply that a broad, diverse, active, socially-entrenched political party ecosystem is essential to any liberal democratic future, and that simply isn’t possible without broad memberships.
That’s why big parties are important and here’s one way I think we can fix them: Democracy Dollars.
You might have heard this idea floated around in the United States a few times — most famously by former Presidential nominee Andrew Yang. There the scheme, which is only active in Seattle, sets up an elaborate voucher distribution system to give individual voters “funny money” to contribute to local campaigns.
Campaign finance works way differently in Australia but the idea of creating a political voucher still has merit here to address an adjacent problem: the collapse of political parties’ membership bases.
My idea is a little less sexy: an annual voucher that entitles everyone to join a political party or organisation of their choice.
The voucher is really a marketing gimmick. It would probably be an email or letter to everyone every year from the Government reminding them that they have this special pool of money they can only spend on joining Australia’s proud democratic institutions. The pool would be tied to a unique identifier like the electoral roll, and when someone joined a party, they could opt-in to using their voucher to pay for their membership. Parties would then lodge annual returns to claim the money based on their membership figures at the end of the financial year.
Most parties’ annual membership fees are around $200 — but the voucher wouldn’t have to be anywhere near that. Even if it was as little as $5 a year, that would be a huge return for parties — maybe enough to not need political donations at all anymore since it would function like a massive increase in public election funding. And there’s nothing stopping parties offering additional tiers like they already do based on income, work status or willingness to contribute.
The important thing would be to ensure that voucher-members would be entitled to the same privileges and voting rights as any other member.
Obviously this shouldn’t be limited to just parties. Many non-party political organisations already have registration schemes through electoral commissions for third party campaigns, the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission for think-tanks and representative organisations with deductible gift recipient status and Registered Organisations Commission for unions and employer associations. It would be relatively straightforward to let those organisations be eligible for the scheme in exchange for internal democracy and transparency standards.
If the tax office administered this like the 2008 stimulus payment, that’s around 12 million net taxpayers with tax file numbers. If the electoral commission administered this, that’s nearly 17 million voters on the electoral roll.
That’s fifty to seventy times as many people as are currently members of political parties.
If even a fraction of the people eligible sign up — and a fraction of them become active members, that’s a huge boost to Australia’s sluggish political participation rates and suddenly reconnects parties with society at large. We would suddenly have a more engaged, more representative and more grounded political culture.
In part six, we’re going to explore our fourth big idea: none of the above.