Beyond the House of Cards: A Story of Factional Politics and the Young Liberals

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Words || Salvatore Martens

Politics: drop the word at a party 
or hangout frequented by cool twenty-somethings or teenagers nowadays and you’ll probably catch 
a few cynical eye-rolls. People love talking about things they’re passionate about, but they’re also a little sick of the cynicism and ugliness that has plagued our political discourse in recent years.

It 
is a real shame because we live in an era where so many of us are better informed about major issues than ever before. The major and minor political parties now hold widespread online and social media presences. We should, in theory, be better engaged with the political process than our parents and grandparents before us. A political university club should conjure the image of a group of people sharing cool beers or hot chocolate and talking about the things that matter to them. We should promote this culture with a view to do away with the ugliness that sometimes seems out of the 24/7 news cycle about the high circles and happenings in Canberra.

“factions are never spoken about openly, and tend to exist more in the form of personality-based cliques.”

When I signed up for the Macquarie Liberal Club in 2011, I did so because the party’s values of individual freedom and liberty aligned with my own. I didn’t agree with everything the party stood for at the time, and I still don’t today – major parties are ‘broad churches’ and individual members aren’t meant 
to agree on every issue. Soon after joining the club, I was introduced to 
the concept of ‘factionalism’ within the Young Liberals. The idea is that a party
 is comprised of smaller divisions based on ideology. It’s a fairly easy concept to understand when it comes to the Labor party, which openly includes ‘Labor Right’ and ‘Labor Left’ divisions, though not with those exact names. But it was a lot harder to understand in relation to the Liberal party, where ‘factions’ are never spoken about openly, and tend to exist more in the form of personality-based cliques.

‘Yeah.’

‘Don’t tell anyone tonight that.’

‘Why?’

‘Because they’ll think you’re a “moderate”.’

‘What the fuck is a moderate?’

‘They’re the bad guys.’

’You mean Labor?’

‘Nah, Liberal.’

‘…Right.’

I soon learned that our club was aligned with a faction calling itself the ‘soft right’. A group that identified itself as the ‘broad centre’ of the party, taking up the economically liberal principles of Liberal Right and combining them with the socially liberal principles of the Liberal Left. Of course, this was largely a ruse and I soon witnessed this very group voting against a same-sex marriage policy motion during the quarterly Young Liberal Council.

“Confused? Don’t worry, I am too. I’ve always preferred professional wrestling to soap operas.”

Ah yes, there were three factions then. The ‘soft-right’, the Left – AKA ‘moderates’, and the Right. Simple enough? Since 2013, some former members of the Right have formed their own quaint splinter group. Meanwhile, the ‘soft right’ has split even further, with one group now aligning itself with the moderates –
 its supporters securing a majority
of positions at the recent Sydney University Liberal Club elections, the alma mater of conservative Prime Minister, John Howard. Confused? Don’t worry, I am too. I’ve always preferred professional wrestling to soap operas. One thing has become clear, though – factions have become less about what you actually believe in and more about cults of personality.

That is because the ‘endgame’ for
 the factions is to gain control of party branches. Each party branch elects a delegate who gets to vote on which candidate the party runs for that area. This means that factional branches want to avoid allowing people into their branch who might come from enemy groups, often rejecting applications for membership, with flimsy justification. Some party branches are as small as 10 members, despite significant interest from Liberals in the area. Why? Because keeping membership small means the branch – and each branch gets one vote no matter its size – is easy to control.

Liberal MP Angus Taylor recently raised the issue of bogus branches
in his electorate. These branches
 exist only on paper to create artificial delegates and extra votes while allowing factional masters to deny membership to genuine local members.

In another ugly episode, the
 recent Australian Liberal Students Federation (ALSF) conference – the annual meeting of the peak body
 for university Liberal clubs – was marred when members of the soft-right dominated executive (led
 by a former Macquarie alumnus) closed registrations for the general meeting and election early, and abruptly. Private security was hired to physically block attendees, including Macquarie students, from reaching the meeting, and the incident gained negative press in the Sydney Morning Herald, with Senator and ALSF patron Eric Abetz refusing to go ahead with his keynote address.

Despite all this, there probably isn’t
a better time to be a Young Liberal. The party establishment is tired of factional plays, and calls for reform to democratise the party in NSW have received widespread support. Under a plebiscite model, individual members would each get their own say in the pre-selection of party candidates. This takes the focus away from trying to influence or control party branches and encourages more people to join their local branch rather than the one a faction wants them in for ‘strategic purposes’. More democracy and transparency might mean that I don’t need to write under a pseudonym to avoid repercussions under the party media policy!

“More democracy and transparency might mean that I don’t need to write under a pseudonym to avoid repercussions.”

Elsewhere, Tony About has called for a reduction in the role that lobbyists play
in politics – a move that would greatly benefit both the Labor and Liberal parties and diminishing the role of money in the dirty game.

Despite the role of the factions, 
I’ve met amazing people from all walks of life during my time in the Young Liberals. I’ve met members
 of the Young Liberals, Senators and Members of Parliament who hold strong convictions and ideals. I’ve seen some great decisions made, including the Young Liberal Council’s open opposition to Premier Mike Baird’s illiberal lockout laws. Such opposition shows that being loyal to the party doesn’t mean you always have to support the decisions of individual party leaders.

As far as factions at university go – there is nothing wrong with Liberals with different views grouping based
 on common beliefs. But in an ideal world, there should be a single Liberal club for all – whether socially liberal, conservative or libertarian. Liberals of all factions and ideologies should work together to make this happen.

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