While voters went to the polls in the Bennelong by-election, in Melbourne I attended the memorial service of a local Liberal party stalwart.
She was a local legend, yet the most selfless and self-effacing person you could know. Indeed, her memorial service was even held on a Saturday, probably because she didn’t want to intrude into busy people’s working weeks. That was just the person she was: always thinking of others, and the Liberal cause, before herself.
She was the epitome of the Liberal grassroots. In her active retirement, she lived for the Liberal Party and served it in almost every local position possible short of standing for parliamentary office. Living in a marginal seat, with an ageing party membership, she worked tirelessly, addressing envelopes and handing out candidates’ leaflets in the cold pre-dawn at railways stations throughout her electorate. She manned campaign offices, turned up at every local party function, cheerfully paid to sit through every visiting minister’s rubber chicken dinner and boring speeches, and was a fixture at every branch and electorate conference meeting. She stuffed letterboxes full of whatever atrocious junk mail (er, campaign literature) state Liberal HQ at 104 Exhibition Street concocted. She particularly excelled as the electorate conference’s Membership Officer, always on the lookout for new members, and making sure those who joined felt welcome and included. Whenever it came time for Liberal state council she and her husband, a popular, inseparable and affably good-humoured pair, would always be in the foyer outside the conference hall, manning the electorate table, ever ready to flog raffle tickets to anyone passing, but always with a smile and a chat.
When I stood unsuccessfully for pre-selection in that seat, she like most didn’t vote for me, but after I lost she thanked me for putting myself forward, as she knew that vigorous pre-selections produce the best candidates, especially for a seat as marginal as this.
This wonderful, unassuming woman embodied and lived the very Liberal values she believed in: worked hard but expected nothing in return, loved her family, and was a dedicated volunteer who saw community service as a calling, not just a thing to do. Sad to say, like so many volunteers she probably was taken a little for granted by many in the professional party. Elected office had no appeal to her, but working in the back room, and on the hustings, making sure those who stood were elected, and those who succeeded were re-elected, mattered to her more than anything.
Standing at the back of a hall packed with several hundred family and friends, I felt a great sadness for her passing as someone I respected and cared about, but also for the passing of core Liberal values she was taking with her. The Liberal party she believed in, and as many wished it remained, is also in danger of dying. The culture of the party of Menzies is becoming more like its Labor opponent. It is riven by ideological and personal factions, and organisational leaders and factional warlords play too readily at internal party power games to build bastions of loyalists ready to do their bidding from the highest councils of the party to local branches. Branches and electorate organisations increasingly are dominated by previously unknown members who get mysterious text messages about how to vote and who to vote for but show little affinity for the party and its founding values. And too many people within the party chase cheap thrills from fighting each other for personal internal power and influence rather than directing their formidable energies to campaigning externally for Liberal values and policies to implement in government.
Sadly, too many federal and state Liberal MPs who are elected by the efforts of the hundreds, thousands of people like this now-departed stalwart let down their supporters. Their apparent inability to work together as a team in parliamentary parties, willingness to toss party discipline aside for personal agendas and pet issues, happiness to measure their worth by Facebook likes, Twitter follows and appearances on television, and their enthusiastically immersing themselves in student politics-like games and ‘winner’s circles’, and putting their own selfish and sectional interests before their party’s let alone their country’s – up to and including abandoning the party that put them top of the ticket for their own vanity project – is something of which those MPs who so indulge should utterly be ashamed.
Too many of them were preselected through who they were connected to rather than how good and suitable for elective office they are. As their antics take the federal Liberals further away from re-election, and their counterparts’ performance in almost every state makes the Liberal party’s collective long-term prognosis dire if not yet terminal, they should stop and reflect how they are failing the thousands of grassroots Liberals like the lady farewelled last weekend.
Not all MPs and prominent party figures fit these disappointing descriptions: fortunately, far from it. Bennelong’s John Alexander, for one, epitomises a good, decent, committed Liberal MP. But more than just a few do. The local federal MP, Michael Sukkar, spoke sincerely and movingly at the memorial service of his tireless supporter’s qualities of loyalty, dedication and hard work. Her efforts for the Liberal cause will not have been in vain if he recommits himself to promoting those very qualities in Parliament and the party, and urges his colleagues, from the Prime Minister downwards, to do likewise, regardless of their factional, ideological or personal differences.
This fine and already-missed woman, and the thousands of unsung grass-roots Liberal heroines and heroes like her – Burke’s ‘little platoons’ in action – deserve no less from those for whom they give their all to support, and from whom they get so little in return. MPs and party leaders, who benefit from such tireless and selfless efforts of the unheralded, need to contain their too often rampant egos and remember the generous but unsung people who keep them there.
Encouraging signs of political recovery, like John Alexander’s emphatic by-election win in Bennelong, are for nought if too many of the Liberal political class remain self-absorbed and disconnected from the hopes, aspirations and values of the party’s Forgotten People: grassroots members who toil on their behalf.
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