There has never been a less exciting time to be a young person in the Liberal Party. In theory, it should be a period of confidence building, learning, networking and political self-discovery. Instead, what awaits those who aspire to be part of the conservative movement’s future is a snake pit of patronage and opportunism. For the Liberal Party to remain a long-term force in Australia’s political debate, it must foster fresh generations of thinkers and exponents of those things conservatives hold dear: free markets, free speech, property rights and, above all, the central belief that the state is the servant of the citizenry, not the reverse. To the party’s immense detriment this is far from the case. Instead, what Young Liberals are learning is that venal self-advancement trumps principle at almost every turn.
It is my subjective appraisal, certainly, but what I see in Victoria’s Young Liberals is a coterie of ambitious operators who have staged a take-over in order to pad CVs and raise their profiles. Rather than advancing the overall cause, it seems to me that the focus has been on excluding voices other than those of their supporters and allies. Their aim is not to grow and expand the movement so much as to maintain factional dominance. They would rather be the king (or queen) in a realm of ashes than monarchs of a vibrant polity. This maintenance of control and its exclusion of competing viewpoints has caused a rift that bodes ill for the larger party down the road. Today’s Young Liberals are, after all, the political leaders of tomorrow.
The sad truth, as I have witnessed it, is that cronyism is the Young Liberals’ dominant philosophy. In recent years executives have consisted of people elevated according to which member of parliament they work for, whether they are in and tight with the power brokers, and how agreeable those at the top find their opinions and perspectives, instead of being chosen on merit, effort and involvement throughout the year. The current criteria for promotion within the Victorian Young Liberals discourages participation by grassroots members and results in poor membership retention.
On a practical basis, this explains why the turn-out to help Victoria’s Liberals at the 2015 state election — handing out how-to-votes, door-knocking etc — was miniscule: if there is little reward for participation, people won’t participate.
As young conservatives we should nurture in our own party what we hope to see promoted across the entire nation — effort rewarded, ideas debated on their merits, integrity recognised as a strength. Instead, those now dominating the Young Liberals stand ready to repel all who would question their control, principles be damned. One cannot help thinking that this barrier to those not part of the ruling clique is a self-serving strategy intended to sideline potential opponents and eliminate competition when the nakedly ambitious decide to run for a state or federal seat. Every member turned away is a loss to conservatism, another reason for Labor and the Greens to celebrate.
As it now exists, the Young Liberals movement is no longer about encouraging and boosting the ranks of today’s young conservative activists. It is not about rewarding talented people based on merit and effort, and it is most certainly not about being a broad church united by common respect for shared goals. What it has become is a career stepping stone for a select few cynical and self-obsessed individuals with a thirst for political power. Reform is needed as a matter of urgency.
To begin, the party must release the state’s by-laws, which have been kept from members despite requests for access. In itself this will not guarantee an even playing field, but it would define the arena’s boundaries. Keeping these laws locked away and under key — an outrageous situation, when you think about it — helps the establishment remain entrenched.
Secondly, it is important for us to make amends and strike an accord with the various conservative student bodies that have parted ways with us over the years. Their engagement and membership potential is vital.
Thirdly, we need the freedom to discuss our issues openly, as a movement, instead of enabling with rank-and-file passivity those determined to divide and conquer for their own ends.
Such a review may ruffle a few feathers in the beginning but it will bring us closer in the end. Young Liberals not only can do better, for the sake of conservativisn’s future we must do better.
Anna Zeltzer, a law student at Monash, is a Victorian Young Liberal