In today’s world, there is a heavy veil of mystique surrounding how political parties operate, the faceless men behind them and how the spin can be sifted from the truth.
Even at a basic level, who has not seen politicians twist facts or lie, or policy commitments silently fall off the agenda. When Donald Trump spoke of draining the swamp, this resonated even with Australians halfway across the world, because everyone knows a swamp is the current political landscape. But most choose not to get themselves dirty by wading in to try to clean it up.
In years gone by, political party membership was common and parties were huge organisations; regular citizens saw it as a civic duty to support parties into government that represented their values. But today, ordinary people do not join political parties. Often those who do get politically active have specific agendas – they work for lobby groups, industry associations or unions. They see politics as a career opportunity for themselves or have specific policy agendas they wish to push from within, similar to shareholder activists in a corporation.
So many wonder if getting involved in politics will make any difference. I would say in the modern Labor Party, the answer is no. The Labor Party have watered down the participation of rank and file members to a mere token gesture. It is now not uncommon to see candidates preselected on a “captain’s pick”, and even when preselections go to a vote, the membership’s vote is worth only fifty per cent hence they have no say unless the unions agree with them. The tussle for power in the Labor Party is not amongst its membership, but between the union bosses and the left and right factional deals that happen behind closed doors. Who is preselected to fill their parliamentary benches and set the culture and direction of their party is ultimately a decision of a select few.
When Sir Robert Menzies established the Liberal Party, his aim was to enfranchise ordinary members – the forgotten people that he called upon to come together and form a new party. At the Albury Conference to inaugurate the Liberal Party in 1944, Menzies said: ‘The members of the Liberal Party of Australia who I hope will number scores of thousands before a year has gone, will, through their sub-branches, state councils, the Federal executive, and those who represent them on policy committees, have an effective voice in the shaping of policy.’
Menzies’ vision was for a large, active membership to have voice, to hold the power and make decisions from the ground up. But when a party becomes a closed shop, the entrenched powers grow in influence and control, and the political class end up deciding who the preselected candidates will be – the exact opposite of what Menzies intended.
The counteraction is to return to Menzies’ vision – to encourage more people who share the values of the Liberal Party, those same forgotten people, to stop shouting from the sidelines and join up as members. The larger the party, the more diluted the influence of powerbrokers who seek to control it. To this end I have, for many years now, called on people who share Liberal values to join our cause and continue to do so without waver. What is interesting is that today, when you ask that people only join if they share the party’s beliefs of a ‘lean government that minimises interference in our daily lives’, ‘freedom of thought, worship, speech and association’, where family is recognised ‘as the primary institution for fostering the values on which a cohesive society is built’, ‘the rule of law and justice’, as I have been, one can be accused of trying to take the party to the “hard right”. These are conservative values and the Liberal Party is a conservative party. The name “Liberal” was given to the party because it supports “Liberalism” which, as the party platform states, places ‘its emphasis on the individual and enterprise, as the political philosophy best able to meet the demands and challenges of the 21st century.’
Like many party members, I believe that children should be entitled to have relationships with their biological mother and father and be protected from premature sexualisation through radical gender theory programs in schools. I do not and never have supported “conversion therapy” and find it incredible that I keep being labelled as such when I have been an advocate for many years on restricting the use of electroconvulsive therapy and have represented countless patients before the Mental Health Tribunal arguing against the proposed use of this treatment. What I do not agree with, is limiting people’s freedom to access counselling in relation to sexuality whether it be out of or in fact into same-sex attraction if they, of their own free will, wish to engage in this. These positions accord entirely with Liberal values, and to suggest that they somehow reflect an inconsistent “hard right” position is to either not understand what the values of the Liberal Party are, or to try to ignore them in order to hijack the Party and push discordant agendas.
This is why it is so important, more than ever, that ordinary people, people who do share Liberal Party values, get involved. Whatever your race, religion, sexuality or socio-economic status, if you have our same values, join up and help us defeat Labor – we need to you to ensure that we have an army of boots on the ground and people power to demand from within that policies and candidates chosen at preselections always uphold our shared values.
It is true that I left a factional grouping that I had believed was striving to follow Menzies and reform the Party, which previously wielded great influence in Victoria. However, as time went on, it devolved into another group where power and control, not reform, became the end goal. It should never be about power and control. It should be about improving our country for generations to come. Otherwise, we are all just wasting our time serving the interests of a select few, like puppets who do not even know who the puppeteer is at the end of their strings or what their next move may be.
As part of this faction, I was the ‘first cab off the rank’ for a seat in parliament. My name was forever out there as running for a seat or challenging an MP with or without my knowledge or actual intention to run for a preselection. But there was a choice I had to make – to have a seat for the sake of it and be forever beholden to others who would place greater and greater demands on me to compromise, or to walk away from that factional group and return to the path of Menzies’ vision for the party. I chose to put my loyalty to my values ahead of my loyalty to a faction I had once thought shared them. Because I do not play games for personal opportunity to serve in parliament, that is why those who oppose me are in office and, surprisingly to me, I now seem to be their biggest target.
In news this week, there have been a few voices calling for me to be “expelled” from the Liberal Party for taking notes at a factional meeting on a collective discussion in relation to a pre-determined factional plan endorsed by the highest powers in our party to oust several State Upper House MPs, and sending them to a few of those who attended the same meeting.
This was not a fixed plan, but a moving one where people of the faction were developing ideas on which MPs should be replaced, by who and potential reasons which could be given. There were many selective details in the newspaper reporting on this, for example, their sensational words suggest that I used salacious language to describe people – I am not someone who uses vulgar language at all and certainly did not in notes taken by me. I would never publish anything to a public audience that was unverified and there was never any intention, other than for the three people from the meeting who I sent notes of our discussion at that same meeting to as they had requested of me (a meeting where all present were aware that I was taking notes) that these would then be sent to a newspaper for publication more than two years later. But this is not the first time I have been leaked and briefed against to newspapers and I am sure it will not be the last. Afterall, if you are not being attacked, you are not being effective, and I intend to continue to be effective in promoting Liberal values and fighting for good Liberal government at every level. Ultimately, the discomfort with this and many other plans of that faction is what led myself and many others to leave it.
At present, in Victoria, we are in a position where, despite the devastating loss of even blue ribbon Liberal seats in a mammoth landslide to Labor at the 2018 state election, we are well positioned through good opposition leadership, policy development and Victorian people finally waking up to the manner in which the Andrews government is wrecking our state, to have a real chance of attaining victory in 2022. But presently, because of back biting and white anting by a few who seek to take control of the state parliamentary and organisational teams, there is never clear air given to the state opposition to get their positive message out and, as a result, any hope of winning government is severely weakened. This small but relentless element in the party must be stopped for what is at stake is our state of Victoria and her 6 million people.
I have been prepared to sacrifice all political opportunities for my own values. Certainly, no one is perfect, but all that I ask is that you hold me accountable for my actions, and that others are also held to the same standard, no less those who actually serve in parliament.
From the idealistic me who got involved because I wanted to see a better Australia, politics has become like a building that at first looked ornate, distinguished and structurally sound, but on closer inspection is riddled with cracks, overrun by every pest imaginable and the dry rot has set in. However, as Sir Winston Churchill said: ‘No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all other forms of that have been tried from time to time; but there is the broad feeling in our country that the people should rule, continuously rule, and that public opinion, expressed by all constitutional means, should shape, guide, and control the actions of Ministers who are their servants and not their masters.’ Thankfully, democracy is still alive and well in the Liberal Party, but there is always room to review and improve. Tragically in the Labor Party, democracy has effectively been abandoned.
Getting back to Menzies’ vision for the Liberal Party is not as easy as it sounds. Even in his lifetime, Menzies himself saw that his beloved party had been hijacked and his daughter confirms that in at least one election he instead voted for the Democratic Labor Party. But this does not mean that there is no hope for Menzies’ vision. The key lies in his call for many, many more people who share the party’s values to stop making disgruntled murmurings in the background, and instead, put pen to paper, open up an online membership form, and join up.
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Karina Okotel is a former Vice President of both the Federal and Victorian Divisions of the Liberal Party. She currently lectures post-graduate Law students at The College of Law and previously worked as a Senior Civil Lawyer at Victoria Legal Aid as well as in community law and the international aid sector. Karina has volunteered extensively both locally and overseas on the Thai-Myanmar border and in Uganda where she met her husband.
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