On the eve of the 2019 federal election, a panicked Labor Party politician made a phone call to someone they knew in Kununurra, a remote town of more than 5,000 people in Western Australia. As the person later recalled to us during an interview for our researchthe conversation went something like this:
We don’t have anyone [there]. We just forgot about Kununurra. There are a lot of brochures in a greyhound bus. Can you go pick them? Can you set up the stands? Can you go round up some people to distribute goddamn pamphlets?
Such a phone call had never been necessary. In recent decades, Labor had an active grassroots branch in Kununurra that would have taken care of everything. But by 2019, this was long gone and the party’s nearest branch was nearly 1,000 miles away in Broome.
Without a permanent presence on the ground, the ALP simply forgot about the city during the election campaign.
Why grassroots party membership matters
This was one of the more striking stories we heard during our study of political parties in faraway Australia.
Since most of what we know about the decline in party membership over the last 40 years in Australia and other western democracies is based on what is happening in cities and towns, we wanted to know what the situation was like outside these areas.
This was not just to satisfy an academic curiosity. Whatever one thinks of political parties and their members, democracies depend on them and need their grassroots presence.
There are several reasons for this. The grassroots party members connect political elites with citizens in the field and inform the office holders about the issues that are important to them. Basic membership also provides the party with a pool of potential candidates to run in elections as well as a group of local people who can help the party choose the right one.
And at election time, base members perform important volunteer activities, such as handing out voting cards and manning election booths.
Read more: How big ideas for regional Australia got short shrift
What we found in the Barkly and the Kimberley
We focused our research on two remote voters: barkly in the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly and Kimberly in the Western Australian Legislative Assembly.
To understand how the parties fared on the ground, we spoke to grassroots members of the Labor and Liberal parties in the Kimberley and the Labor and Country Liberal parties in the Barkly.
Our findings revealed a mixture of party involvement and withdrawal, but the overall picture was one of decline. Membership numbers were low everywhere compared to before and most people were inactive between elections. Base members were almost always middle-aged or older.
In some areas, the parties had allowed branches to die because they felt they were no longer worth the effort. In others, members continued to meet but were largely ignored by party hierarchies in distant capitals.
And even where we encountered well-functioning basic branches that were active on a regular basis, it relied heavily on a handful of willing individuals.
A few dedicated members keep things going
In the Barkly, for example, the now-retired Labor representative, Gerry McCarthy, and his electoral officer had worked to keep regular branch operations going in the main town of Tennant Creek.
They had also set up a sub-section in the very remote town Borroloolaalthough the rigidity of the party’s rules over affiliate operations, coupled with distance and telecommunications issues, made it difficult to keep sub-affiliate members engaged.
To circumvent the party’s antiquated rules – designed for towns and cities rather than the outback – Tennant Creek grassroots had even traveled the 500 miles to Borroloola to fulfill Labor’s quorum for industry meetings.
The Country Liberal Party in the Barkly also relied heavily on the efforts of a few dedicated members and in 2016 was in danger of losing its autonomy as a branch due to its small numbers.
This reflected the party’s problems with declining membership in general, which saw its formal federal registration as a party investigated by the Australian Election Commission in 2022.
As the story of Kununurra in the 2019 election illustrates, Labor’s operations on the ground in the Kimberley have also withered.
Labor has disappeared in Kununurra and seemed to pay little attention to its supporters in Broome. According to the members we interviewed, the party’s state representative rarely met them and they were not consulted on the selection of candidates.
The Liberals in the Kimberley seemed a happier and more engaged group, but again, this was mainly due to a few very active people.
Finally, with the exception of Labor in the Barkly, the parties seemed only interested in “supporters” in remote Indigenous communities who would help them at election time, rather than grassroots members who would be constantly involved with the party.
This contributed to the fact that the party’s base memberships remained non-indigenous despite the overwhelming majority half of the Kimberleys And 70% of the Barklys population is indigenous.
What happens if parties are disconnected
There are several implications of party disinterest and withdrawal to remote areas.
First, the lack of a significant presence on the ground exacerbates growing feelings of antipathy towards mainstream parties and dissatisfaction with democracy we see in non-urban areas in western democracies.
Second, in the specific case of Australia, failure to adapt party organizations to the realities of remote areas creates additional problems. The secretive rules about industry meetings are a good example of this.
At a time when efforts are being made to bring indigenous people closer to the national political process by voice, it seems ironic that in areas where indigenous people make up a significant proportion of the population, parties are moving further away.
Read more: People and issues outside our major cities are diverse, but these priorities stand out