Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Death of the Country Party's Bill Ford

On 13 June, the Sydney Morning Herald carried Tim Ford's obituary on his father Bill, Man of action wore many hats. Bill became general secretary of the NSW Country Party in 1967, holding the position for the next nine years. He was also secretary of the Federal Party.

I first heard of and met Bill Ford soon after he became general secretary. However, I really came to know him in 1972.

Michael Boyd, his Dad was elected to the NSW Parliament the following year as member for Byron, had organised a Canberra Young Country Party reception for the members of the Party's Federal Executive meeting in Canberra.

There had been newspaper reports that the Party was thinking of running a candidate for the federal seat of Eden Monaro. Chatting casually to Bill, I asked how one might start running for pre-selection? You just did, he replied in his somewhat dry way!

Shortly, I found myself with the Party membership lists charged with rebuilding the Party in Queanbeyan and, more broadly, Eden Monaro.

 This was a different world, one on the cusp between the old and the new professionalisation of politics.

The Country Party was a membership based party, with some 33,000 members in NSW alone. The Party actually depended on membership subscriptions to fund operations. The bank order system was central. Get a person to sign a bank order for membership and they rarely cancelled it.

The Party itself believed that to win an electorate it needed a high membership base. Get one third of adults signed up as members in an electorate and you were home. To manage all this, the Party had organisers whose core job was to recruit new members and to persuade existing members to upgrade their subscriptions.

When I looked at the membership lists, I found that the Queanbeyan Canberra branch had 33 financial members. It was years since the branch had met. Some of those members were still paying membership subscriptions at rates set thirty years before!

I set about rebuilding the Party membership. Again, that was part of the Party approach. Each election campaign provided an opportunity, indeed depended upon, people like me going out and recruiting new members. Those members then provided future cash flow through bank orders.

Just to put this in context, the NSW Country Party had more financial members in 1972 than all the current NSW political parties combined. It really was a membership based organisation. Within two years, we had well over 600 members in Eden Monaro and the adjoining Canberra seats.

I could tell a number of stories about Bill, but I just want too tell one that bears upon the professionalisation of politics.

Country Party candidates were selected by the Electorate Council from candidates nominated by the branches. To be considered, you must have a branch nomination. However, just because a branch nominated you did not mean that you had the votes from that branch's delegates. Every delegate was free to vote for the best candidate on the day. Still, the more nominations you got, the better the chance you had of locking in votes.

This meant that all the candidates formed a convoy going around the branch nomination meetings. With so many members, there were a lot of branches. I can't remember the exact numbers, but for the first Eden Monaro campaign there were something like seven candidates competing for nominations for over twenty branches.

Again, this was part of the Party process, generating interest and members. In 1972, I got a Christmas card signed by all the ABC Canberra local radio reporters. You see, in my role I generated the biggest set of stories on ABC of any source by a substantial margin!

 About half way through the campaign, Bill Ford said to me something that has stuck in my mind ever since.

Bill was an old fashioned bloke. He believed that the role of the local member was to represent the electorate, to put forward a platform of ideas for the electorate and Party
"You know", he said, "you are all behaving as though you are applying for a job!"

He was right, of course. We focused on explaining why people should vote for us because we had the best chance of getting elected, why we would be good Party people.

To this day, I regret that I didn't campaign on what I believed in, what I wanted to do. Some of that was there, but my focus was on trying to explain why I could do the job best. I was trying to present as a professional politicians setting out why I should be elected because I could best represent the Party.

I wasn't alone.

To my mind now, the question as to whether one will best represent the Party is really a second order question in a real democracy. Preselection is not a job application, but a chance to outline things that you believe in so that people can make a real choice.

Bill was right.

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