Is there a difference between a member and a supporter?


Over the last few years, you may have noticed ongoing and quite public discussions about the declining membership of the major parties, the collapse of branch structures, and the desperate need for parties to revitalise their membership and structure. For the ALP this has meant trying to rebuild their membership from the historical lows of 36000 members only a few years ago. Such political party membership decline is a worldwide phenomenon.

The Australian Greens have been able to look on with interest, as the Greens' membership has grown steadily over 20 years to now sit at well over 10,000. However, little is known about who the party members are, and even less is known about the Greens' supporters. Supporters in particular are important as they are now being seen by other parties, in Australia and across the western world, as an antidote to the decline in membership.

Over the last nine months Australian Greens' members and supporters have been surveyed to establish what, if any, is the difference between their political motivations and activity levels. What might be expected to be found is that members will show a stronger set of party-oriented obligations, values and benefit-expectations, while supporters would be more engaged in outreach and financial support – being considerably more numerous than party members.

So, with this as a starting point, all members with an email address (about 8700 people) and a sample of active and inactive supporters (9700 between the two supporter groups) were surveyed. 3650 responses were received from this pool of 18400 people, an overall response rate of just under 20%.

Perhaps surprisingly, members and supporters look remarkably similar. The average age for both is 53, although inactive supporters are slightly younger than active supporters. Women are marginally more represented amongst supporters, and most amongst inactive supporters. All had similar levels of education – 80% have a university degree, among whom 8-10% have PhDs. Neither the membership nor supporter base are at all ethnically diverse, and the bulk (65%) live within a capital city.

Ideologically, supporters, whether active and inactive, are much closer to members than to Green voters or the general public, indicating that they are not a 'moderating' force on the party. On political strategy, members and supporters do diverge on the role and importance of the environment in campaigns, although both see a focus on upper house representation as critical (and supporters particularly so).

Importantly, while members and supporters may think and look alike on a political and demographic basis, the role of supporters is far less clear. Supporters would very much like to have a say in particular aspects of party functioning (such as policy determination and candidate selection) at opposite rates to members who would oppose supporter involvement. Indeed, members are quite unequivocal in suggesting that while supporters are good for attracting people to the party, they should not have a say in the general running of the party. While this may be understandable from a member's perspective, it also means the party gains little from supporters, and supporters are not encouraged to deepen their involvement with the party. At a time when both the ALP and National Party are looking at ways to expand supporter activities within their respective parties, through such activities as community pre-selections, this may act to stymie enthusiasm for the Greens. So while supporters might be seen as an antidote to declining memberships elsewhere, their role within the Greens needs to be carefully considered.

University of Sydney researchers Dr Stewart Jackson and Dr Anika Gauja undertook survey research of the Australian Greens members and supporters in 2012-13. Their findings will be presented in detail to the 2013 Annual Conference of the Australian Greens.