‘Before they knew me personally, members of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) in Kurri, Weston, Abremain and Cessnock generously gave me permission to observe their branch meetings, and I attended about 50 of these, as well as fourteen meetings of Electorate Councils and three private election-strategy meetings. For months my approaches to the local Liberal Party branch met with neither approval nor rejection, and when I was finally allowed to attend a meeting, it was abandoned, ostensibly for lack of a quorum. I did, however, get the opportunity to talk to branch members.’ (Metcalfe 1988: 8)
Reading this methodological account by Andrew Metcalfe made me wonder whether some of my research failings are in part structural rather than completely my own doing.
One of the areas I am disappointed with myself as a researcher is that I have not managed to have a substantive conversation with anybody in Port Melbourne who identifies themselves as a member of the Liberal Party. On polling day of the last state election, of the two Liberal Party members I spoke with, one was on holidays from interstate.
Port Melbourne has a reputation for being a Labor area, as I imagine could be said about the mining areas in Metcalfe’s study. However, Port Melbourne has seen a lot of change and across the three Port Melbourne polling booths in 2010 the Liberal candidate got 12 more first preference votes (2345 for the Liberal candidate, compared with 2333 for the Labor candidate).
Earlier this year I got close to having a phone conversation with one Liberal politician. However, I do not usually answer my phone during meetings or while I am using public toilets, especially to blocked numbers. So failing to answer the phone at that particular time, along with the fact there was no return phone number left with the messages, meant the phone call did not work out. Turns out sending an honest email about my perceptions of the differences in how various parties are involved in the area is not a good way to try to start a dialogue; rather it is a pretty good way to get yourself told off.
As one of the luxuries of PhD fieldwork is time I thought perhaps if I did more research about Liberal party structures I could work out what might be some appropriate questions to ask. While there is some mention of branches on the Victorian Liberal Party website, the lowest level of organisation mentioned on their website is that of the Electorate Conferences. As for whether or not branches exist, a phone call confirmed that they do not release details of areas with branches (which suggests to me that branches must exist).
Finding out about the Victorian Labor party branches is pretty simple. Not that I really needed to use the internet for such research; in Port Melbourne’s groups it is not too hard to meet people who identify as Labor members. (For the record, getting in contact with the Greens was a breeze. I just rang a number from a website and was told where they meet, and at what time.)
I am not sure if I will ever get to the bottom of why it is so hard for me to speak with anybody from the Liberal Party. Perhaps it is partly about a stronger respect for privacy within that party, or a different structure which means branches are not as important. Perhaps historically the Liberal Party has been less active in community affairs, or there are not Liberal Party ties to groups in Port Melbourne because people were less likely to be Liberal voters. Maybe there is no active group to get in contact with, or perhaps I have managed to cause offence by asking around and so the doors have been closed to me.
I hope this post does not cause any anguish. It is simply my experience. If you have any suggestions, you can send me an email.
Metcalfe, A. W. (1988). For freedom and dignity : historical agency and class structures in the coalfields of NSW. Sydney, Allen & Unwin.