For the last month I have been more than usually interested in Australian politics, not because I have a strong interest in the outcome of the next election or three, or because I have a horse in the race. Rather, because I think we are seeing a slow shift to something with which Europeans are more familiar than Australians, a more-or-less stable multi-party system.
In fact, it is really the Anglophone countries that regard a two-party system as the norm. When it works, as it has done for much of the past century, it works quite well. I analysed it fifty years ago in Stability and Change in Australian Politics. At that time (late 1960s), our party system was a bit over fifty years old. I argued that the party system had enabled modern democracies to work, through its capacity both to distil the issues important to the electorate, and to provide voters with a choice that was fairly simple.
Because it worked, voters quickly came to develop and maintain an allegiance to one or other of the main parties, rather as they might to the local football team. The party chosen then represented them, and looked for support at the next election. Furthermore, the issues that governments had to deal with were often complicated, so that the parties, whether in or out of power, had to wrestle with them for some time. For the ordinary citizen to do this, across the dozen or so issues that are live at any time, would represent a great expense of time and energy. Most of us, I felt, wanted to be left alone, and leave all that to the politicians, our representatives.
Nonetheless, my ten years of field work and analysis of political behaviour did not make me feel that Australia had discovered the best thing since sliced bread. ‘Too many citizens,’ I wrote, ‘have acquired their political judgments without a thought as to their meaning or significance’. And, in the last paragraph of the book, ‘the foundation of Australian democracy is habit, not understanding’. I thought understanding would be a more substantial basis for a good working democracy. Maybe that shows I was one of those elitists, but it was my view at the time.
One more passage from that book. ‘It may be that [the future]… will be noted more for the painful choices that are offered democratic electorates than the pleasant ones. On past experience the reaction of the Australian electorate, fed for the most part on ideology and personality and unused to debate or discussion, will be to declare a plague on both houses.’
I think I was prescient, though I saw this happening rather earlier, in the 20th century, not this one. I do feel that there are signs of the electorate’s declaring a plague on both houses, and if it continues, as I have argued in earlier essays, the old assumptions about the stability of Australian politics will have to be re-examined.
The most decisive ‘two-party’ election in our federal history was that of 1910, when the Liberal Party (so-called at the time) and Labor won all but five per cent of the votes, and won all the seats. That was never to happen again. The Labor Party and the Liberals fractured during the Great War, and the Country Party appeared in 1919. The Labor Party fractured again during the Great Depression, and the Liberals during the Second World War. Labor fractured yet gain in 1954/55 to produce the Democratic Labor Party, while from the 1970s on there has been a succession of small parties whose relatively significant voting strength suggested, at the very least, that a decent fraction of the electorate was dissatisfied with both major parties.
There are those who don’t think any of this matters, because after all, they say, it all depends on the distribution of preferences. While our preferential system does indeed force most of us to think about who we want next (or who we want least), my interest here is in the signs of dissatisfaction. There are a few one can turn to easily. Let’s take the share of the vote won by the two major groups.
Labor in 2017 is for once not bedevilled by any fractions (it is bedevilled by factions, but they are inside the party, not outside it). Its rival is ‘the Coalition’, which consists of the Liberal Party, the Nationals, the Liberal National party (Qld) and the Country Liberal Party (NT). If we go back not quite a quarter of a century ago, to the election of 1993, the major party groups won 83 per cent of the vote for the House of Representatives. In 2016 the same groups won not quite 77 per cent of the vote.
Let’s look at turnout, which is regarded, even in Australia, as an indication of interest in the outcome. We are all supposed to vote, but for all sorts of reasons there are circumstances that can get in the way. Before we had compulsory voting, turnout ranged between 50 and 60 per cent (the first three elections) and then between 60 and 70 per cent (the Great War). After the introduction of compulsory voting in 1924, turnout shot up to the 90 per cents. In 1993 it was 95.8 per cent; in 2016 it seems to have been around 91 per cent.
Informal voting is another proxy, at least for some, for interest in the outcome and a feeling of engagement in the process. The smaller the informal vote the great the feeling of involvement. In 1993, informal voting was at 3 per cent; in 2016 the figure was at 5 per cent.
These are small signs, but they all point in the same direction: the role of the major parties is shrinking slowly, and the feeling of involvement is shrinking with it. I have written before that today’s politics is the politics of the single-issue group, and all the major parties can do is to bid, cajole or promise. The capacity of the single-issue groups to direct preferences, let alone primary votes, is almost unknown. But these groups attract the attention of the media, which gives them a prominence they do not possess in simple numbers. It is their passion, not their numbers, which is important.
If you want to call yourself a ‘political party’ you have to register and show some kind of general support. The Australia Electoral Commission (AEC) maintains a register of political parties. If you want to register you need at a minimum a written constitution that sets out your aims, a sitting MP or, failing that, 500 or so supporters who don’t belong to any other party. The AEC will do some scrutiny of your application, and let the world know about it as well, and about your logo, if you want one. Does this deter you? Well, there were 57 political parties registered for the 2016 elections.
Most of them did poorly and won’t be heard of again. But the Nick Xenophon team in South Australia won a quarter of a million votes. Bob Katter’s Party won 78,000 and returned him to Parliament, while Independents of various hues won 380,000 votes, and two seats as well. One Nation, derided by the mainstream media, won nearly 600,000 votes at the Senate elections in 2016, and Newspoll had One nation at 11 per cent this week. These are not trivial numbers. The electorate contains about 15 million people, and about 1,400,000 didn’t even vote last time.
Mr Turnbull was exercised this week about where the Liberal party sat in the party system, and opted for ‘the sensible centre’. I don’t think that matters much to anyone other than a few dissident Liberals. What seems plain to me is that the dissatisfaction with Australian politics as it presently is can be seen in various small signs of disengagement. A major external crisis of some kind, and the emergence of a leader who made sense to people on both sides of the party divide, could change all that.
But I see no real sign of either, and in default I predict a continual slow movement away to attractive Independents, protest voices like the Greens and One Nation, and regional champions like Nick Xenophon and Bob Katter. Put together, they make the business of Australian politics much more diverse, and the task of governing our country even harder