This essay is in part an extension of the one I wrote on ‘diversity’, and in part an exploration of the party system that I’ve been mulling about for some time. One of the important elements of ‘electoral democracy’ (the sort of system we have), is that it allows pretty–well anyone to run as a candidate, and any group of citizens to call themselves a party if they can scrub up five hundred members from the electoral roll and $500. Why do they do it? Partly, because they can, and because to do so is an accepted and honourable way of saying something politically. And if you do well enough, you might even get to the number of votes won that would return you some most useful public funding. Most don’t get there.
For much of my adult life Australian politics has been a contest between the Liberal and National (Country) Parties in coalition, on the one hand, and the Australian Labor Party on the other hand, with the Democratic Labor Party, a right-wing largely Catholic breakaway nipping at the ALP’s heels. In recent years there has been a widening of the party system. While the DLP has gone, the big two won still only secured 77 per cent of the vote between them in 2016. The rest went to independents and to 45 other parties — yes, 45 of them. Wikipedia has a neat list of the registered parties. Nearly all of them had a designated leader. Most readers will have heard of the Nick Xenophon Team, and Katter’s Australian Party, which are entities built around notable figures. Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party is another example. These entities won seats. Some you can work out through their title, like the Animal Justice Party, the Australian Affordable Housing Party, Australian Christians, and the Help End Marijuana Prohibition Party (HEMP).
But do you know of Love Australia or Leave, Non Custodial Parents Party (Equal Parenting) or the Arts Party? You can guess what they are about, too. Here’s one that isn’t quite so easy: VOTEFLUX.ORG | Upgrade Democracy! Wikipedia tells me that this is a party wanting direct democracy, allowing citizens to vote on bills directly. Online Direct Democracy has some similarity, with a not-yet-elected Senator promising to conduct an online poll on all bills coming to the Senate. The 21st Century Australia Party wants tax reform and political reform. But most of the other parties are about social issues its supporters believe are not being attended to properly by the system. Without repeating the issues that drive the parties already mentioned, here is a list of what seem to be the other central concerns or contexts of these small groups:
- anti-green but pro-environment
- gay rights and same-sex marriage
- evidence rather than ideology in public policy
- workers’ rights and industrial relations reform
- social conservatism
- nationalism (anti-globalisation)
- livelihoods based on agricultural production
- opposition to abortion, euthanasia, privatisation and free trade
- in favour of natural medicine
- opposition to vaccination and fluoridation of water
- in favour of civil liberties and evidence-based policy decisions
- climate change the greatest single issue
- social conservatism and nationalism
- high-quality science research and education
- secular humanist ethical principles should be the basis of public policy
- an alliance of socialist organisations and individuals
- Trotskyite socialists
- a stable population for Australia
- improvement of emotional and psychological well-being
- voluntary euthanasia.
It’s quite a list. No doubt the major parties would argue that they are already doing something in all of these areas, but the return cry would be ‘Not enough!’ Moreover, some of these issues are incompatible. Some want voluntary euthanasia, while others are wholly opposed to it. In all, these parties won not quite eight per cent of the vote for the House of Representatives, while Independent candidates won another three per cent. Their combined total, 10.6 per cent, was more than that won by the Greens (10.2 per cent). Independents usually stand for particular positions, too, but I could not find material about them.
Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party aimed at Senate representation, not in the House of Representation, and her candidates pulled in nearly 600,000 votes (4.3 per cent) delivering four Senate seats. What were they offering? One strong theme was immigration, which One Nation thought should be reduced, especially from Islamic countries, to the point where there was zero net migration. New settlers should be encouraged to live and work in the regional areas. A second strong theme was the alleged failure of ‘foreign-owned multinationals’ to pay tax on the profits made in Australia. ‘Multinational companies present a problem to most countries in the world because they exploit the international basis of tax liability where income tax is based on worldwide profits.’ That was just about it.
The Greens have been with us for a long time, and it is understandable that most people would see them as concerned about ‘the environment’. And indeed that is true. Environmental issues like climate change, national parks, mining (against) and the like are central. The Greens leader, Senator di Natale, summed up his party’s stance like this: We continue to put people before politics, to stand with our First Peoples, to acknowledge that climate change is the greatest challenge we face, to stand up for the environment, to fight for economic justice, to treat housing as a human right, not a commodity, and to stand on our values. In addition, the party offers five policy pillars: democracy, ecological sustainability, economic justice, peace and non-violence, and social justice. ‘Democracy’ includes more public participation in policy-making, equality between men and women, the free flow of information, and playing an active role internationally to support these positions. The second pillar can be summarised as The scale and impact of climate catastrophe can be lessened by reducing our dependence on non-renewable resources…
Pillar three has a lot of pillar two’s values in it, and can be summarised as Ending poverty and reducing inequalities in income and wealth are essential to social wellbeing and democracy. Some pretty far-reaching economic policies are put forward to support all this. Pillar four is all about peace and non-violence, no mining of uranium and a reliance on the United Nations. Pillar five, social justice, can be inferred from what has preceded it. We should be kind to everybody, sensitive to those who are different, and helpful as well, internationally and nationally.
The Greens’ share of the popular vote federally waxes and wanes, and it does best, like Pauline Hanson’s party, in elections for the Senate. Its highest score was 13.1 per cent in 2010, and was 8.7 per cent in 2013 and 2016. Its preferences seem to go mostly to Labor, and of course there have been straightforward ‘deals’, as when Julia Gillard secured Greens support in 2010, and in the Australian Capital Territory, where a Greens MLA is a Minister in a Labor Government.
It will be clear that other parties share at least some of what One Nation and The Greens are offering, and indeed some of what the major parties are offering. Why do its members form yet another party when they could vote for an established one? The answer has something to do with likes and dislikes of leaders, members and associated policies. The Greens have some forceful taxation policies that will not be to the liking of every citizen, no matter how much they worry about global warming. Pauline Hanson herself is not a universally attractive figure. And one’s own concern with, say, support for the arts is not assuaged when that issue is a tiny aspect of the great set of policy proposals put forward by the majors.
Another reason is that the policy divide in Australia is no longer between the haves and the have-nots, between our way and the Communist way, or between high taxation and low taxation. We are a rich country, in which most people have a roof over their heads, an income and food to eat. Yes, we could always want more, and at the margin there are, and probably always will be, ‘the battlers’. Most of these minor parties are grabbed by a single issue, or a single set of related issues, and that is why they have gone to the trouble of forming a party, in the hope that in the election context they will be able to have their concerns broadcast, and even attract more supporters. At least we know what these issues are.
And every election, or so it seems, the big two lose some more votes. Where will it end, you wonder.