This essay was written for one of my political science units at UQ. It is a response to the question of whether Australia’s major parties enhance or damage our political system. While (hopefully) sticking to the criteria and constraints of the assessment, I have argued the latter. A full reference list is at the end. Enjoy.
Australia’s political system has been dominated by two major contenders dating back to 1909, between the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and what is now the Coalition parties (the Liberal Party of Australia (LPA), the National Party, and, in Queensland, the Liberal National Party (LNP)). While the latter has gone through several iterations and name changes, these two blocs have maintained power between themselves with only tentative challenge from minor parties and Independents in recent years. (Kefford et al 2018). It is the purpose of this article to explore some of the key issues such a restrained system has and the damage it has had on Australian politics and policy.
An overview of the Australian political system and the major parties (in their modern form) will be given, including some of the differences and similarities between them in terms of approach and policy across a number of issues. This will be followed by looking at how Australia’s electoral system benefits the major parties, the disconnect between MPs as representatives of communities and MPs as representatives of a party, and the disenfranchisement that follows. Finally, some proposals will be made to try and expand our democratic system beyond the two-party gridlock.
The Australian political system is a liberal democracy, a representative form of democracy where members of Parliament are elected in free elections (Kefford et al 2018: 2), ostensibly to represent the interests of their constituents. Historically a mash up of “anti-Labor” and “anti-communist” parties (Abjorensen 2018), the Coalition today has deeply embedded itself into the business community and creates a public perception of being responsible and superior fiscal and economic managers (McDougall 2019). They also support and adopt heavily traditional and conservative views on social and cultural issues, such as abortion (Baird 2013) and same-sex marriage (Chen 2019).
Albeit within the same overarching system, Labor is generally considered the progressive alternative of the two parties as a historically social democratic party (Johnson 2011) on both economic and social policy. Pre-1980’s, the party had a much more radical tone, and in the 2019 election they launched a surprisingly confident and ambitious policy plan on a range of issues (McDougall 2019), but even with the benefit of positive polls they failed to gain power. In contrast to the Coalition’s business partnerships, while Labor still gets donations from and benefits the private sector to a lesser extent (Edwards 2020), they have had a deep historical connection with the Trade Union movement.
Despite these still relatively significant differences, however, the two-party system is overall negative in terms of policy. While compulsory and preferential voting are hallmarks of Australian elections, and the stability provided by such a system has seen successive governments flow relatively seamlessly, it results in a stark monopoly of power around a ‘moderate’ position (MacKerras and McAllister 1999; Reilly 2018, 2021). Campaign rhetoric aside, both major parties, for a number of issues and reasons, tend to fall in line with a fairly consistent approach.
While Labor and the crossbench were able to get the Medivac Bill passed in 2019 (ASRC 2019), Labor introduced mandatory detention under Keating, removed and brought it back under the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years, and the policy was very strongly (and sadistically) supported by the Coalition under Howard and from 2013 onwards (Chong and McAdam 2019). On broader foreign policy, we have seen successive Coalition and Labor governments generally follow the United States’ lead, such as on East Timor (McGrath 2017; Fernandes 2018), Afghanistan (Tanter 2020), and the bipartisan silence or dismissal of Julian Assange (Robinson 2020).
With regards to economics, it was Hawke and Keating who ushered in the era of neoliberalism for Australia. While I agree with Johnson’s (2011) argument that ‘the major focus of successive Labor governments has been on humanizing and reforming capitalism’, as opposed to a ‘more radical transformation to a socialist society’, I disagree on her ‘continuity thesis’. There was certainly a major shift in direction within the Labor Party between Whitlam’s stunted term and the election of Bob Hawke. This is due to a combination of factors, the most dominant being the adoption of neoliberalism and managerialism (Glover 2015), and Hawke’s connections with the US government and tempering of the Union and labour movements (Coventry 2021).
An example of the moderation mentioned above (Reilly 2018) was the opposition to John Howard’s WorkChoices, an industrial relations policy that contributed greatly to his defeat in 2007 (Woodward 2010). Whereas Hawke and Keating introduced popular policies like Medicare alongside the neoliberal agenda, Howard and later Coalition governments weren’t so diplomatic (Glover 2015). Rudd and Gillard, with the former tentatively questioning neoliberal doctrine, have been described as the logical policy successors of the former Labor titans (Johnson 2015).
The above serves as a short list of examples detailing how the major parties, in many ways, consolidate around specific points, even if they differ on the details and extent of their policies. These, and others, drive many to believe that the two major parties, orbiting around a right-ward shifting centre, are merely the same party. While not an entirely accurate perception of the two-party system, the effect has been detrimental to the health of our democracy and the outlook of the population. People, particularly young people, increasingly feel disenfranchised and disconnected from the political system as a result (Bessant 2010; Edwards 2007; Glover 2015).
Rather than focussing solely on attempting to generate interest in politics in younger and disenfranchised demographics, serious questions need to be asked about who our elected representatives actually represent. When you vote, are you voting for a representative or a party? And what about factions within a party? (Kefford et al 2018). Part of this is the polarisation of issues and the increasing identification of a specific set of policies with a party. Abjorensen (2018) quotes Victorian Liberal Senator Scott Ryan when discussing ‘an increasingly narrow ideological turn by sections of the party and outside commentators seeking to redefine what it means to be a Liberal.’ Ryan expressed his dissatisfaction with what he called a ‘litmus test’, whereby one’s positions on certain issues determined if they were a ‘real Liberal’.
Major parties have always needed to balance ideological and cultural positions with the disposition of the general public, but with a combination of polarisation on some issues and increased moderation and similarity on others, the past few years have seen a rise in minor party and independent vote shares (Miragliotta 2013; Monro 2019). Ironically, however, as mentioned above, the same preferential voting that enhances our electoral system benefits the major parties in a majority of cases.
The major party representatives also get a number of institutional advantages, particularly incumbents, that can prevent alternative third parties or independents succeeding. While the Senate allows for better odds with a proportional system, major parties can consolidate power in the House of Representatives with successive majorities. With a few recent exceptions, including Gillard’s minority Labor government, minor parties and independents end up with minimal or even negligible impact on government policy.
This results in what some call a ‘cartel’, whereby the major parties can effectively suffocate any attempts to disrupt the balanced two-party system, the most prominent examples being the Democrats and the Australian Greens. These institutional weapons and barriers include more state and party resources at candidates’ disposal, greater access to media and private political donations, and the ability to adopt and negotiate among themselves the issues brought forward by new entrants. (Brenton 2013). With the increase in disenfranchisement and the search for something different, it is no wonder minor parties and independents, even if electorally unsuccessful, are gaining a higher share of first preference votes, catching up to the traditional major parties (Bessant 2010).
As such, the implication is that for many people, Australia’s political system does not work for them. The population’s perception of a government’s conduct and performance plays an important role in satisfaction in democracy, and in Australia this trust had been in decline (Cameron 2019). While the current wave of “antagonistic” insurgents, like One Nation and Palmer and Kelly’s United Australia Party (sharing the same name as the current Liberal Party’s predecessor), are merely dangerous and fringe siphons to the Coalition parties (Murphy 2019; news.com.au 2019), future governments of either colour will need to reckon with the wider issues of disenfranchisement and representation.
Alternatives are available, and some even exist to an extent here in Australia. These include ways to remove the two-party monopoly entirely and others where the stability provided by major parties and the party system is run in tandem with a more local representative model. The former, while seemingly more ideal, would be much harder to implement and would take more time and effort to achieve. It would involve generating genuine community interest in local and national politics with constant grassroots activity, rather than a cycle of institutionalised campaigning and frequent election of distant representatives (Scully 2020). This would create a more direct and participatory approach to politics, rather than the current alienation we have seen (Kioupkiolis 2017; Cameron 2019).
Another route is the Tasmanian system, which differs in multiple ways to other states and the Federal system. Their lower house is proportional and dominated largely by parties, but their upper house, the Legislative Council, is more ‘clientelist’, requiring a greater focus on gaining community patronage. Its institutional structure maintains fixed but staggered elections, making it difficult for any one party to run broader election campaigns and allowing independents to dominate the Council. This combination of systems means ‘Programmatic choices can be made through parties at lower-house elections, supplemented with local representation through Independents in the upper house.’ (Sharman 2013).
Australia’s political system has arguably benefited from the stability and machinations of the major parties for over a century now, but in recent decades we have seen not just a split between these major parties and the public they purport to represent, but also how the public perceives politics and the party system itself. This can and has taken many forms, but it is clear that the monopoly of power held by Labor and the Coalition parties has reached a crossroads. The contrasting polarisation and moderation of different issues, the disenfranchisement of much of the population, particularly young people, and the inherent failings of our representative system have all contributed to this growing backlash.
These negative reactions are quickly outweighing the benefits of two-party systems. Both the major parties and the general public need to look to the future and other, fairer systems, lest we fall into disarray or a perpetual deadlock in one of the most tumultuous periods in history.
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