WITH DISENCHANTMENT IN POLITICS a virtual article of faith in Australia, predictions of the demise of the two-party system are frequent, cataclysmic, and perhaps premature. Even so, there is a penchant for “all things to all people” politics that has infected and infested mainstream parties in this country whose logical result is that nobody is satisfied — perpetuating the breach — and this problem, in difficult times, is not unique to Australia.
I’ve been reading one of the online conservative blogs from the UK that I follow this morning — Breitbart — and found an article that a) is a brilliant summation of a “fork in the road” Britain’s Conservative Party faces, and which b), after some thought, equally applies to our major parties here in Australia as it does to the Tories in Britain, the Conservatives in Canada and the GOP in the USA that it talks about, and probably the major political parties in most democratic countries with a stabilised party system: and especially where two main parties substantially fill that remit.
The article (which you can read here) is by Ben Harris-Quinney, chairman of the Bow Group, a British think tank given to the objective of the advancement of political conservatism. I urge readers to peruse this; as has been the case in the past when I have shared material from the UK, it won’t be too difficult to get past any local jargon — you could almost substitute “Liberal Party” for the Conservative Party, “Palmer United Party” for UKIP, and beyond that the unfamiliar names won’t interfere with anyone’s enjoyment of the piece.
But for those who don’t follow such things, the Conservatives (or Tories) in the UK are faced with the proverbial fork in the road; on its right flank exists a minor party — the United Kingdom Independence Party — whose objectives, among other things, are to engineer Britain’s exit from the European Union, and to severely curtail both the quantum and the mix of immigrants to the UK.
The problem the Conservative Party appears to face is that both of these objectives seem to enjoy significant (if not outright majority) support within the British electorate; yet the government of Prime Minister David Cameron — admittedly, in Coalition with the Liberal Democrats, a hotchpotch of centrist liberals and unreconstructed socialists — gives every appearance of trying to diminish, ignore and/or sidestep these matters in the name of doing “the right thing” by the UK.
But the real issue at the nub of the Harris-Quinney piece is its references to “the exhausted ideas of (Tony) Blair and (David) Cameron” set to be recycled yet again, and its allusions to the creep of social democracy into the words and deeds of a “conservative” government to the direct detriment of the advancement of the conservative principles Cameron was supposedly elected to enact.
Cameron might have fallen just shy of a majority in 2010 with the Coalition and its inevitable compromises as the cost, but apart from a crackdown on welfare payments (that were even further out of control than they are in Australia) and a program for fixing Britain’s own debt and deficits disaster, inherited from Labour — both of which were possible by the virtually unicameral nature* of the British Parliament — there isn’t a great deal Cameron’s government has done since it took office that could be unequivocally categorised as “conservative.”
I’m not going to dwell on the British background to today’s discussion here, although Harris-Quinney correctly notes that the phenomenon he describes in the UK is identical to those already seen in North America.
Yet where this links back to our own polity begins with the proposition I have repeated, with increasing regularity it seems, in this column: that any government (or party) that sets out to be all things to all people, and to please everyone, actually offends more people than it mollifies and ultimately pleases no-one.
Regular readers (who know that from time to time I am incapable of preventing my passion of British politics from invading this column) know that as staunchly supportive of the Tory Party as I am, I find David Cameron to be something of a disappointment; offering so much when he came to both the leadership of his party and subsequently to office, Cameron’s government seems almost apologetic for its conservative traditions and principles, trying instead to be some weird amalgam of dry economics fused with the worst aspects imaginable of Blairite social policy: and with the state the UK is in, even Labour should be finding some way to junk its Blairite social platform, let alone have it perpetuated by the so-called “nasty party.”
In happenstance, Britain’s voters seem to want a so-called “in-out” referendum: that is, a straight vote to either remain in the EU or to leave it altogether. Cameron’s “compromise” is to “renegotiate” Britain’s position in the EU and what I will loosely term its “membership package,” with an in-out referendum offered in 2017: if, and only if, the Conservative Party wins the General Election due next May.
Unsurprisingly, UKIP is recording the biggest spike in its support in years; for the first time last week, a Tory MP in a safe conservative seat jumped ship on the Conservatives and defected. It is perhaps one of those excruciating ironies that only a Conservative government can deliver the desired referendum at all — Labour refuses to do so, and UKIP will never win government — yet the leaching of support from the Tories to UKIP could be the factor that kills the prospect of a referendum altogether.
By way of background, I think that’s sufficient, although if anyone can’t see the parallels crying out to be drawn between this scenario and our own political situation, your comments are as welcome as always.
A similar process in Australia to the one Harris-Quinney outlines in regard to conservative parties in Britain and elsewhere has arguably been under way in Australia for decades; it has affected both the Liberal Party and the ALP alike, although until fairly recently it has tended to disproportionately impact the Labor side. I want to look briefly at both — and e’er briefly, provide a little more historical context — but the question of “death or freedom” seems as apt in this country as it does when posed for the Tories.
If we look at the ALP first, in many respects the Whitlam government was the point at which a slow disconnect in the Labor Party began to smoulder.
This traditional party of the worker, the unionist, and the underprivileged suddenly began to embrace sweeping new constituencies: the arts, the cultural elites, academia, and white-collar professionals that had traditionally been the preserve of the Liberal Party and its predecessors.
40 years later, it is debatable as to whether the ALP will or in fact can ever again muster 40% or more of the primary vote at an election: minor parties — firstly the Australian Democrats (ironically set up by a disaffected Liberal) and more recently the
Communist Party Greens (er, sorry… 🙂 ) — have, broadly, come to account for about 10% of the electorate that once upon a time would have formed Labor’s Left faction.
This slow leakage of support from the ALP can be regarded as the inevitable schism between the party’s traditional constituency and the new ones Whitlam sought to open up to broaden Labor’s appeal; indeed, the slow march away from Labor has almost been a complete cycle, as many of the groups and lobbies attracted to Labor for the first time in the 1960s and 1970s have kept on marching…and marched on past the ALP into the waiting arms of the Greens.
(The Greens’ eschewing of a purely environmentally based agenda in favour of one largely built on the principles of hard socialism is, despite the contempt I freely express for it in this column, is another example of the same process).
In Labor’s case, I contend the process was papered over to some degree, as disaffection with the Fraser government and the election of Bob Hawke in 1983 delivered the ALP its most sustained era of political success. Yet even this respite was short-lived; Labor won elections in 1987 and (particularly) 1990 despite losing the primary vote, in 1990 quite decisively, and since 1990 has managed to pull 40% of the vote only three times in eight elections — and just 33.4% last year, a historical nadir.
On the Liberal side, conservative forces in Australia have been largely insulated from this kind of thing, with the notable exception of the madness of the Pauline Hanson/One Nation debacle after 1996; at that time the “Hanson factor” was directly responsible for the defeat of conservative administrations in Queensland and Western Australia, and was a factor in the defeat of the long-term CLP government in the Northern Territory as well.
And of course, the “Hanson factor” caused the federal Coalition to be narrowly re-elected with a minority of the primary vote in 1998.
Australia’s preferential voting system has shielded its major parties from confronting these phenomena; after all, the ALP finally returned to government — with a solid majority — in 2007, and Tony Abbott was elected in a canter last year.
But as popular support for the parties eats away, even preferences become less reliable as a vehicle upon which to arrive at victory, which is why Labor under Bill Shorten would be so unwise to let its current “winning” opinion poll leads (off a 34% primary vote) go to its collective head.
Now, of course, the Coalition is beginning to experience the same movement away from it as Labor has; after Hanson came something of a warning in the form of maverick Queensland MP (and ex-National) Bob Katter, who showed that 5-10% of the nominally Coalition vote was there to be seized by anyone who spoke the language of the disaffected anti-Labor voter.
Katter, of course, could never be described as a malignant political agent; his views might have been dated, and the policy ideas he championed thoroughly obsolete, harking back to a long-gone era of protected industries as they did.
But as the initial burst of support he harvested waned, the protest truck that rolled in to cart their votes away is directionless, malignant, wantonly destructive and unabashedly populist: the Palmer United Party, which is yet to make a single constructive contribution to politics in Australia after twelve months and four MPs in Canberra.
And how has this situation come to pass?
In Labor’s case, it was probably inevitable that some kind of realignment of the Left-of Centre vote would follow the Whitlam years.
The infusion of “new” constituencies into the ALP has also been accompanied by a collapse in the level of trade union representation in Australia, and that collapse has been compounded by the fact that in the main, the strongest unions left standing just happen to mostly be the white-collar ones representing civil servants, teachers, and healthcare professionals: so much for the traditional Labor “man on the tools.”
In most respects I really don’t care how much damage all of this inflicts on the ALP and for fairly obvious reasons I couldn’t care less if it never again holds office. But I do understand that a viable democratic system requires a viable alternative, and in this sense alone it is to be hoped the Labor Party gets its shit together. This column, however, quite reasonably has nothing to offer by way of suggestion where questions of it doing so are concerned.
But the Liberal Party — an entity which, despite the gap of a few years after I moved to Melbourne in 1998, I have been a member of for almost a quarter of a century — seems hopelessly compromised as the leaching of its support gathers pace. Of Australia’s major parties, it probably stands to be far harder hit by that process over the longer run.
I think I have been very objective about the performance of the Abbott government to date, and it is perhaps ironic that we’re talking about this now; one year on from its big election win, people like me are supposed to be celebrating.
But like David Cameron’s government, there is very little about Abbott’s that can be described as “conservative” (and we’ve talked about this too), although the distinction has to be drawn between what decently framed legislation has been mangled and/or rejected by the Senate, and what is simply an offence against the notion of conservative government and fidelity with the core constituency of the Liberal Party.
The ongoing failure to repeal the carbon tax and the blatant bribes of the Low Income Superannuation Contribution and the so-called Schoolkids’ Bonus, for example — both explicitly promised by Abbott before the election — is the fault of Clive Palmer and his malicious shenanigans.
On the other hand, the failure to even offer to try to abolish huge new spending programs in Education and disability support legislated by the Gillard government — in no small part to try to wreck the ability of a Liberal government to manage the budget — is a classic cock-up, and a win for political timidity and the desire not to offend those who would never vote Liberal anyway.
And some of the measures in the government’s budget should never have been included in it at all.
As I have said before, what the government’s actions, or attempted actions, have added up to, to date — with an eye on the obscenities of the NDIS and the palpably unaccountable Gonski spending on Education — is a “conservative” government that has contrived a budget which, if enacted, might indeed restore the country’s finances to a stable footing, but with the effect that taxes are raised simply to maintain unsustainable and unjustifiable high spending on items no conservative government should be legislating to facilitate.
And to see how many people are happy with it, the polls should indeed be heeded: the Labor lead the two-party measure shows up might indeed be a house built on sand, but the existential danger to the Abbott government (and the Liberal Party in the longer run) is no less real despite that fact.
It’s not a particularly fashionable view, and certainly not in Liberal Party inner circles, but I think the government’s standing (as measured by the polls) would be far more secure if it was trying to implement a low-tax, smaller government agenda and failing instead of persisting with the “all things to all people” approach that is so obviously pleasing no-one.
In other words — and despite anything the idiot leader of the Labor Party would have you believe — I think the Liberals are losing more support from their core base than they are from those as outraged as the cretin Shorten is about broken promises. After all, and whilst even government MPs remain strangely silent about this point, Tony Abbott was explicit before last year’s election that if things were worse than feared, the Liberals “might have to do some things that aren’t popular.”
So it has transpired; despite his honesty at the time, Abbott and his government have taken the hit.
And just in case anyone thinks I’m tearing into my own side unduly, the pandering to “new” constituencies that began with Whitlam has made similar considerations on the Labor side of the ledger old news: it, too, is too busy purporting to represent people it doesn’t to effectively represent those it arguably always has.
So what gives?
It may be, in the absence of any fundamental realignment of the parties with their bases, that Australian politics continues to fracture, factionalise (in the classic sense), and become much more disparate.
Certainly, the Left has adapted to this reality already.
Yet it remains to be seen how the Right either can or will, if the likes of Palmer continue to pull votes away from its core.
For one thing, Palmer’s party (despite Clive Palmer’s erroneous pronouncements to the contrary) have already proven to be an impediment to the Liberals’ ability to win elections, not an augmentation of it on preferences.
For another, the train wreck that constitutes the crossbench in the Senate — like the similar vehicular accident that existed in the house of Representatives between 2010 and 2013 — is a salutary illustration of the complete breakdown in effective governance that occurs in Australia when minor parties, Independents, and get-square wrecking balls like Palmer find their way into Houses of Parliament.
I’ll be interested to see what readers make of all of this, and if there is sufficient conversation around this subject I am happy to write a follow-up in a week or two to continue the discussion, but as I see it there are really only three possible outcomes.
The first is the one that (regrettably) isn’t going to happen: the restoration of first-past-the-post voting at Australian elections; this is the system that was set up in the first place, like most other democratic countries, and which was squandered by politicians (some of them, yes, were conservatives) in the name of getting an electoral advantage.
In every case, I contend that advantage has been overturned with the passage of time; at present the edge is unquestionably enjoyed by Labor, with its sky-high flows of Green preferences. But that, too, may pass — one way or another.
Even if there was the will to restore the electoral system to its unbroken state, such changes need to pass a Parliament where self-interest (and in many cases electoral oblivion) make any consideration of real principle utterly redundant.
So that leaves the major parties returning to what they traditionally stand for, with the challenges of assembling 50% of the vote after preferences by annexing floating voters to their core: a task, which raw voting numbers show, has gown increasingly difficult over the past 25 years.
Or the parties continuing to splinter — and the fallout from that landing God only knows where, and with what consequences for effective government.
What do people think? “Freedom” through a return to the traditional principles of the respective parties, or “Death” by the continuation of the present processes of a thousand sabre cuts?
All ideas and thoughts are welcomed, but if anyone wants to advocate proportional voting as any kind of solution at all, don’t be surprised if it’s me that slaps it down…
*No, I haven’t forgotten the House of Lords. But stripped of its power to scupper legislation a century ago, its purpose is as a true house of review, unlike the seething hotbed of undemocratic and unrepresentative malevolence that the Australian Senate — in its current form — constitutes.