It is only one poll, but hardly an outlier. The latest Newspoll gives the major parties a combined primary vote of 75% which, if replicated at the election, would be the lowest since the Lang split in 1934. It would make this election a new post war low since, well, the last one. Labor still looks on track to win but it would do so with a lower primary than it managed in the great electoral disasters of 1975 and 1966.
Naturally there will come the crisp reply that we have a preferential voting system, so the two-party preferred will be all that counts at the end of the day, which it does – until it does not.
While the two-party preferred has concealed what has now been more than three decades of decline in the primary of the major parties, a cute feature is that when that decline does emerge, it comes through the parties’ safest seats since it is there where it easiest for a new party to get into second place and start swinging preferences its way.
This can be profoundly destabilising. Safe seats have been an integral part of internal party management, not just ensuring that the leader can avoid getting knocked off but as a reward for internal factional loyalty – the tragic failure of Batman to prove a sufficiently secure bolthole for Labor factional hack David Feeney being a case in point. It has already corroded the stability of the Nationals, has been unhelpful for Labor, and is now even starting to eat at the Liberals such as in the seats of their previous two Prime Ministers.
It is not as if the major parties are unstable enough already. They have been through a decade of leadership turmoil that, while it was often reduced just to a curious coincidence of personality contests, was really about both major parties struggling to move beyond their original rationale but falling back as it went nowhere.
Yet at least that provided some framework to what was going on underneath – a breakdown of the parties into micro-factions revolved around single leaders. With the framework of the conflicts over the past decade having largely exhausted themselves, it is likely we will see more of the splintering of the parties into micro-factions that would make the last decade look practically organised. It is not fanciful that both sides are dreading a loss in this election not just for the usual reasons, but what will happen inside of them as a result.
But still much of this is not really new. The major parties have been in decline since the 1980s, even if it is now so advanced that even entrenched political commentators are talking about it. Parties have, of course, been in decline before. Since Federation we have seen parties, like that of our first two Prime Ministers, come and go. What is unusual this time, and makes the latest Newspoll so striking, is the chaos that is kind of replacing them.
It does not matter how chaotic and shambolic the new parties that have emerged in the last few decades, voters keep drifting from the major parties towards them. The first intriguing thing this suggests is that voters are not merely switching from the major parties because of instability. Who on earth would be voting for One Nation or Clive Palmer’s latest political configuration in search of stability? It is not just that they are internally unstable but once elected they cannot even seem to last a parliamentary term as a political entity – yet they keep taking votes from the majors.
This raises fundamental and very awkward questions about both the nature of politics and for what the public is looking, to which so far there have been few responses.
Australia is not alone in seeing the decline in major parties but elsewhere this has usually been wrapped up in the dubious category of “populism”. Such populism does not seem to need to be very popular and the over-estimation of its appeal (and threat) seems more an attempt to rationalise what is really happening: the decay of the old than the emergence of something new.
As usual, in Australia things are clearer. Australia doesn’t really do populism. The early institutionalisation of labour and its political presence has given stability but a degree of entrenched non-engagement in the political process. It means the political system has been little troubled by disruption from the public – Lang was about the last and possibly only example of populism impacting the federal Australian political sphere.
So all we have is decay in the major parties, with even more decayed options waiting on the sidelines. This has insulated the Australian major parties from the sort of threat of collapse as in Europe, or internal takeover such as with Labour in the UK or the Republicans in the US.
However, this has not been all good news. What has become evident is that for all the insulation of the major parties from the voters, the political system needs the public and its reaffirmation every now and then.
This need for reaffirmation is evident from Labor this election. It only had to look stable against a Coalition unable to justify itself after Turnbull, and terrified of stating what it wants to do after Abbott. Instead Labor has felt the need to preen itself in what is, on paper, a far-reaching program in its own image that is as unconvincing as its leader.
The major parties are looking for affirmation from the public and are not even being met by baseball bats but boredom. In some sense populism, while disruptive to the established political system, at least maintains interest in some form of it. No sign of that in this sausagefest.