A question from a politics unit this semester got me thinking … is the two party system dead in Australia? It became the subject of my own academic paper – but not before I wanted to put it in blog form. But first:
Australia’s two party system has been a constant component of our national fabric since 1910 when the first majority government was elected. In the century that has followed, countless independent candidates and minor parties have tried to break the status quo with comparatively little success. However, this year could be a tipping point – and if the two party dominance is to survive, this year has to be the year.
The two party system has almost always been a feature of Australian politics since Federation and especially since compulsory voting was introduced in 1912. When the 2016 election count finished, 147 of the 150 seats in the House of Representatives were taken up by either the Coalition or the Labor Party.
What a difference three years makes. There are now eight crossbenchers and the Morrison government is a notional minority. This campaign, alone, there have been more retirements in recent memory than battlers and there have been more disendorsements and “resignations” than Get Smart punchlines.
All technical factors considered, the results alone show that the single-member electorate formation of government, coupled with the preferential voting system has kept the major parties solidly in power.
Compulsory voting helps the dominance along too – when voters who don’t have an interest in politics go to the ballot boxes as we all must do every three years, they tend to vote for the familiar. An oft-estimate provided by the ABC’s Antony Green suggests that up to a third of the Australian electorate casts a vote on election day purely because it’s the law.
That’s pretty gross if you think about it… or at least revealing.
To be fair though, there are plenty of reasons why the two-party system is going to be shaken up. Some politics professors will argue that it already HAS been shaken up and that the trend of hung parliaments prove this. Other voters simply go for the “protest vote” argument:
‘All the major parties sound the same, and the leaders are really uninspiring.’
‘I’ve given up on the major parties already and have been voting independent/Greens/One Nation etc.’
And because of his influence this time around:
‘Hey, that Clive bloke’s been doing the rounds lately! He sounds good!’
And my favourite one of all (this one was actually published in the Sydney Morning Herald as an op-ed):
There is a new lexicon and set of mannerisms solely aimed at avoiding the question, pushing the party line and obfuscating either the truth or any independent thought that might inform the debate. It’s Orwellian double-think live on the 24-hour news cycle.“David Fist” in the SMH, April 2018
I won’t perpetuate any point of view: that’s not my job and I certainly won’t advocate for either the end of the two party system or for more minor parties. If you’re a fan of one or the other, you can always just look at the federal House of Representatives to support the existing status quo and the federal Senate to support the potential new reality of Australian politics.
But here’s the thing: major party first preferences have collapsed by 25% in just 10 years (2007 to 2016). While state elections may show that the major parties have enhanced their strongholds at this level (ala South Australia and Tasmania, 2018/NSW 2019), state elections are (supposedly) fought on state issues.
Hung parliaments may have been just the symptom – this election cycle could well decide if king-making power is just a sign of the times or the changing of the guard: that the two party system is about to become who knows how many!
I’ll finish by borrowing a comment from a columnist I love (and others absolutely loathe) – Joe Hildebrand:
It is time for a new party, a new movement, to put the national interest ahead of factional interests. Government by the best and brightest, elected by all instead of manipulated by extremists.
Joe Hildebrand, “‘We can’t even @#$% things up properly’: Why we need a new party”, July 2017
And if that is not an idea we are ready for then it is an idea we don’t deserve.
While it sounds virtuous, I think we all would love this idea as long as it can be executed word for word. Over to you now.
Before I go, I’d just like to say this will be my last post for the Australia Votes blog. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading what I do and hope you’ve learnt something interesting out of it. I know I have.