Will we get a new opposition party?

There is a now familiar aftermath to significant Liberal defeats. People say that the Liberal Party is finished, and needs replacing as the opposition party. BA Santamaria took this view in the mid-1980s (see his essay in Australia at the Crossroads). Norman Abjorensen is the most frequent advocate of this position today, in his rather feverish Crikey contributions and elsewhere. John Quiggin has joined in the funeral rites, and Steve Biddulph argued in the SMH last week that the Greens would replace the Liberals as the main opposition party to Labor.

While I can see the theoretical argument as to why existing political alignments don’t neatly match the Australian population or contemporary issues, in practice the major parties are deeply entrenched. In the last 60 years, only three minor parties have had a lasting parliamentary presence outside of a Coalition with the Liberals, and of these only the Greens have a secure future.

While the Green sociological base is large enough to give them a base vote larger than the Democrats, it is not yet clear that the Greens can genuinely make the transition from an issue movement to a mass political party, with all the compromises and deals that would inevitably require. The consternation caused by the very idea of a preference deal with the Liberals in the 2006 Victorian state election, even though the Greens are unlikely to win lower-house seats without Liberal preferences, highlights the problem. Identity politics and democratic politics sit uneasily together.

The 7.5% Green House of Representatives vote in 2007 over-states their reliable support. The Australian Election Survey asks its respondents how they voted in the last two elections. The major parties have had voter turnover of about 20%, while the Greens have had turnover of 40-50%. People who would never sign up to the broader Green package use the Greens to send a message to the major parties on the environment or some other issue, but would be much less likely to do so if they thought the Greens might actually win the election. The Greens also pick up some of the general disgruntled vote (there was some vote-swapping going on between the Greens and One Nation, for example), which could easily go somewhere else.

The Greens are also helped now by not being taken too seriously by the media. Their policies get little attention or scrutiny from the media, but the closer they get to actually affecting the lives of media consumers the more critical coverage they will get. That would help scare off disgruntled voters who don’t support Green policies or voters who support them on only one or two issues.

Even if Labor and Liberal are not necessarily the political configurations we would form today if starting again, they each have huge advantages over any alternatives – existing party structures, existing MPs, and very significant existing support bases. The single-member electorate system used in most Australian lower houses also favours incumbent major parties. The Greens are not a short or medium term threat to either major party, and unless they fundamentally change their internal culture not a long-term threat either.

That leaves the Liberals as the only viable opposition party. For all the Liberal troubles that will be endlessly gone over in the coming years, more than 4 million people gave them a first preference vote on 24 November. The combined Coalition primary vote was only 130,000 behind the ALP’s primary vote, and the Liberal vote alone was nearly five times the Green primary. With transitory and cyclical factors working against the Liberals in 2007, those numbers under-state potential Liberal support. It will be far easier to adapt the Liberal Party to new political realities than to try to form a new political party.

40 thoughts on “Will we get a new opposition party?

  1. “The combined Coalition primary vote was only 130,000 behind the ALP’s primary vote”

    True, but misleading, because of the Greens. If they didn’t exist, nearly all of that vote would go to Labor.

    Anyway, you’ve missed the point of the arguments that Liberal Party is finished (a bit fanciful IMO). The point is that while there will always be a large right of centre party, it need not be the Liberal Party, which has existed only since 1946.

    If the Government was strategically far sighted, it would introduce proportional representation voting, NZ style. This would do far more damage to the Liberal Party than the Labor Party.

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  2. “If the Government was strategically far sighted, it would introduce proportional representation voting, NZ style. This would do far more damage to the Liberal Party than the Labor Party.”

    The previous government should have abolished compulsory preferential voting, to dilute the preference flow against it. Or even introduced first-past-the-post, to take advantage of the split left constituency.

    I don’t think any major party would introduce lower house PR – better to have your opponents clearly in power sometimes than end up with NZ/Europe type paralysis.

    I’m going to write more about the Liberals, but my basic point is that there is no remotely plausible case for a centre-right replacement.

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  3. I agree. What will have to change are the policy responses to what will likely be changing circumstances over the next few years. This does not mean, as Abjorensen insists, that the Liberal “brand” is incapable of regeneration.

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  4. Andrew, I think you are right, particularly in regard to the advantages of incumbency (in the system, rather than government) for the Liberals and the positioning of The Greens. Folk who haven’t ventured deep into the bowels of a political party tend to not understand the importance of a machine, even if it is of the Wizard of Oz style of machine.

    The Greens regard too many issues as incommensurable and therefore are opposed to the sort of horse trading that is necessary for implementing major policy platforms. Their inability to deliver real changes will minimize their electoral base to those that vote only on symbolic grounds.

    The Greens have a history of of looking down on the Democrats but fail to understand that, to reach major party status, horse trading is necessary and that when the Dems did that (notably, on the GST) enough of the the symbolic voters moved elsewhere. Ankle-biters they’ll most likely remain … but I cannot deny that I’d enjoy watching their downfall should they try to reconcile their (mainly nonsensical) policies with their desire for power.

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  5. You haven’t mentioned the Nationals at all, which perhaps reflects a Victoria-centric view. They are the main opposition party at the state level here in Queensland, and the Liberals here are in a total mess.

    My point was that this has to change if the anti-Labor parties are to win again, and that the changes will probably involve a fairly radical restructuring of the Liberals as well as the Nationals.

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  6. Tanya’s comment about the importance of a party machine is interesting.

    People complain that the major parties don’t stand for anything. But perhaps their role is to be brokers bringing policies and positions together with constituencies. Andrew seems to be saying that the Greens lack the necessary ideological flexibility to be successful as a major.

    Nelson recently said that “liberalism is basically about the belief in supporting hard work and self sacrifice…” I guess what he means is capital ‘L’ Liberalism rather than philosophical liberalism.

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  7. So Andrew you think the Liberals should have abolished compulsory preferntial voting so they could stay in power by splitting the left vote?

    Sounds like a tyrant in the making.

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  8. And Tanya, i’d be interested to know exactly what Green’s policies are “nonsensical”? Not in a ‘they’re not right-wing policies therefore they’re nonsensical’ kind of a way, but in a ‘well if that was to happen would the sky really fall in kind of a way’?

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  9. Spiro says
    If the Government was strategically far sighted, it would introduce proportional representation voting, NZ style. This would do far more damage to the Liberal Party than the Labor Party.

    Have you ever given it some thought, Spiro, that the ALP right would much prefer the Libs than they would a far left party like the greens gaining seats in the lower house?

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  10. No Jc, in the fact that you would rather cement the two-party system at the expense of diversity, and you would rather see one side of australian politics destroyed so the other side could stay in power. people who think their side has all the answers are fundamentalists. And ultimately, when the tables turned and the right was split, you’d want to change the laws again.

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  11. Optional preferential voting wouldn’t necessarily harm Labor. They have it in Queensland and Beattie won successive elections in landslides.

    JC, it depends on what you mean by prefer. The ALP Right might well prefer the Liberals to the Greens philosophically, though the ALP right is not what it once was. Peter Garrett is a member of the Right faction, for instance.

    But what the ALP Right most craves is power, and if that can be achieved by getting Greens into the HOR, and keeping the Liberals out, then that is what they will prefer.

    The Liberal Party is an uneasy mix of conservatives and philsophical liberals. The glue that has held them together is the spoils of office. Without that, they have nothing in common, which is why the Liberal Party is so bad at opposition. Under a PR system, they would split asunder, with each part realising that it would easier to go their own way than stack each other’s branches.

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  12. spiros wrote:

    The Liberal Party is an uneasy mix of conservatives and philsophical liberals.

    Hardly. 99% of the “philosophical liberals” are all conservatives too, just to a different degree. If the organisation was renamed the “reluctantly liberal” party, they’d fix their image problem straight away.

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  13. The glue that holds all political parties together is spoils of office – all oppositions are poor for most of their tenure. Yet, at some point they get themselves together and win – this is a system that generally works well for the electorate; although it is hard on the pollies themselves. At the end the electorate knows that they have elected people who have done the very hard yards.

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  14. “Optional preferential voting wouldn’t necessarily harm Labor. They have it in Queensland and Beattie won successive elections in landslides. ”

    Spiros – Precisely. The Goss Labor government introduced optional preferential because they faced two centre-right parties, the Nats and Libs. Federally, the Coalition has supported compulsory preferential to minimise the electoral costs where there are both Liberal and National candidates.

    The political landscape has changed for Labor, so outside Qld compulsory preferential makes more sense for them.

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  15. Wotever: “i’d be interested to know exactly what Green’s policies are “nonsensical”?”

    There are quite a few to choose from but how about this one: “Abolish fees for educational services at public universities for Australian students and forgive HECS debts and FEE-HELP debt incurred at public universities.”

    Do the Greens have any idea of the cost of this or are they just thinking that the upper-middle class will be thrilled that under Bob Brown they would have even more welfare than under Howard … and forget that everyone will have to pay even more in taxes?? No one who knows anything about costs and participation in higher education could ever justify this policy. Regressive doesn’t even begin to describe it.

    Someone who is in a more charitable mood might suggest that one of the reasons why minor parties remain minor parties is that they simply do not have the resources to obtain sensible policy advice.

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  16. Peter Garrett is a member of the Right faction, for instance.

    No, he isn’t, he doesn’t caucus with either national faction. As a matter of fact, it was Laurie Brereton exacting post-retirement revenge on his own faction which won Garrett the seat.
    Sinclair, I agree that patronage is fuel for the fire of Party politics, but Labor has another source to fall back on in Opposition: the trade union movement. The Liberals are far more disadvantaged by electoral defeat than their rivals.

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  17. As of 30 June 2007, total student debts were $14.5 billion.

    As Tanya said, it would be middle class welfare at its worst not to collect this.

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  18. “the upper-middle class will be thrilled that under Bob Brown they would have even more welfare than under Howard”

    The upper middle class by and large pay their fees upfront so as to get the 20% discount. Forgiving HECS debts might not help them much at all.

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  19. “The Liberals are far more disadvantaged by electoral defeat than their rivals.”

    Maybe, yet they have been more electorally successful than the ALP – cold comfort at the moment, I know.

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  20. The Liberals just don’t so do opposition well. Federally, it is true that they haven’t had much practice at it, but they also do opposition really badly in NSW, where they are seldom out of it. In fact, they are no good at it everywhere.

    This is because the Liberal Party exists as a party to be in power and to dispense privilege and patronage to their friends and supporters. (As George Megalogenis memorably said, John Howard ran a Frequent Flyer government, with rewards for loyalty.) Of course this is true of all parties, but the Liberals more than most. Above all, the Liberal Party is not a party of ideas. The Labor Party at least genuflects in the direction of ideas, and this can be quite sustaining in opposition. The one time the Liberals flirted with serious ideas, under John Hewson, it all ended in tears.

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  21. Of course this is true of all parties, but the Liberals more than most.

    You really are a stooge for propaganda, Spiro. As an example the water side and the building trades of course weren’t/aren’t patronage. Get a life and stop spreading propaganda, Mr. Tiffoso.

    And by the way , you were supposed to expain a little while ago why regulated markets (not patronage 🙂 ) make more economic sense than free markets.

    You skulked out of the request like a dog stealing dinner.

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  22. The Labor Party at least genuflects in the direction of ideas, and this can be quite sustaining in opposition.

    Have you ever considered that there is actually a constituency for a party that sells itself as not having ideas beyond reform? The market is the pace for ideas. I live for the day when we have a party which says I’ll take 10% of your labour to pay for bear necessities for the real disadvantaged, military, policing and the courts but don’t come to me for ideas on hw to spend you money as it is not my job.

    I think you’re delirious for south European socialism, Spiro. You may be disappointed, even in Rudd.

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  23. Spiros, it wasn’t the party who gave Hewson the pineapple, it was the electorate – quite rightly so. I suspect the ALP ‘genuflects in the direction of ideas’ while the Liberals are perhaps more protestant – successful government, however, is likely to implement the better ideas.

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  24. Sinclair, that was my point. Their one excursion into ideas-based policy lost them the unlosable election. Since then, they’ve gone no deeper than a Donald Duck comic.

    JC, fottiti, testa di merda.

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  25. Spiro, just agreed with me … in Italian. He’s too macho to apologise in Strine. Thanks Sipro LOL.

    Spiro:

    If I may:

    I distinctly recall Rudd being accused by all and sundry of acting like a HP laser copier when it came to the coalition’s policies. The only dfference I can see was the lap top deal for kids over year 8. Is this the party of ideas?

    I’m still wating for your economic argument against free labor market’s , Mr Tiffoso. ANd no, checking for typos will not get you a passing grade. LOL.

    Come on channel a dead economist if you have to, but lets see the argument.

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  26. “free labor market’s”

    Congrats JC, a spelling error and a syntax error in consecutive words.

    Answer my question, pompinaio, about what workchoices had to do with free markets, and I’ll answer yours.

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  27. This is what I wrote on this topic when it was discussed on Catallaxy. Sorry for the style:

    I think people who predict the death of Liberals are extremely shallow. I can’t believe anyone can talk about it seriously. But let’s hear from the professsor:

    “The conservatives haven’t won a state or territory election this century,”

    I can make it better:

    “The conservatives haven’t won a state or territory election this milenium,”

    Maybe someone should remind our esteemed professor that there have barely been 7 years of
    this century, and the conservatives have won national elections twice.

    “Of course, things could go badly wrong for Rudd or for one of the state governments. But if they don’t,… ”

    But they WILL. It happens to EVERY government sooner or later. There are NO exceptions.

    We can’t know when it happens, maybe in 3 years, maybe in 9 years. But it will happen.

    It is true of course that Nationals are in decline and will either disappear or merge with Libs. But for many people the Liberal party is their moderate conservative (and for some, liberal) voice, and there is no reason they will not emerge victorious next time round. If anything, the labor governments everywhere will soon make Liberals a desirable alternative as people get extremely tired of “climate change” and “working families” and other niceties all over the place.

    May I also remind people that the death of the Tories was predicted after the 1997 landslide win by the New Labor, followed by Tony Blair actually adopting many of the Tory policies (compounded by a deep rift in the Tory party over Europe). Yet people would probably agree that a Tory win in the UK is now right around the corner.

    Of course prior to that there were predictions of the death of the Labor party in the UK – one year before Mrs Thatcher was swept from power by her own colleagues.

    I just love those forecasters.

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  28. Be careful mentioning the professor, Boris as he is very law suit happy even if someone use his own words. in fact he’s the only person i know who would try to sue if you use his own arguments against him. Lol.

    Spiro

    Please how some manners and learn to use a knife and fork. I asked first.

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  29. Spiros: “The upper middle class by and large pay their fees upfront so as to get the 20% discount. Forgiving HECS debts might not help them much at all.”

    It’s more complicated than that. But, the Greens’ proposal to forgive all debt would open the way for those that paid up-front to demand a return of their contributions. However, the greater impact would come from the policy to remove HECS altogether. Not that any of this will ever happen.

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  30. Tanya,
    Making universities fee-free wouldn’t necessarily mean taxing the poor to provide middle-class privilege – you could tax the rich to pay for it.

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  31. The idea that the Libs are toast is obscene. Come on, only three years ago, Labor’s primary vote was 38% and all the blogs and media were grumbling about “Opposition for three terms….” People who post on blogs have an extremely distorted view of how the rest of the electorate votes. Most are rusted on Useful Idiots who would vote Liberal/Labor no matter what. A thankfully rapidly growing proportion of the electorate are now swingers, with the most politically potent being Howard’s Batters.

    Howard’s Battler’s don’t give a rat’s about genteel seminar-room catfights over how more or less Brendan Nelson is Lockean vs. Hayekian vs. Nozichian vs. Rawlsian “liberal.” They couldn’t give a rat’s about the subtleties of Rudd’s “Xian socialism meets economic conservative in the context of an Australian multicultural social democracy.” All of this onanism is shouted down by three words. Interest. Rate. Rise.

    Folks watch two sides duke it out for three years over very basic issues, and right at the end tick whichever side ticks the most boxes.

    Ideology Begone!

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  32. Andrew, I agree with most of what you write about the Liberals and the Greens – particularly about the Greens’ problems in translating an activist movement into a viable political party.

    But I disagree where you write: “The Greens are also helped now by not being taken too seriously by the media. Their policies get little attention or scrutiny from the media, but the closer they get to actually affecting the lives of media consumers the more critical coverage they will get. That would help scare off disgruntled voters who don’t support Green policies or voters who support them on only one or two issues.”

    Whenever an election is looming, you can bet on a number of alarmist articles in the mainstream press alerting people that the Greens want to inject their children with gay heroin, or words to that effect. The media almost never considers Greens policies rationally; their drugs policy, for example, is probably the most sensible of all the parties if you consider evidence-based research and the views of drug and alcohol experts, yet the Greens are demonised as extreme radicals, I suspect merely because the political centre has shifted so far to the right. The Greens are not helped at all by the current level of media attention, which dismisses them off-hand.

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  33. Spiros

    The upper middle class by and large pay their fees upfront so as to get the 20% discount. Forgiving HECS debts might not help them much at all.

    If this were true (which it is not), they would not be upper middle class for very long, with such a poor grasp of the time value of money. That interest-free twenty percent could be put to much more productive use over the seven to ten year period.

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  34. John Greenfield

    what you overlook is that upper middle class uni students are very often beneficiaries from family trusts. Once they turn 18, it is very tax effective for the family’s investment income to be sent their way (on paper) – they pay less tax than Daddy or Mummy (usually Daddy) on a given investment income. But if this investment income exceeds the HECS payback income threshold, then they have to pay back their HECS even while they are still students. So there is no seven to ten year wait while they have an interest free loan on th 20 per cent.

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  35. John G
    Ignore Spiro. When he isn’t laying out propaganda for his “soccer team” he’s lurking around thinking of new ways to steal money from people through government compulsion.

    The kid is lost cause. He also owes me an explanation as to why he thinks regulated labor markets offer a superior outcome to free labor markets.

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  36. The upper middle class by and large pay their fees upfront so as to get the 20% discount. Forgiving HECS debts might not help them much at all…

    …what you overlook is that upper middle class uni students are very often beneficiaries from family trusts.

    Generalise much Spiro?

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