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.