The decline but survival of Australia’s major political parties (a review of Sam Roggeveen’s Our Very Own Brexit)

A review of Sam Roggeveen’s Our Very Own Brexit., originally published on GoodReads in November 2019.

How vulnerable is Australia to the disruptive political developments in other Western countries – Trump in the US, Brexit and Corbyn in the UK, and the electoral devastation of former ruling political parties across Western Europe?

Sam Roggeveen, from the Lowy Institute in Sydney (disclosure: I have known Sam for many years and we had a recent private online discussion about his argument in this essay), is cautious but sees significant political risks. As in other countries, the Australian political parties that have been the foundation of post-WW2 stability have shrinking bases of support, leaving them open to internal insurgencies and political rivals.

One symptom of the old political system’s weakness, a rising vote for independent and minor party candidates, has been present for a long time. I wrote about this, as did many others, in the early 2000s and last year my Grattan Institute former colleagues published a detailed analysis of the characteristics and beliefs of minor party voters.

Roggeveen argues that the political, social and economic conditions on which the current big parties became dominant either no longer exist or are radically diminished. They therefore draw on a smaller base of strong supporters, leaving them vulnerable to stacked preselections, big swings and losing formerly safe seats.

When my then Grattan colleagues published their report I thought it was very interesting in itself, but missed what is perhaps a more important question: why, after many decades of trends undermining their support bases, do the Australian major parties remain so dominant? One of them is still always the lead party in any state or national government.

As Roggeveen argues, partly they have done this by legislating in their own favour, through public funding and by creating complex political funding laws that obstruct people trying to establish new parties. Public funding helps by-pass the former need for a mass base of grassroots campaigners – parties can reach voters through paid advertising.

But new parties are hard to start even without rigged campaign finance laws. The same broad trends in Australian society that have made things more difficult for major parties also affect minor parties. Successful parties emerge out of significant social groups with shared interests and existing organisational infrastructure.

With a more diverse and individualistic society now than in the peak 1950s to 1970s era of the two party system these preconditions are rare. The Greens will last because they have a sociological base that builds on the environment movement, is geographically concentrated, and strongly represented in some occupational groups. But the size of this base relative to the total population, and its reluctance to engage in the compromises of democratic politics, means that the Greens won’t govern in the foreseeable future. It is hard to see where any new party capable of governing its own right could come from.

The other minor parties we have seen in our parliaments over the last few decades rarely last more than a few election cycles, because even when there is a constituency for their views, such as there is for One Nation, the party organisation is too weak to take long-term advantage of it. And that I think partly reflects the lack of other loosely One Nation sympathetic institutions that would provide places to recruit and train the politicians and activists needed (even in an age of paid campaigning) to run a successful political party.

As the traditional major parties decline we could end up not with stable sets of alternatives (though different alternatives to now), but waves of personality driven pop-up parties like in Europe, which can join governing coalitions for a while, but fade quickly without the long-term loyalties and institutions needed to ride out political setbacks.

Because their current and potential rivals have significant weaknesses of their own, I suspect the traditional major political parties in Australia will remain the biggest players for a long time to come. Even if as Roggeveen says the ALP and Liberals only have a much-diminished 50,000 members each, that’s a lot more than minor parties have, and includes many experienced campaigners. The 2019 Australian Election Study is not out yet, but as of 2016 about one in five major party voters were very strong supporters, and about half were fairly strong. Several million voters each leaning their way is still a major political asset for the traditional major parties.

But several million sympathetic voters is not enough to win an election, and Roggeveen fears the desperate things major Australian political parties might do to survive in a world of weakened political allegiances. While careful to label it a worst-case scenario rather than a prediction, his Australian Brexit is a party deciding that the country is full, and campaigning on ending migration. He’s right that this could have significant consequences, especially if it is or seen as motivated by ethnic or cultural concerns. It would affect the economy, social relations within Australia, and our international standing.

In a political world in which very strange things keep happening I would not rule anything out, but I do not see major warning signs for this scenario. Although migration-caused congestion is a political issue, overall public attitudes to migration remain well within their normal range (as Roggeveen notes), and the response of political parties is business-as-usual incremental changes – fiddling with visa categories and quotas, along with infrastructure projects aimed at easing congestion problems. Nor do I see racial politics as very likely. While surveys consistently identify racist attitudes and behaviour in Australia, the constituency for them is much smaller than the constituency against.

While I doubt Roggeveen’s migration Australian Brexit scenario, I am convinced by his argument that there are social, political and economic trends making our historical party-driven parliamentary government more difficult and less effective. Small parliamentary majorities and divided support bases are making it hard to deal with major issues like climate change; Roggeveen also points to a confused response to the rise of China.

And things could get worse if we have the severe recession or unauthorised arrival migration crises that have destabilised politics in other countries, and our populist parties achieve the capable leadership that could fully exploit the political potential of discontent with the major parties.

Arguably so far, despite all the political and policy problems of the last 15 years, Australia is still a relatively lucky country. Depressing as Australian politics can be, it is still a lot better than in many other countries.

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