Wednesday, 12 August 2015

We Shouldn’t Be So Ready To Give Up On Two-Party Politics

Updated version of a previous article as published in Junkee, 30 July 2015

It seems we can hardly go a day without hitting an “all-new low” in Australian politics. The conventional wisdom is that this terrible state of affairs is so terrible that now is indeed the worst period in our political history. Ever.

But while some of this gnashing of teeth is rightly warranted – particularly when it comes down to the demonisation of refugees – it might be beneficial to cool our jets, and look at the situation rationally. Yes, much of the current political debate is pretty ordinary; some of it’s downright shitty. But has Australia ever really enjoyed an era of enlightened political exchange?

I’m going to put forward an entirely unpopular idea: the frightfully unsexy two-party system has provided Australia with largely dependable (if sometimes uninspiring) governance, and should continue to do so. The way to fix our current malaise is not to destroy the two party system — as has been regularly suggested in the subtext of a variety of Junkee articles recently penned by Alex McKinnon and Jane Gilmore — but to reinvigorate it.

Despite loud protestations to the contrary, the vast majority of the electorate still votes for one of the two major parties. Come next election day, you can bet around 80% of voters will mark “1” in the Labor or Liberal/National box. This figure jumps as high as 90% if you include the Greens. Given our alleged distaste and distrust for political parties, you’d expect this figure to have plummeted over the past decade. It hasn’t.

Hardly a system on shaky ground.

But only an ignorant fool would say political parties are in rude health. Hardly anybody trusts them, their memberships have been declining for decades and, as Richard Cooke noted in a brilliant piece in The Monthly, there exists a fundamental disconnect between the political class who claim to represent us and our desires for the country.

Sometimes this separation is a good thing: public opinion was vehemently against Malcolm Fraser’s Vietnamese refugee migration policy, but Fraser thankfully stuck to his guns and ignored the electorate. At other times, the dismissal of public opinion is a bad thing: marriage equality, the Iraq War… Take your pick.

Given the behaviour of Abbott and his band of moral delinquents, it’s completely understandable that many want do away with the two-party system, viewing it as the cause of our malaise. For some, Labor is not a real alternative — but is a parliament untouched by political parties a better solution?

#ALPConf2015: What Progressives Get Wrong About The Labor Party
Full disclosure: I am a paid-up, card-carrying member of the Australian Labor Party, but I don’t work for the Labor Party or any associated entity.

I’m not one of those shiny-suited twenty-somethings that Junkee’s Alex McKinnon described in his ALP Conference coverage last week, who dream of preselection in a safe seat (not that there’s anything wrong with ambition). I am, if there can be such a thing, a common or garden-variety party member who likes getting together with a few mates and talking about the state of affairs.

The ALP National Conference provided a great opportunity to do that. As a first time attendee, it was great to walk among political giants. Walking through the foyer, one is as likely to run into a local branch member as they are a former state premier.

I can understand how some of the party conventions may appear strange or even quaint to outsiders, but to me they’re not really the cause for the public confusion or mass panic that McKinnon was suggesting.

Alex McKinnon argues that, like a totalitarian entity, “[a]bove all, the good of the Party comes first”. This is largely true, but it’s less ominous that it sounds. All political parties — indeed most institutions, private and public — operate this way.

Political parties in government or opposition are next to useless if they’re not united. One need only look at the decade-long Liberal leadership spat between John Howard and Andrew Peacock, or the more recent Rudd/Gillard killing season to understand how destructive broken parties can be. Disunity is death; unity a requirement for success.

Oh, and factions? I could probably write a whole thing on factions, but they’re really not as mysterious as he makes out. The political science literature defines factions as sub-parties within parties. Rather than being the source of constant conflict that is frequently claimed, formal factionalism can be a source of order and stability, public fracas notwithstanding.

Factions are an inevitable part of social life. In any grouping, we find ourselves drawn towards like-minded individuals in order to achieve our goals within the broader organisation. The Labor Party is no different, except that our factions are formalised.

Yes, factional politics can be destructive and they should be kept in check, but Labor’s factional fracas are no more damaging than similar power struggles in non-Labor parties. Arguably, there is more reason to be concerned about the opaque personality-driven factional tendencies within the Liberal Party and the Greens than the nakedly obvious demarcations within Labor — but the public don’t seem to see it that way.

Do not be afraid of the organisational structure of the Australian Labor Party. It’s really not that terrifying or incomprehensible.

Two Parties Preferred: Why More Independent Representatives In Parliament Is Not The Best Idea
Like it or not, two-party politics is the natural state of affairs in the House of Representatives, where government is formed. It has been this way since 1910, when non-Labor parties united to fight the emerging ALP after a period of unstable minority governments. The ALP, unlike other parties of the day, steadily increased its vote through party unity and discipline, forming the first majority federal government in Australian history at the 1910 election.

As we saw from the 43rd Parliament, minority government isn’t necessarily unworkable, but it was clear to non-Labor MPs early in the last century that a formal party structure is necessary to win elections and achieve their policy goals. These two groupings — Labor and non-Labor — have dominated Australian politics ever since.

We often forget that the point of politics is, at its core, to win elections. It may sound cynical, but without power, the best policies are doomed to remain little more than a thought bubble. And while Junkee readers might not agree with specific Labor Party policies, it remains the only progressive party with a realistic chance of winning elections and implementing policies.

This is the fundamental reality of our system. Minor parties and independent candidates, including the Greens, almost never win House of Representatives seats — and without those seats, they have no ability to implement the policies they put forward. Sure, some voters might favour minor parties in the hope they can “hold the government to account”, but this is a fairly abstract and nebulous idea with no guarantee of an outcome, and has almost no effect in electing members of the House of Representatives.

Complain as you might about the electoral system, but it is what it is — and a change in systems, such as proportional representation, isn’t likely to occur. Parties have to work within the framework provided and, for better or for worse, this makes the two major parties our best hope for political change. This reality makes it even more important to have strong, representative parties that reflect the desires of all Australians.

As Jane Gilmore correctly notes, the 43rd ‘minority’ Parliament was a particularly productive one, despite the perpetual droning (and mad running skilz) of the Abbott opposition. Complex and important legislation was debated and negotiated through the House and Senate with remarkable deftness.

In particular, independent MPs Tony Windsor, Rob Oakshott and Andrew Wilkie (all former major party members) represented their electorates and the national interest with great integrity. Therefore, Jane’s suggestion that we find more quality independent candidates to run is a good idea, yeah?

Hold up there.

Our electoral system tends to favour a two-party outcome, and our hybrid ‘Washminster’ system of responsible government is a majoritarian system. Put simply, our parliament is designed to work best with a clear majority government, and clear minority opposition.

The certainty afforded by our system means the major parties can make policy announcements and promises knowing that they’ll be in a position to implement them should they win government. An independent MP, on the other hand, cannot. Sure, they can make all sorts of promises about sticking it to those out-of-touch latté-swilling, craft beer-drinking city folk, but ultimately they have no way of implementing promises if they win.

Let’s remember, the great nation-building policies of the 43rd Parliament didn’t come from the independent MPs; they largely originated from the Labor government who could count on the power of executive office to implement them.

And herein lies another problem with independent MPs: For every thoughtful and erudite Windsor or Oakshott, there are hardline conservatives like Pauline Hanson or Brian Harradine who find their way into parliament.

Harradine was a Catholic conservative senator who represented Tasmania in the Senate for thirty years, until 2005. He opposed abortion, stem-cell research and pretty much anything that constituted modernity. In a case of the independent MP tail wagging the governmental dog, Harradine ensured the abortion pill RU486 was not imported into the country, and that Australian foreign aid never funded family planning involving abortion advice.

But he was also a conviction politician with Catholic social values, refusing to support the GST, opposing the Iraq War and securing a $350mil payment for Tasmania. Harradine’s curious mix of values demonstrates the challenge of finding suitable candidates. Oh, and need we mention Bob Katter?

Here’s how I see increased independent representation in parliament working out: it would likely be a melting pot of conservatives and progressives, just as today’s parliament is. We can assume they would have campaigned on issues near and dear to them, promising better services, a new road and a school or something, sometimes with no plan to implement them. If elected, these independents might then offer to support a major party to form government in exchange for projects in their electorates. Some might call this pork barrelling.

In order to maximise power, like-minded independents would then be wise to band together to form a voting bloc. Perhaps one MP would offer support for another’s bill in exchange for support on their own. They might lunch together, informally talking about events of the day. Who knows, they might even formalise an agreement and before you know it you’ve got a brand-new political party — precisely of the type this whole idea was trying to avoid.

What would be achieved in such a parliament? My guess is not a lot. Our august parliamentary system is designed around a majority to get shit done. As the 43rd Parliament demonstrated, the electorate doesn’t take well to the horse-trading of minority government. This isn’t Abbottesque fear mongering; it’s a political and constitutional fact. Our two major parties, with a workable majority, therefore remain the best basis for transformation of our political debate.

I share much of Jane Gilmore’s frustration with politics, but it is not the system I am frustrated with: it’s the party members themselves. There is a gap between the political class who claim to represent us and our desires for the country. We need to bridge that gap.

Party Over Here
As fellow Labor member Luke Mansillo argued in The Guardian recently, “people need to participate in party politics to get the parties they want … if you want a more progressive Labor party, make it”. While this may come across as terribly naive, it’s actually more pragmatic than you might think. Parties need people because parties are people.

Although our major parties dominate electoral politics, ordinary membership of these organisations has been declining for decades. Neither party publishes verifiable figures, but leaked figures put the ALP’s membership at around 54,000 nationally and the Liberal Party at around 40-45,000 (although the Liberals claim double this). Not much chop considering a couple of local sport(s) teams could more than account for the nation’s major party membership and have enough left over to start another one.

This decline in membership has left the parties without the diversity of membership required to best serve the country. So how can we fix the situation? Simple: go and join a major political party. Instead of signing a petition, sign a membership form and pay your dues. Go and bolster their terminal membership with ordinary people like yourselves, and ensure that they don’t fall prey to undue sectional and special interests.

GetUp! claims a membership of 800,000 mostly young and politically engaged people. Imagine if even 10 per cent of that group signed up to the Labor Party today? 80,000 new progressive members would reinvigorate the party unlike any drawn out rules committee changes ever could. Hell — imagine if more thoughtful, non-reactionary conservatives (if that’s not an oxymoron) joined the Liberal Party?

Instead of finding many cats to herd across the wilds of this brown land, I plead that you do this seemingly non-radical act. Because while you might not like either of them, the two major political parties are the most viable vehicle for actual political change.

Thanks to the good folk at Junkee for affording me a platform

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