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Australia’s two-party system has past its use by date

By Ian Marsh - posted Thursday, 14 October 2010


The past federal election campaign would be a good joke if the issues facing the country were not so serious. These include climate change, how not to dissipate our next resource windfall, the two-speed economy, education, asylum seekers and refugees, to name just a few. But neither party has campaigned on any of these matters in any other than populist terms. Short term political incentives have wholly trumped longer term policy needs. National interests have been sidelined.

What is to be done? The answer to this question is ultimately a challenge to political imagination. Our imaginings might be guided by one of two responses. One would be based in the familiar two-party patterning of politics. Over the past hundred or so years, this construction of political life has created our basic political habits. It has created our taken-for-granted expectations about the way the game of politics is played.

The other response requires a different imaginative effort. It invites us to consider whether the assumptions that underpin the existing formal system still hold. If the answer is no, it asks us to identify the salient features, from a political perspective, of contemporary Australian society. Then we need to specify the challenges these create if the formal structure of politics is to do its job effectively.

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Let’s imagine your response is coloured by the traditional way the game has been played. What assumptions lie behind this construction of political life? To answer, we need to look back to the genesis of the system. The two-party system had its origins in the rise of the Labor Party as a mass political organisation. This occurred in Australia roughly from 1891. Important moments occurred in 1909, when the Protectionists and Free Traders merged, and again in 1946, when Sir Robert Menzies established the modern Liberal party. In this perspective the political game is fundamentally about two main parties periodically contending for public support.

But this is based on some further important background assumptions. One is about Australian society. It assumes that for political purposes we broadly divide in two - our community has a real social divide that each party broadly mirrors. This was indeed a valid assumption for many years. But does a binary divide still hold?

Two dominant parties pattern of politics also involves an assumption about their ideologies. It implies that the two parties present the community with real and divergent choices and that these are based on broader differences of political philosophy or ideology. In turn, these different philosophies are assumed to provide guidance about how to respond to particular issues. Further, taken together, the philosophies of the major parties broadly exhaust the repertoire of political possibility. Again, these were all valid assumptions for most of the past hundred years. But do any of them still hold?

Then there are other assumptions about the roles of the major party organisations. These are assumed to play a significant role, internalising many important political tasks. They mobilise activists. They set or at least influence party agendas. They cue broader partisan opinion. They integrate interest groups. For many years, the mass party organisations did indeed perform all these roles. But do they still contribute any of these capabilities?

All these assumptions were once reality. None of them accord with the contemporary scene. The community is now much more differentiated and pluralised. Australians exhibit a much wider spectrum of attachments and attitudes. Relatively small numbers of voters remain rusted on loyalists of the major parties. For their part, party organisations have virtually collapsed. They play almost no role in policy development or in activist mobilisation. Membership is insignificant. Power has flowed from the organisation and the members to party leaders. Party organisations have a minimal role in linking the community to politics. This has moved to the media: hence the corrupting 24-hour news cycle.

Finally, there is now often cross-party agreement about the general direction of policy. Witness the big change in Australian public policy that occurred after 1983. Tacit bipartisanship was the most important cause of its speed and degree. This continued through much of John Howard’s 11 years in government. But you would never know if you only listened to what the politicians say - and ignored what they actually do.

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The major parties often agree at least about the broad direction of policy. But this is a truth that dare not speak its name. All our present political incentives discourage such acknowledgement. This creates the incentives for opportunism, populism, manufactured difference and exaggeration - outcomes that now irritate many voters.

So this brings us to the second perspective. Recall what has changed. We are a much more diverse and pluralised community. We do not divide along binary lines. To think of ourselves in linear, left-right terms would be a gross distortion. A kaleidoscope is perhaps a better image.

We no longer have powerful party organisations. The remnants are shadows of their former selves. But none of the tasks that they once performed are carried out anywhere else in the political system. The media has filled this vacuum with generally baleful results. Short termism and manufactured difference predominates.

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About the Author

Ian Marsh is a professor at the Australian Innovation research centre, University of Tasmania. The study on which this article is based, (Democratic Decline, Democratic Renewal: Britain, Australia, New Zealand) will be published early 2011.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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