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Insiders V Outsiders: The implications for minor parties

By Geoff Ward - posted Tuesday, 22 February 2005

Mark Latham may have vacated politics but he left behind some ideas. His "insider-outsider" theory describing a political divide is one idea that appeals to me.

While comments made in his 2002 Menzies lecture dealt with the major parties, they hold much greater relevance for the minor parties. Their smaller organisations are more susceptible to the influences of insiders and the possible control of the Senate/Upper houses is a powerful incentive for activist groups. With this in mind, I will extract what I think are the relevant points and will apply them to the Democrats, as I experienced them from 1999 until 2002

I agree that “the powerful centre of our society, concentrated in the international heart of the major cities, talks a different language to suburban communities. In lifestyle and political values they are poles apart”. To suburban, I would add regional and rural communities as they have even greater “language” problems. The Australian Electoral Commission’s electorate demographics clearly show the differences between the inner city electorates and the rest which have led to these “two distinct political cultures”.


I believe that members of the “powerful centre” are defined by attitude but are geographically grouped in the inner cities and more desirable suburbs. Members of this group living elsewhere are tied to the “heart of our major cities” by this common attitude.

Latham argued that this “insiders-outsiders” divide now best describes the political spectrum. I support this view. My rural background has infused my values with a strong dose of “outsider”. I think Latham recognised that the time has come to acknowledge the strength of these “outsider” feelings throughout the wider community. He comments “This is a logical consequence of a better educated and informed electorate. People want a bigger say in the decision-making process…. They are not prepared to be left on the outside…” I agree.

He then divided the “insiders” into two combating groups, the conservatives and the progressive left. The first group had been insiders forever: the second emerged in the 1970’s. He suggested that the expansion of higher education, public broadcasting and other cultural programs produced this second group. I would rather suggest that the gentrification of the inner cities brought together the critical mass of people with “shared lifestyle experiences with proximity to power and influence” that forms the basis of the progressive left insiders.

From 1998/99 the Australian Democrats rapidly came under the control of the inner city, progressive left. Their senate voting trends in NSW show relatively much greater support in the inner city electorates for the 1998 Federal election, leading to or led by progressive left policies and control. This in turn led to “outsiders”, both within the Party and out in the electorate, becoming marginalised and so withdrawing support.

While the progressive left activists within the NSW Democrats could see the possibility of winning a lower house inner city seat in 2001, they did not want to accept the existence of the “two distinct political cultures”. They did not acknowledge that outsider support is essential for Senate success and consequently the result is history.

All minor parties seeking Senate Upper House representation will meet the same fate as the Democrats if insider control, either conservative or progressive left, is allowed to flourish within these parties. Equally, minor outside parties will find it difficult without the clout of either conservative or left progressive insiders. For minor parties to progress beyond protest group status, this broad-based support is essential.


Six months ago I believed that, with continuing gentrification, the progressive left would become increasingly powerful and continue to use their logistical advantage for example, ease of meeting attendance, proximity to power and influence, access to information and so on. I believed they would continue to attempt to dominate political parties and, if successful, would continue to limit the electoral performance of those parties seeking Senate/Upper House representation or control of the Lower Houses.

However Federal Election 2004 saw the electorate reject the progressive left insiders. Their electoral support was seen to be much less than they would have us believe.

Of the two left progressive minor parties, the Democrats failed while the Greens polled relatively poorly. Latham, the outsider, was overwhelmed by Labor’s left progressive insiders. Labor, thanks to this group, was then also rejected at the ballot box. The rejection of the left progressive’s social engineering saw the emergence of Family First and the gifting of the Senate to Howard.

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About the Author

Geoff Ward was a NSW analysis officer and a concerned citizen.

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