Jul 4, 2016

Federal election 2016: major parties bury their heads in the sand

Jennifer Oriel, Columnist

In an election contest fought between two former lawyers, the devil’s advocate is holding court. On current projections, the 45th parliament may be hung and the senate stalled with minor parties holding sway over the legislation that provoked the double dissolution.

In the wake of Tony Abbott’s ousting, some conservatives were praying for a pox on both parliamentary houses. They may get it.

We will not know until vote counting resumes tomorrow whether Australia will be forced to endure a term of minority government. But numbers indicate there may be another rise in the vote for minor parties. In the 2013 election, minor parties gained 21.1 per cent of the vote. On Sunday morning, the percentage for the 2016 election indicated a significant increase.

When one in five voters prefer a minor party, the two-party system is taxed. When the proportion of voters rejecting major parties edges towards a quarter of the population, the two-party system begins to fail.

The question of why Australians are voting for minor parties can only be answered by considering the relative influence of push and pull factors on voting patterns. To date, there is little reliable research on the subject.

In the 2013 election, mass dissatisfaction with Labor’s internal disunity and the instability it produced in the political fabric of the nation provoked a mass exodus. While there has been a voter backlash against the ousting of Abbott, the swing appears less dramatic at this stage. In the bellwether seat of Eden-Monaro, conservatives deserted Liberal powerbroker Peter Hendy, widely reputed to have played a central role in the knifing of Abbott. On election night, Labor victor Mike Kelly reported that lifelong Liberal voters told him they were voting against the party on principle. Turnbull’s innovation minister Wyatt Roy has also lost his seat, but the overall pattern of the much anticipated protest vote is too inconsistent to draw concrete conclusions.

Despite some Right-leaning commentators circulating lists of Turnbull backers and urging a protest vote against them, many have retained their seats and there have been swings against MPs on both sides of the Coalition’s internecine war.

The swing against the Coalition appears part protest vote and part pull factor. The minor parties with more than 1 per cent of the vote are the Greens, the Nick Xenophon Team, Family First, the Christian Democratic Party and One Nation. As of yesterday, independents had 2.9 per cent of the vote. Among the minor parties, three campaigned on cultural values to the right of Turnbull’s more centrist agenda. The Greens are hard Left and NXT is mixed, but Nick Xenophon regularly blocked Coalition reforms in the senate.

The minor parties offer a revolutionary politics propelled by anti-establishment fervour. However much the major parties may have earned public mistrust, the minor party revolt is making democracies increasingly ungovernable. The major parties should reflect on their role in compromising effective democratic government, but they cling to a defensive arrogance where humility and corrective action are clearly required.

The arrogance of the major parties was on show during election night coverage. And I must confess that the degree of it surprised me. On the ABC, Scott Morrison and Penny Wong were asked about why the minor parties were on the ascendant. Both replied with variations on the theme that the world is in flux, people are afraid of change and seek the certainty of easy answers provided by minor party candidates. For such intelligent politicians, the conclusion was spectacularly superficial. If people were afraid of change, they wouldn’t vote for it by electing minor party candidates whose combined effect is an anti-establishment revolt.

The success of minor parties across the West owes to a growing gulf between the values of the political class and the people. The result is a perceived sense of contempt among the former for the latter leading to actions read broadly as anti-democratic.

Such actions include the proposal for MPs to deny the people’s vote for Brexit, imposing porous border policy in the US, and ousting sitting prime ministers in Australia. While such actions may be legally and constitutionally permissible, they raise questions about whether politicians are sacrificing the principles that sustain liberal democracy — government by the people and for the people, secular statehood, freedom of speech, sovereignty and secure borders ­— for temporal gain.

Minor parties rise to the degree that major parties ignore the growing perception that they are governing by the people but for themselves. On election night, both Chris Uhlmann and Leigh Sales tried to encourage politicians to reflect on how major parties were influencing the rise of minor parties. Uhlmann suggested to Wong and Morrison that people might be voting for minor parties because they disliked the values of Labor and the Coalition. It fell on deaf ears. When Julie Bishop said she didn’t understand the success of the Xenophon Team, Sales proposed that voters dislike what the major parties are offering.

Few concrete conclusions can be drawn about the election until the votes are fully counted. However, early results indicate that minor parties are likely to exercise significant power in the new government. It is clearly beneficial to have a majority government capable of fulfilling its election mandate. To that end, the allure of the minor parties should neither be ignored nor dismissed.

The future of the two-party system is at risk ­— and with it, the ability of Australian governments to govern for the people.

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