Welcome to the house of fun
The hiatus in federal politics since the election last weekend says a lot about the state of the two-party system in Australia.
Clearly, it’s in a state of flux.
As of last weekend, there are now three major parties in Australian politics and that will not change for many years to come. The Greens will be a part of government in Australia for the foreseeable future, as the Liberal Democrats are in England and so will the issues that they represent. Many pundits are saying that this will destabilise good government, but there is no logical reason to believe this. For years, democracy in Australia has been like watching two dinosaurs tearing chunks out of each other.
Our ancient Greek forefathers originally saw parliamentary debate as a way to raise the debater’s consciousness, but long ago our parliamentary system reduced this lofty ideal to a macho contest of wills where the last ego standing was the winner.
The internet, population pressure, climate change and the generally higher levels of awareness that are present in modern Western democracies are now demanding that we move on from this model. There is another fascinating phenomenon that has emerged from last week’s poll that has attracted less attention but will also shape politics in Australia in the years ahead. And that is the new minor parties and what they stand for.
Morality and lifestyle feature strongly in their agendas. In the Senate, Nick Xenophon already represents a moral perspective against gambling, while Family First’s Steve Fielding represented a moral view of a religious kind. This year’s Senate candidates included a mix of ideological parties (the Communists and the Climate Sceptics), business parties (Building Australia) and morality parties (The Secular Party).
Yet without a doubt the Australian Sex Party’s debut was the stand-out performance. Campaigning strongly against censorship and the internet filter, and advocating a national sex education curriculum to prevent the sexualisation of children, their vision for Australia ”as the most socially progressive country in the world” was supported by a number of people who were fed up with the nanny state our nation has become. Their claim to now be the ”fourth” party in Australian politics is probably justified.
The Sex Party’s Senate vote was strong enough to carry them through to the last couple of exclusions before the final Senate seat in each state was declared. In Victoria, the Sex Party’s leader, Fiona Patten, polled an equal primary vote with the Democratic Labor Party but couldn’t get the same preference flows to see her elected. In NSW, Sex Party preferences saw the Greens pick up the last Senate seat. In Queensland, Sex Party preferences to the Liberal Party, ahead of the Shooters Party, saw the Liberals pick up the last seat. In the Northern Territory, the Sex Party polled 4.5per cent of the vote and will now receive public funding. In some outback areas, they polled as high as 15 per cent.
The established lifestyle parties, like the Shooters and Fishers, didn’t do as well as Sex, but still polled enough to let governments know that lifestyle issues are each worth 60,000 votes or more around the nation. Also on 60,000 votes was the hybrid Liberal Democratic Party, which at one end supported Shooters but at the other supported Sex.
The preference swap between the LDP and the Sex Party in NSW and Victoria almost saw both of them get up. In contrast, the Secular Party’s debut lacked spirit. Notwithstanding the froth and bubble of Senate elections and the many different groups who are now having a go, increasingly one or two will rise to the surface each time and will stick around more than they have in the past. My prediction is that the Sex Party and one outdoor recreation type party will both get candidates elected to the Senate at the next federal election and that the Sex Party will win a seat in the upper house in Victoria in the state election in November.
Increasingly, we will see the Senate come to represent significant personal interest groups as well as the major political parties. The Greens may be feeling rather comfortable with their position in the Senate after last week, but as one door opens, another one closes.
The election of a Green member to the House of Representatives means they now move inexorably toward a machine politics of their own kind. They would do well to keep an eye on the horizon as the red Senate carpet is rolled out to the politics of belief, leisure and morality.
Ross Fitzgerald is Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University, and the author of 33 books.
The Canberra Times, 27 August 2010