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Party’s over for the two-horse poll race

10 May 2014 No Comment

AUSTRALIA’S political orthodoxy may be heading for a shake-up, with rising volatility in the electorate combining with a slowing economy to create difficulties for the major political parties.

The declining dominance of our so-called two-party system has been predicted many times, most notably when new parties rise to prominence.

The Australian Democrats, founded by ex-Liberal Don Chipp, once appeared likely to remain a long-term force, based on its platform of “keeping the bastards honest.

Pauline Hanson also exploited cynicism about the major parties when she founded One Nation, which for a short time blazed across our political landscape.

In recent years the Greens have attempted to play the role formerly filled by the Democrats — particularly when holding the balance of power in the Senate.

Recently Clive Palmer has attracted enough disaffected and renegade support to ensure that his Senate team will be in a powerful position at the end of next month.

The Liberal-Nationals Coalition campaigned relentlessly against Julia Gillard on the basis of her broken promise not to introduce a carbon tax, and Tony Abbott committed to lead a government that fulfilled its promises and did not make lame excuses. Faced with the difficult reality of governing and having to make large cuts in the budget, Abbott’s commitment is likely to be tested throughout the remainder of his first term in government.

The continuing revelations from within the NSW Liberal government at the hearings of the Independent Commission Against Corruption are enormously damaging for the party at the state and federal level.

Many Liberals are aghast that the party has been tainted by these allegations in a climate where Labor has been badly damaged by the antics of Eddie Obeid and his cronies.

Victorian Liberals had been hoping that the royal commission into union corruption would assist the re-election of the Napthine government — especially if any links between corrupt union officials and Victorian Labor MPs are exposed. But that hope may fade if the NSW Liberals continue to be mired in allegations of wrongdoing.

Recent polling demonstrates the depth of cynicism towards the major political parties, with pre-budget speculation of tax increases driving down support for the federal Coalition. But Labor was not the beneficiary of that loss of support, which shows the public is not yet ready to forgive the chronic failures under Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.

Another factor that could lead to increasing disillusionment with the major parties is if our economy suffers a downturn.

Australia has enjoyed 23 years of uninterrupted growth and in recent years many workers have taken advantage of low interest rates to buy in the housing market. This generation has experienced only a rising standard of living and has high expectations for their future and for their children.

Loss of income would hit this group particularly hard — especially as a significant percentage now have large mortgages. Given their lack of experience of difficult economic times, they are highly likely to take out their frustration against any political party they perceive to be responsible for mismanaging the economy and causing higher interest rates and growing unemployment.

Similarly, the impact of the ageing of Australia’s population will gather momentum as the baby boomer generation retires in large and increasing numbers. This group also has seen a large increase in living standards during their lifetimes and has a sense of entitlement to a long and comfortable retirement.

Governments that reduce per capita support for healthcare, aged care, welfare and other support structures are likely to suffer the wrath of this group.

The combination of rising cynicism and disillusionment with major political parties and a slowing economy is likely to play into the hands of the Greens and the Palmer United Party, in particular.

These parties will take maximum advantage of this volatile climate by making populist promises and cherry-picking issues on which to grandstand.

Palmer can direct his Senate team to vote against unpopular measures because he knows that he does not have to balance the budget. He can therefore appear to be defending the interests of the Australian people, even when acting against their long-term interests.

The Greens have long exploited this tactic with their contradictory policies on climate change, where they oppose nuclear power despite it being the only low-emission technology available that can supply the reliable 24/7 baseload power to support large cities and industry. Instead they promote wind and solar technology as a replacement for coal generation while being well aware that it is not capable presently of providing enough replacement power.

If there is a big move away from the major political parties, it may result in disgruntled factions within the major political parties splitting off to form new parties.

One of the great challenges for any new political party is to establish a solid base of members to form an organisational structure that supports it through policy development, providing volunteers to work on polling booths and to spread its message within the community.

That makes cannibalising an existing party an attractive option, if sufficient members can be enticed across.

An alternative strategy is to take the approach of the Tea Party movement, which has infiltrated the Republican Party in the US and has sought to change its platform.

Importantly, the rise of social media has broken down the effective monopoly on access to the broader public previously enjoyed by the major political players. Thus smaller political parties are now more able to gain public attention.

Should Australia ultimately end up with a multi-party democracy it would bring us more into line with other democracies.

In many countries it is utterly unthinkable for one party to gain a parliamentary majority. The world’s biggest democracy, India, has more than 1600 registered political parties and governments are routinely formed with multi-party coalitions. Indonesia similarly has a multi-party system, which regularly leads to formal and informal coalitions.

The challenge for Labor and the Coalition is to find a way to restore trust in the current political system. But this can come only from competent government that meets the high expectations of the voting public. This proved to be far too high a benchmark for the Rudd and Gillard administrations, and the Abbott government now faces the same challenge.

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University. His memoir, ‘My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey’, is available as an e-book.

‘The Weekend Australian’, May 10-11, 2014

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