In the parliamentary term from 1946 to 1949, the Chifley Labor government not only had a comfortable majority in the House of Representatives, but also controlled the senate with an overwhelming 33 to three majority. So if citizens were hoping for some serious house of review scrutiny of Chifley government initiatives, such as bank nationalisation, they were out of luck.
65 years later, the situation is very different. The Abbott government has a comfortable majority in the House of Representatives but, since 1 July 2014, has faced the unprecedented situation where the balance of power in the Senate is held by representatives of as many as six different minor parties (plus one independent). Far from being a useless rubber stamp or even an effective house of review, this Senate provides a major impediment to the government’s ability to deliver their desired policy outcomes.
This proliferation of minor parties tends to be seen as something of an affront to established political norms. After all, we have basically had a two-party system in Australia for over a century.
However, it is important to remember that in the first decade after federation there were, in Alfred Deakin’s famous phrase, ‘three elevens in the field’, as the Free Trade, Protectionist and Labor Parties brought roughly comparable numbers to the parliament. And far from producing inertia, this was a period of great activity—much of it bad—as the pillars of the Australian settlement such as White Australia, industry protection and wage arbitration were firmly established.
It was only after much of this had been done that the two non-Labor parties decided to merge in 1909. This event, known as the ‘Fusion’, created the Liberal versus Labor paradigm, which has basically been with us ever since. A decade later, this new paradigm accommodated the rise of the Country Party which, at least in federal politics, has been a reliable component of the non-Labor side of the political duopoly. The paradigm also survived the various schisms in the ALP where breakaways such as Billy Hughes and Joe Lyons swapped sides, leading to the Liberals being first the Nationalist and then the United Australia Party. But by the end of the Second World War, it was back to Liberal versus Labor.
For much of the twentieth century the two major parties, Labor and Coalition, dominated the electoral landscape to the exclusion of all others. In the four elections immediately after the Second World War, the Liberal-Country Party Coalition and the ALP received over 96 per cent of the primary vote. However, since the mid-1950s, this has been rare, with only the 95.8 per cent major party share in the post-dismissal election of 1975 getting close.
The reason has been that since the mid-1950s there has generally been at least one minor party able to garner five per cent of the vote. Between 1955 and 1972 it was the Democratic Labor Party (DLP); from 1977 to 2001 it was the Australian Democrats; and in more recent elections it has been the Greens.
The DLP was a product of a third major schism in the Labor Party. Unlike Billy Hughes and his followers in 1917 or Joe Lyons and his supporters in 1931, the anticommunist groupers who left the ALP in the mid-1950s did not head straight into the major party across the aisle. Instead, they operated as a separate minor party with a distinct ideology, and by directing preferences to the non-Labor side, they became an important factor in the Coalition’s political hegemony through to 1972. Their strategic political position also meant that they were able to achieve policy outcomes, most notably State aid to non-government schools.
Almost a mirror image of the DLP was a party which began as the Liberal Reform Movement, changed its name to the Australian Reform Movement and eventually became the Australia Party. It was headed by a number of prominent figures such as businessmen Gordon Barton and Ken Thomas and architect Harry Seidler. Its main plank was opposition to the Vietnam War, and by 1972 they were faithfully giving their preferences to Labor just as the DLP did to Liberals.
Another group of Liberal dissidents was the Liberal Movement in South Australia which, like the Australia Party, painted itself as more attuned to the rapid social change of the late 1960s than the other parties. The Australia Party and Liberal Movement had been considering a merger for some time when Liberal renegade Don Chipp came along. Chipp had some claims to represent the evolving social liberalism through his former role as a reforming customs minister in the Gorton government. He now claimed to be disillusioned with the major parties, although in reality his disillusionment was perhaps more driven by Malcolm Fraser’s failure to make him a minister.
Chipp claimed that voters yearned ‘for the emergence of a third political force, representing the middle of the road policies which would owe allegiance to no outside pressure group’. Thus at its formation in 1977, the Australian Democrats presented themselves as a party not ruled by vested interests but as an alternative to the alleged extremes of right and left.
Given that democratic political systems with two dominant parties have an inbuilt tendency for major parties to seek the middle ground, it is perhaps surprising that there has ever been scope for a third party to explicitly place itself there. It perhaps made some sense in the heated post-dismissal political environment to argue that there was a nicer alternative. Of course, in hindsight the ironies abound when we think of Chipp’s attempt to paint Fraser as a hard-right conservative ideologue.
The rationale for the Democrats became less clear when, under Hawke and Keating, the Labor Party embraced free market reforms. Gradually, the Democrats became a party that was more and more to the left of the two major parties, a role they ultimately lost to the Greens.
What both the DLP and Democrats demonstrated was their vulnerability to one big debacle. In the former case, the cynicism of DLP Senator Vince Gair’s acceptance of Gough Whitlam’s offer of the ambassadorship to Ireland killed the party in one blow at the double dissolution election in 1974. The Democrats’ death was slightly more prolonged but occurred due to irreconcilable internal differences— in particular, the decision of the majority to follow leader Meg Lees’ support of a revised GST.
Despite their significant third party roles in the Senate, neither the DLP nor the Democrats were able to break through in the House of Representatives. The DLP had its best chance at its first election when incumbents, originally elected as Labor members, tried to hang on but failed. The Democrats rolled the dice in 1990 by having popular leader Janine Haines contest the House of Representatives seat of Kingston in South Australia. She polled well, but did not win.
The single member constituency model in the House of Representatives has meant that these parties have struggled to get a member elected. However, at the same election in which Haines failed to win Kingston, independent Ted Mack won the seat of North Sydney, starting a trend which has seen a number of independents elected to the House of Representatives.
It has clearly been easier for an individual with a high-profile in a particular constituency to win than it has been for a representative of a minor party. While both the DLP and Democrats had some areas where they did better than other areas, the most recent leading minor party, the Greens, has benefited from being particularly strong in the inner suburbs of major cities, a factor highlighted by Adam Bandt winning the seat of Melbourne in 2010 and 2013.
Despite the major party vote share falling as low as 79 per cent at last year’s House of Representatives election, the odds are that the hung parliament we experienced from 2010 to 2013 will remain the exception rather than the rule. The Senate has become another matter entirely. The Howard government’s control of both houses between 2004 and 2007 is as likely to be as much of an exception to the modern day norm as the hung lower house of 2010 to 2013.
However, the Senate would have remained the domain of the major parties if not for a change to the voting system in 1948, with legislation being passed that replaced preferential voting with proportional representation (PR) for all future senate elections. This meant that in future the major parties would have senate representation closer to their share of the vote, rather than the winner-takes-all scenario often thrown up by preferential voting.
It was no coincidence that it was at the height of two party dominance that the major parties allowed the shift to proportional representation in the Senate in 1948. In the preceding two decades, only two minor parties had ever polled anywhere near the vote required for a quota, had PR been introduced: Social Credit in South Australia in 1937, and the Protestant People’s Party in New South Wales in 1946. Given this, it is not surprising, as John Uhr observed in a 1999 parliamentary paper on Why We Chose Proportional Representation, that ‘the major parties gave little thought to the possible effects in encouraging the formation of minor parties’. The proponents were more concerned with preventing future senates having a 33-3 majority again like that of 1946-1949. Or, as some more cynical Liberals suggested, the Chifley government, fearing defeat at the following year’s election, was trying to ensure it would retain control of the Senate.
Certainly the 1948 reforms have ensured that the losing party in a Reps election has still retained a viable presence in the Senate. From 1955 onwards, the presence of DLP, Democrats, Greens, and assorted other minor party senators has ensured that the senate has more fulfilled the role of house of review rather than rubber stamp. It has sometimes served a useful purpose in blocking bad legislation and it has sometimes stopped much needed reform.
However, while the decisions of the Parliament are obviously important, the broader political environment is crucial. Context affects perceptions of the same party. Current DLP Senator John Madigan seems to reliably represent the views of his party’s traditions going back to the 1950s. In the late 1950s, the fact that the DLP was protectionist did not distinguish it from any of the other parties. Today, Madigan’s uber-protectionist views do stand out. There is no doubt that in the context of the Cold War, the DLP was an important bulwark against communist influence. In a post-Cold War world, the remaining DLP agenda of opposing just about every economic reform of the past thirty years is far less appealing.
In terms of social conservatism one might place Family First alongside the DLP, but in minor parties the personality of individual senators matter a lot. Thus, one can safely say that the priorities of current Family First South Australian Senator Bob Day are somewhat different to those of his Victorian predecessor Stephen Fielding.
Obviously, all minor parties are to an extent trying to capitalise on dissatisfaction with the major parties. There is, however, a clear distinction between those with some sort of ideology (social conservatism, communism etc.) and those who wish to be purely a repository of protest, the Palmer United Party being the obvious current example of the latter. The issue for ideologically committed people is whether more will be achieved in supporting a minor party close to one’s views, or by supporting the broad church of a major party.
Sometimes a minor party can be a stimulant to a whole range of other actions. One good example was the Workers Party, founded in 1974 by a diverse range of believers in the free market, who were horrified by the direction Australia was heading in under the Whitlam government. The party had limited electoral impact under that name, or when renamed the Progress Party. Nonetheless, its free-market ideas were to have a major impact over the next two decades. And today the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)—a party which can be seen as a successor to the Workers Party—is in the Senate. It is hard to know how big a positive impact it will have, but the focus it will put on libertarian ideas will be just as important as whatever role it plays in passing or blocking legislation in the senate.
The current Senate has brought renewed focus by the major parties on the electoral system and there may well be changes before Australians vote again in 2016. As the 1948 changes have eventually shown, the structure of the democratic system is important. However, in the end, political ideas are what matter. Political parties, major or minor, are merely vehicles for their dissemination.