Is there really a continuing drift away from the major parties in Australian parties? Like many I have in recent years bought into the narrative that we live in an age of political disruption – one reflecting a more general diminishment in the sense of affiliation people have to historic institutions – and that this had led to a flight from the major parties.
Given the many surprises embedded in the re-election of the Morrison Government, my interest was piqued by an article on The Conversation, which repeated above aged narrative about disruption without any modification. It described, “another non-major party vote of close to 25 per cent…continuing a trend of waning faith in the parties of the political ‘establishment’”. As I said on the IPA’s Looking Forward Podcast recorded yesterday, that conclusion just didn’t seem right to me, and with a little more analysis I’m even surer it’s wrong.
Firstly, we only get to “25 per cent” by excluding The Greens. The Greens have been a pretty stable feature of Australian political life for three decades, with votes usually around 10 per cent (as in 2019) and sometimes a bit higher. In what sense are they not a ‘major party’? On AEC figures they received twice as many votes as The Nationals, who have been around for a hundred years, and the only reason we don’t systematically exclude The Nationals is that they tend to govern in Coalition with the Liberals (and/or are formally merged as in Queensland and the NT). The Greens have been in formal agreements with the ALP to enable the latter to govern in both Tasmania and in Canberra, and they have a preference flow back to the ALP, which is very high and very consistent.
Ultimately, the simple share of primary vote is not particularly useful as a guide to defining what is a major party if the discussion is about disruption and alienation from politics. When we consider the level of institutionalisation of Australian politics, which is concerned with recurring patterns of organisation and values, then longevity and consistency are much more relevant. So as a first step, let’s add back The Greens. Suddenly we see that 85 per cent of the primary (not 75 per cent) votes went to major parties.
Secondly, Pauline Hanson has also been around a long time. Her One Nation party, in its various guises, has had many ups and downs. Stints in jail and other difficulties have been barriers to the institutionalisation of One Nation as a party on the right which could serve a similar function to that of The Greens on the left, i.e.delivering the occasional parliamentarian but mainly being a reliable source of preferences to the Coalition. The Coalition must also believe this, as during the campaign it stared down calls (particularly from the ABC) to rule out preference deals with One Nation, and it certainly benefitted from the arrangements in obtaining its lower house majority. The impact was very important in critical Queensland seats and perhaps also Western Australia (where the party remains comparatively strong).
The point being, if we consider One Nation a major party not because of its raw numbers (as of today 370,938 votes or 2.99 per cent), but because it is an institutionalised part of Australia’s political spectrum (25 years more or less), then our cumulative tally rises to 88 per cent of valid votes cast for the major parties.
This is a long way from a narrative in which one-quarter of Australian voters are disaffected and stampeding away from the major parties. A narrative which –perhaps not coincidentally–obscures the size of the Coalition’s achievement in securing its come from behind victory.
Then there is Clive Palmer’s UAP. Half a million primary votes is nothing to be sneezed at. Personally I do not understand it, but it happened. I will not consider the UAP an institutionalised part of the Australian political landscape (will Clive really come up $50 million every three years?), and so will resist the temptation to include its 3.37 per cent to push my ‘major party’ share of the vote over 90 per cent. But ask me again in three year’s time (and if the UAP is not around, would not those voters drift to One Nation?).
The Australian political system – which includes both preferential voting and public funding – actually encourages the proliferation of a long tail of minor parties (hence the size of the Senate voting paper). In that context, one could argue that the share of the vote achieved by the major parties – as I have defined them – is remarkably high and shows how involved Australian voters are in their democracy and its institutions.
Finally, we note that for a time the voting rules in the Senate threw up candidates with ridiculously small percentages of the vote, and this fed the narrative of political disruption and disconnection from the major parties. But those rules have since been changed and the final list of senators elected in 2019 will overwhelmingly be drawn from the major parties. For commentators it’s time to throw out the tired old tropes and return the focus to the major parties and what they actually have in mind for our great nation. Clearly voters have already done that.