Australian democracy has delivered two tight results in the last few years raising questions about our major political parties.
In 2010 we had a hung parliament for the first time in 70 years following the Rudd Gillard Revolving Door Wars. After the Abbott/Turnbull spill in 2015 the 2016 election is still up in the air after a week of vote counting.
The average Australian’s trust in politicians is at a 20-year low and voters are currently nervous about the world economy since Brexit and with an unconventional US Presidential election ahead of us.
The major parties are declining in their membership base. Voters have little reason to trust many of their politicians giving way to a rise in support for minor parties and protest votes.
Labor is faced with its complex relationship with the unions. The Liberals’ ties with big business raise questions and the Nationals struggle for relevance as the traditional party of rural interests.
The power players of the major parties struggle to adapt to changing modern times delivering spin for the 24/7 media cycle but not understanding the average voter’s policy interests. This begs the question, who really controls our party system and is it time to reform the major parties?
Malcolm Turnbull seems to have underestimated popular dissatisfaction with major parties. His reforms to the Senate voting system last year triggered the rise of the centrist Nick Xenophon Team, the resurgence of the populist controversial One Nation party and support for various other minor parties in the Senate delivering anything but stability for the parliament.
“Crash through or crash”
Former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam once said that reform is hard “you either crash through or crash”. What is certain however is the move away from the major parties which begs the question is it time to accept party reform and allow shared balance of parties in the parliament, rather than a duopoly in power with a born to rule mentality?
Labor has always been the working man’s party, the party of social progress, innovation, and nation building. Labor has often governed in crisis times think back to Fisher in World War One, Scullin in the Depression, Curtin and Chifley in World War Two and the post war era afterwards, Whitlam during the 1970’s oil crisis days, Hawke/Keating during times of turbulent economic reformation and Rudd and Gillard during the GFC. People seem to have trusted Australian Labor the most to get through the tough times.
Labor has also provided us with big policy initiatives like Medicare, workers compensation, superannuation, national environmental protection and native title for our first Australians.
In all its 120 years of existence Labor has proven its worth as a political movement and become entrenched in the establishment.
The Liberal – National Coalition has been the party of the middle class – successful business orientated Australians. Remember Menzies’ “The Forgotten People” speech at the height of the second world war.
The Liberal Coalition has also been championed as the party in economic easy times with the exception of the Fraser era.
High employment, technological advancement, post war reconstruction, Aboriginal/Torres Strait enfranchisement, the Colombo Plan were major trademarks of the Menzies era. Establishing the Human Rights Commission and SBS, and introduction of Native Title rights in the NT were trademark achievements of the Fraser era. Strict gun laws, response to the Bali bombings and introducing the GST were achievements of the Howard era.
The major parties need reform
Despite these policy successes of the previous century both Labor and the Coalition have struggled in the 21st century. What does a 21st century major party duopoly represent? The trade union movement is in gradual decline, party membership is not what it once was decades ago and party policy is hard to come by in the Labor machine. People may call for a change of leader yet the issue of Labor’s problems go beyond the federal leader. Shorten’s Labor made some gains at the 2016 Federal Election against Turnbull but Labor still needs reform.
As for the Coalition, it is a movement beholden to business interest and industry lobbyists. In an era of the Panama leaks and many starting to call for a royal commission into the banking system in Australia little wonder why many are leaving in troves to join One Nation, NXT, and the Australian Liberty Alliance in the Liberal movement. Labor unlike the Coalition has made small grounds in way of reforming its structure.
When analysing the recent election take Labor for example Shorten’s policy focus was a superb vote attraction promising action on negative gearing, Medicare, NBN, Equal Marriage and childcare policies. Labor does however lack a policy infrastructure outside its National, and state conference base and still adheres to the old style of spin and policy reliance on advisors. This has worked for Labor before but it can be argued that Labor has done best in recent times of government when reaching out to external avenues; look at the NDIS – this initiative came from Rudd’s 2020 summit. The NBN was advocated by experts from the field. Lack of policy creativity and expertise has reduced credibility of the major parties in recent years.
Another question both parties face is party democratization. Ordinary voters are sick of the major parties revolving their leaders both in Government and Opposition without a say, especially in Labor where the vote has entrenched the power of machine men of the trade union movement.
Unions are not the problem – our lives are easier because of them. It is the career driven behaviour associated with people looking for a sweet ride into public life that corrupt the system without any real upskilling, training, or mentoring. People want their politicians experienced in the real world like them, seeing things from their point of view.
If the union base and Labor party are to grow and survive they must find ways of modernizing by not being afraid to invest time in external sources, building bridges with businesses and expanding peoples say in both the party and public in their processes when selecting the leaders, and local, state, and federal candidates. The case for Labor is to develop a whole cultural change within its ranks. The same must happen to the Coalition with regards to its own structural apparatus.
Stop the gravy train
The Abbott/Turnbull government royal commissions found levels of corruption in the union movement but much of it was trivialized in the media cycle. Much has also been said about the Panama leaks recently and the banking sector’s need for corruption watchdogs and investigations. If anything, all of this highlights the need for a federal corruption watchdog. Shorten’s move to consider a National ICAC proposal in line with the Greens was a no brainer, but this is only the start. A lack of transparency only raises voters’ suspicions. People are sick of the gravy train.
Give party members more say
With a more educated base in the party structures that looks to avenues outside its current party infrastructures with more direct say and contribution from active enriched party membership the parties can develop stronger policy. Trade unions must survive but in doing so working in par on a local level can ensure more grassroots engagement with the community and local ALP base. The same can be said for corporate and small business interest in both the Labor and especially the Coalition base. The major parties should look at educating their base through education bodies, elders mentoring and or seminars on how to be politically active and mentor in ways of leadership and respect, ethics should be above all else in ways on how best to serve the people.
A code of conduct should be explored in all political parties – major and minor. Factional interests must be downplayed especially for candidate selection at local, state, and federal levels. If the major party rank and file members are given a say on selection of order on party tickets (for example Senate candidates) and more say on who their candidates are come election time (either local candidates or party leaders) with less interference from executive based interests in the major parties, there will be more stability, more direction, less reason for voter disillusionment with the parties.
The major parties regardless will have to work through the heat of a contentious hung parliament through the art of negotiation and diplomacy with the minor parties but by doing so they must look within as well to modernize to create an incentive for people not to flock away from them either.
Perhaps Australia is moving away from the two major party system to a multi-party one similar to New Zealand and Canada. If this is the case the faceless men and women of the major parties must forsake their power interest for the greater good of their movements in order to survive. Nobody in any party whether it be Labor, Liberal, Greens, NXT, or One Nation etc. is born to rule, leadership comes from listening and acting upon everybody’s interests no matter where they come from in society, young or old, black or white, man or woman, gay or straight. We are all Australians and we all deserve a voice in what makes Australia great, a say. No matter which side is in government shortly this is the mood of the populace and it must be respected and acted upon.
People want action in their government.
Callen Sorensen – Karklis
Callen is an active member of the Australian Fabians Society, ALP, Crime Stoppers, Meals on Wheels and is a Quandamooka Noonucle Indigenous person with a strong commitment to community. Callen has worked in the retail and market research sectors and is currently a student at Griffith University.