Australia enters the post-party phase of Western democracy

Originally published on The Interpreter.

Two federal elections ago, in 2016, the primary vote for the Labor Party and the Liberal-Nationals coalition reached record lows, while the number of voters who put an independent or minor party first on their ballot paper reached new highs. Former Labor leader Kim Beazley observed at the time that, with those trends expected to continue, Australia might be just two elections away from a Trump-like disruption.

Two elections later, that judgment looks half-prescient. Electoral politics was certainly disrupted last Saturday, but not by a Trump-like figure. Instead, we saw the rise of a loose-knit group of professional women known as the teal independents. We’ll come back to them in a moment, but first, a word on how Australia got to this point.

The central drama of Western democratic politics today, Australia included, is major-party decline. Traditional centre-right and centre-left parties were established to represent large, coherent social and economic groups, most importantly unionised labour, business, and various religions. But the economic and social model on which these parties were founded began to change in the 1950s and has now largely disappeared, thanks to neoliberalism, deindustrialisation, the feminisation and casualisation of the workforce, the decline of organised religion, the decline of unionism, and the collapse of communism.

As a result, these traditional big parties steadily lost members and voters. In response, the big parties found a new way to survive: they would cease to represent specific social and economic groups and instead become broad churches. And they wouldn’t need a large membership to do it: campaigning went from labour-intensive to capital intensive, so the emphasis moved from attracting members to attracting donors.

This is what I described in my 2019 book Our Very Own Brexit as “hollowing out”: the public drifts away from the major parties, and the parties respond by moving away from the public. Rather than being the expression of a mass movement, politics becomes the province of a small cadre of professionals who train most of their adult lives to be politicians or operatives.

This model of major-party survival has obvious limits; you can’t bleed voters and members indefinitely. Brexit, the rise of European populism, Macron and Trump were clear signs that the model was reaching those limits. A key point here is that the disruption to major-party dominance does not necessarily need to come from the radical right or left; it just has to come from outside the established parties. That was the lesson from Macron’s election in France, and it was also the lesson of Trump, who was as near as American presidential politics gets to being an independent and who, compared to those he ran against in the GOP primaries, was not particularly right wing.

Which brings us to the teal wave that swept over Australian federal politics last Saturday. On the interim count, the Labor and Coalition primary vote continued the systematic decline that Beazley identified in 2016, and which had in fact begun in the 1980s. Only 32 per cent of Australians placed the ALP first on their ballots, a result which, as the ABC’s Andrew Probyn put it, would in other circumstances be enough to trigger talk of an existential crisis in the ALP. The Coalition went backwards also to 35 per cent of the primary vote. For independents and minor parties combined, the figure has now risen to 33 per cent.

That’s a roughly even three-way split, but don’t mistake this shift for a move towards a third force in Australian politics. During the campaign, Liberal party politicians expressed frustration that, despite sharing branding and a major funder, the teal candidates refused to out themselves as a de facto party. It was a revealing category error – they were trying to mentally fit this new phenomenon onto a familiar 20th century model. But Western politics has entered a post-party phase where movements and charismatic individuals rise and fall quickly on the back of generous funding and smart campaigning, but with no settled social and economic base. The number of independents and small parties in our parliament will continue to grow, but the composition of that group is likely to change a lot at each election. There will be no settled “third force”.

What happens to the major parties in this post-party environment? For one thing, they will continue to shrink. For another, they will need to get used to governing with wafer-thin majorities or as a minority. This is common in many Western democracies so there is every reason to think Australia can cope. In fact, if it strengthens the oversight role of the House of Representatives, it will likely improve overall governance.

It also means that the authority of Australian governments will continue to decline. This is partly a matter of declining vote numbers for the major parties, but also a function of hollowing out. Politics is not something the public participates in any longer, whether through joining a party or through membership of a union, church or professional organisation. Instead, the public spectates or just ignores formal politics altogether, intervening only at election time.

If the teal wave really is Australia’s version of the Trump disruption, then Australia will have got off lightly. But there is nothing to indicate that the teals have had the last word on this subject. The argument I made in Our Very Own Brexit is that the hollowing out of politics around the democratic West has already had radical consequences, and that Australia may not be spared.

About Sam Roggeveen

Sam Roggeveen is Director of the Lowy Institute’s International Security Program. Before joining the Lowy Institute, Sam was a senior strategic analyst in the Office of National Assessments. In 2019 he wrote "Our Very Own Brexit: Australia's Hollow Politics and Where it Could Lead Us", about the hollowing out of Western democracy and its implications for Australia. Sam writes for newspapers and magazines in Australia and around the world, and is a regular commentator on the Lowy Institute’s digital magazine, The Interpreter, of which he was the founding editor from 2007 to 2014. Sam is also editor of the Lowy Institute Papers.
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Antonios Sarhanis
Admin
1 month ago

While I agree with the sentiment of this article, I think there’s a missing cause of the splintering: the internet.
Not too long ago, basically everyone was listening to Michael Jackson, Prince and Madonna. They were megastars famous the world over. There wasn’t much else to do: they were ubiquitous due to the relatively few sources of media available to people.
This is no longer a thing. It might never be a thing again. Everyone is splintered off into their own personally-curated media world. 
And this means small, targeted campaigns into electorates plugged into the internet can really take off.
I was struck by how well Monique Ryan spoke at a townhall in her electorate and how free she was to just attack Frydenberg because she was independent. Frydenberg was completely hamstrung by not being able to diverge from the company line — he couldn’t just say “yes, I think Barnaby is an idiot as well”.
But what was really striking is that I was even able to watch parts of the townhall. I did not watch a single second of the various leaders’ debates but I watched many minutes of that townhall more than once. The hits were so brutal, much more brutal than anything a journalist has ever dished up to Frydenberg, that it was compelling viewing for my own predilections. I personally curated my media to include a highly valued viewing experience: seeing Frydenberg squirm. It seems the voters of Kooyong enjoyed the experience too! 
It appears the advantage is being taken by independents who can freely speak. Previously those independents couldn’t get any air time. Now, that doesn’t even matter anymore, and being able to speak freely and honestly becomes a distinct advantage when it can so easily be heard over the droning of major party politicians stuck saying rehashed lines.

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
1 month ago

Thanks for this — can you give us some links to bits of the Monique Ryan Town Hall meetings you liked. I can’t find them on YouTube putting in Monique Ryan Town Hall.

rdbrown
rdbrown
1 month ago
Reply to  Nicholas Gruen

Perhaps “IN FULL: Josh Frydenberg, Monique Ryan face off at Kooyong People’s Forum debate” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AnqNbn3S0sA

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
1 month ago
Reply to  rdbrown

Antonios was talking about the town hall meetings, NOT the debate — which I watched quite a bit of. I was surprised Frydenberg did as well as he did given the shit hand he was holding. Just goes to show what you can do with a bit of practice.

Antonios Sarhanis
Admin
1 month ago
Reply to  Nicholas Gruen

I didn’t know I meant the debate! I thought it was a townhall because the people in the audience were asking the questions.
I thought Frydenberg was brutalised. Nevertheless, I also agree with you about Frydenberg’s performance: it was pretty good given the circumstances.
But what was striking is how much better the debate was than any other debate I’ve ever seen. The lack of politician speak from Monique I think made Josh speak more like a human being.

Chris Lloyd
Chris Lloyd
1 month ago

That’s an interesting point. In particular, Josh was unable to say clearly to teh good folks of Kooyong: “If you vote for Ryan you are voting for Dutton to be the next leader of the Liberal party.”

Conrad
Conrad
1 month ago

I don’t think Macron is an example of the party system disappearing at all — I think it’s the opposite — that if there are no good parties, another will emerge that does appeal to a reasonable section of the population. In Macron’s case, his party appeals to center-right liberals. So all that is really changing are the underlying groups which the parties are appealing too.
I also don’t see why a third party couldn’t emerge here in the long term — you just need someone rich enough to run things, smart enough to look decent, and with fairly centrist politics. That and the fact that the loony vote is so high in France is why Macron got in. Try and imagine what will be left if the Liberals keep moving further to the right after losing their normal members and if Labor and the Libs get more corrupt in terms of being driven by interest groups.
Perhaps someone needs to encourage someone like Mike Cannon-Brooks to form such a party. You would have someone with environmental credentials no-one could doubt, lots of money to get things going, and presumably have reasonably liberal views about running businesses. This would capture the centre and the vote of people that think the environment is important but arn’t into all the left-wing stuff of the Greens (in the same way that the Green movement got integrated into some of the major parties in Germany).

Not Trampis
1 month ago

Does not the preferential system together with compulsory voting deny any sort of trumpism. Getting out the base is meaningless as everyone has to vote. Preferential voting means the median voter theory is constant.
Sorry I don’t think Kim thought it through.

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
1 month ago
Reply to  Not Trampis

Those things are helpful, but they’re no guarantee.

Sam Roggeveen
29 days ago
Reply to  Not Trampis

I think you might be equating ‘Trumpism’ with ideological extremism. But I think of him more as someone who disrupted the party duopoly. Same with Macron.
That could happen here too, and arguably it already has. Rudd was, in a way, a ‘post-party’ figure, in that he was factionally unaligned (though it was said disdainfully that his faction was Newspoll) and distrusted by the unions. You could say the same for Turnbull, who was not a dyed in the wool party loyalist. But in those cases, the parties were strong enough to fight back through figures like Gillard, Abbott and Morrison.
Our voting system will continue to make it hard for the prime minister to come from anywhere except the two major parties, but the parties are very weak now, and therefore vulnerable to being hijacked by a wealthy, charismatic outsider. When the next Rudd or Turnbull comes along, the parties may not have the resources to resist.

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
29 days ago
Reply to  Sam Roggeveen

Thanks Sam,
You smuggled ‘wealthy’ into your recipe for a successful outsider. It’s true that Turnbull and Rudd both were, but I don’t think that was necessary to their appeal. Someone like Bob Hawke could have done what Rudd did without piles of money. Likewise, with Turnbull his independent wealth helped him with cred with his party, but wasn’t necessary to it.
And I realise I’ve got my advanced stage of my life thinking that the spelling was “died in the wool” because of the who done it of the same name (and spelling) by Ngaio Marsh which I encountered when young. But your spelling, in addition to being correct, makes so much more sense ;)