What is Wrong with the Minor Parties?

Australian Politics, Democracy, Elections, Rundown

Over the weekend, the South Australian State Election and the Batman By-Election were held, and in South Australia, Jay Weatherill’s ALP were thrown out of office, while former ACTU President Ged Kearney retained the federal seat of Batman for the ALP.

Despite Labor’s misstep of announcing a policy that would result in retirees being taxed twice, and polls persistently suggesting that the Greens would achieve an upset victory in Batman, Labor held on and even managed a slight swing on the 2PP count.

In South Australia, the Liberals under Steven Marshall won power after over a decade in the wilderness, seeing off a sclerotic government and the spectre of Nick Xenophon’s SA Best party. Mainstream media pundits expected SA Best to achieve an electoral result similar to One Nation’s success in the 1998 Queensland State election, but despite his apparent popularity, he did not manage to win the seat of Hartley. In fact, the 2PP had him at ~41% to the Liberals’ ~59%. The only good news for SA Best is that they will likely win two seats in the Legislative Council.

The Australian Conservatives, however, have not been so fortunate. Despite the appeal of Cory Bernardi to conservative-minded Australians, he has not only failed to win a seat in the House of Assembly, but also lost an MLC. Robert Brokenshire MLC was elected in 2010 when Family First was still contesting elections, prior to their merger in 2017 with Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives.

The ABC on its page covering the SA election, had graphs pointing out the swings of contesting parties, and noted that Australian Conservatives, as the successor party of Family First, suffered a 2.7% swing against them. As for the Greens, they also suffered a 1.9% swing against them in the Legislative Council, and are struggling to make quota for their MLC, Tammy Franks. The other minor parties that ran were either wiped out or gained no traction.

In Batman, the Australian Conservatives were expected to have a somewhat stronger result than in Bennelong, due to the Liberals not running a candidate in this by-election, but despite the absence of the Liberals from the ballot paper, the Australian Conservatives only managed a paltry 6.41%, which isn’t of itself bad, but it certainly isn’t good.

Given that the Liberals at the previous federal election managed a vote of just under 20%, how is it that the Australian Conservatives managed less than a third of that result? It appears that the ~20% of people who voted Liberal in 2016 split their votes between the Australian Conservatives, Labor, the Greens, the Rise Up Australia Party, and the Australian Liberty Alliance. As a result, the swing to Labor was greater than the percentage of votes cast for the Australian Conservatives.

The question must be asked; what is wrong with the minor parties, especially in a political climate where almost everyone hates the major parties, regardless of wherever they consider themselves to be on the political spectrum?

Andrew Bolt, in his blog for the Herald Sun, wrote on Monday that while late 2017’s polls affirmed that one in three voters wanting neither of the major parties, in March “voters are now cynical about the minor parties, too”. With Bolt and other commentators remarking on the staggering decline of the minor parties’ appeal to the electorate, the question above becomes even more pertinent.

Most people who are sick of the major parties genuinely want to see a third-party arise, but most of these people don’t want to join a political party themselves, or if they’re already in a major party, they don’t want to leave their major party, and they ask, “why don’t the minor parties all get together into one party?”

Like the major parties, it is apparent that minor parties also struggle with internal politics, with massive egos seeing splits in parties before or just after they become registered. Minor parties are also notorious for being dominated by leaders who are insistent on their own plan being followed without any alteration or deviation, and to hell with anyone else who doesn’t agree with their way.

There are 49 registered parties with the AEC, as of March 2018, and excluding the Liberals, Nationals, and the ALP, there are 46 minor parties, including Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, and the Greens. Like other minor parties, Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives has been embroiled in turmoil of its own over management and leadership styles, with significant numbers of resignations (and even a few expulsions) from the party. As for other minor parties, who knows how much of a fracas is going on within them?

If minor parties ever want to be more than bit-players in the political game, then they need to find a way to work together and put aside their differences, and that means that grudges between veteran minor party leaders must also be put aside, because despite the fact that the major parties are struggling to maintain a primary vote above 30%, the minor parties are still nowhere near that.

The reason that the major parties are still able to run rings around minor parties is due to not only professionalised machines that concentrate purely on getting their candidates elected, but because most minor parties are yet to have a solid policy platform that can’t be torn down by the media on a whim.

Minor parties need to do the two things above, at the least, to have a chance at breaking the vice-like grip that the ALP and the Liberal Party have on our political system.