It’s the system, stupid: why Australia’s two party system has passed its use by date

In the wake of a spectacularly lacklustre campaign season – and with the ultimate result still unclear — Ian Marsh looks at what’s ailing the two party system. In the first of two articles on political reform, he looks at how we got to the present impasse.

The recent election campaign would have been a good joke if the issues facing the country were not so serious. These include climate change, how not to dissipate our next resource windfall, the two speed economy, education, asylum seekers and refugees — to name just a few. But neither party campaigned on any of these matters in any other than populist terms. Short term political incentives wholly trumped longer term policy needs. National interests were sidelined. The result of the weekend’s poll was anything but equivocal and the record number of informal votes testified to a high level of voter dissatisfction.

What is to be done? The answer to this question is ultimately a challenge to political imagination. One way of responding is based in the familiar two party patterning of politics – but there is another which requires an altogether different imaginative effort.

Let’s imagine your response is shaped by the traditional way the game has been played. What assumptions lie behind this construction of political life? To answer, we need to look back to the genesis of the present system.

The two party system had its origins in the rise of the Labor Party as a mass political organisation. This occurred in Australia roughly from 1891. Important moments occurred in 1909, when the Protectionists and Free Traders merged, and again in 1946, when Sir Robert Menzies established the modern Liberal party. In this perspective the political game is fundamentally about two main parties periodically contending for public support.

This approach makes an important background assumptions about Australian society. It assumes that for political purposes we broadly divide in two – our community has a real social divide that each party broadly mirrors. This was indeed a valid assumption for many years. But does a binary divide still hold?

Pointing to two dominant parties also involves making assumptions about their ideologies. It suggests that the two parties present the community with real and divergent choices and that these are based on broader differences of political philosophy or ideology. These have been valid assumptions for most of the past hundred years. But do they still hold?

There are further assumptions about the roles of the major party organisations. These are assumed to play a significant role which involves internalising many important political tasks. They mobilise activists. They set or at least influence party agendas. They cue broader partisan opinion. They integrate interest groups. For many years, the mass party organisations did indeed perform all these roles. But do they still contribute any of these capabilities?

All these assumptions were once reality but none of them accord with the contemporary scene. The community is now much more differentiated and pluralised. Australians exhibit a much wider spectrum of attachments and attitudes. Relatively small numbers of voters remain rusted on loyalists of the major parties. For their part, party organisations have virtually collapsed. They play almost no role in policy development or in activist mobilisation. Membership is insignificant and real power has flowed to party leaders. Party organisations have a minimal role in linking the community to politics. This has moved to the media: hence the corrupting 24-hour news cycle.

Finally, there is now often cross-party agreement about the general direction of policy. Witness the big change in Australian public policy that occurred after 1983. Tacit bipartisanship was the most important cause of its speed and degree. This continued through much of John Howard’s 11 years in government. The major parties often agree at least about the broad direction of policy. But this is a truth that dare not speak its name. All our present political incentives discourage such acknowledgement. This creates the incentives for opportunism, populism, manufactured difference and exaggeration, outcomes that now irritate many voters.

So this brings us to the second perspective. Recall what has changed. We are a much more diverse and pluralised community. We do not divide along binary lines. To think of ourselves in linear, left-right terms would be a gross distortion. A kaleidoscope is perhaps a better image.

We no longer have powerful party organisations. The remnants are shadows of their former selves. But none of the tasks that they once performed are carried out anywhere else in the political system. The media has filled this vacuum with generally baleful results. Short termism and manufactured difference predominates.

We no longer have two parties divided by a clear programmatic orientation. Rather the major parties agree on many aspects of the broad direction of policy, particularly in relation to the economy. Real disagreement often mostly concerns priorities or important details. You would never know.

Or the major parties may agree and freeze out other voices that have a right to be heard. They may also disagree profoundly about particular issues like gay marriage, environmental protection, euthanasia, education reform etc. But where they do disagree you can’t read responses off a central program or ideology. Each case must be taken on its merits.

If this is the reality of political life in the early twenty-first century, what new challenges does it create for politics and policy making?