GREG BAILEY. The Australian Political Duopoly: are its days numbered?

Aug 23, 2018

Statistics of voting patterns over the past forty years have shown a consistent drift towards fringe and minor parties. Such a drift seems likely to continue whilst the duopoly of the LNP and the ALP  continue to ignore the mainstream, both ideologically and as group worthy of receiving some intrinsic recognition.

The Fairfax-IPSOS poll conducted between 15-18 August has received saturation coverage in the print media and on blogs because it showed a collapse in the Coalition’s primary vote from 39 to 33% of the 1800 people polled. Labor’s vote was at 35%, the Greens 13% and other 19%, presumably much of that going to PHON, even if that is substantially restricted to one state.  When preference flows are taken into consideration Labor has 55% and the LNP 45% of the vote, yet first preference percentages seem to be pointing towards voter dissatisfaction with the two major parties. In 2010 the LNP received approximately 43.6% of the primary vote, the ALP 38 and the minor parties 18%.  So in a space of eight years minor parties could now possibly receive as much as 32% of the primary vote. And compare this with 1980 when the LNP’s vote was 46.2, the ALP 45.1 and other 8.6.


On the surface this appears to be a radical change and, as has recently been noted, has manifested mainly on the Right side of the political spectrum, with the Greens, the only new left-wing party, polling consistently between 12 and 13 percent.  Historically the transformation matches the historical shift (across the Anglo-Saxon world) from the long period of government directed economic growth and increasing welfare expenditure–leading to considerable social cohesion in immigration societies–from 1945 to 1970, roughly speaking, and the emergence of neoliberalism in both its economic-politico and cultural forms from 1980 until the present. In the first period both main political parties had essentially similar policies with slight variations in particular areas, their economic governance following a loose Keynesian paradigm as to how an economy should be run.

When neoliberal thought become dominant in the formation (or lack of it) of public policy in the late seventies all of this changed, but the changes have taken at least twenty-five years to be picked up within the mainstream of Australian society. The subsequent recognition of the faults of neoliberalism–though most of the public would not recognize that term–is disdain about the effects of globalization, including increased immigration and refugee flows, the collapse of manufacturing, the rise of a casualized work force and the well publicized massive gap between those at the top of the corporate pile and all the rest. These are usually conceived in isolation from each other, not as symptoms of a greater malaise, yet the negative perception of them is increasing, often simply expressed in the phrase “it’s all about money now”. Associated with this has been the recognition that both traditional parties have been complicit in pushing these policies and have scarcely spoken out against the injustices flowing from them. This has led voters to flee to parties that offer a move away from the duopoly and the corporatized institutions it supports, a transition to parties promising a throwback to a nostalgic social past and vociferously standing apart from the duopoly parties.

Another factor that has surely been significant in this move towards a multitude of minor parties is the maturing of digital technology and the social media from which it is now indistinguishable.  What this means is that political messages can be tailored to different groups carefully defined on the basis of polling and focus groups, and actual face-to-face contact minimized, except perhaps on polling day. The old town-hall meeting or campaigning from the back of a truck was fazed out two decades ago, to be replaced by staged performances where mainly the party faithful were present, performances organized by marketing consultants and party hacks. What all this meant was that politics was no longer personalized–if it ever was–, that barriers were increasingly placed between the “ordinary voter” (a perception many voters hold of themselves) and their representative. Local members need not interact with their local constituents as much as they might have in the past, because communication could be undertaken by social media. In addition, this separation became more marked with the perceived development of political careers. Being a politician–with the path leading from student politician, to party operative, to safe seat, and employment by a large lobbying firm after retirement–was its own career, increasingly distant from some kind of vocation designed to represent the constituents’ interests.

Then along comes Pauline Hanson, a former fish and chip shop owner, who presented herself as anti-establishment and as someone who understood the problems of the battler. But she was unlike Howard, who also claimed to represent the battler, but was a lawyer and part of the establishment. Hanson was a worker who had had enough of all this “political correctness nonsense,” who knew what had to be done and who would do it if she could. Such an approach–and it was later taken up by other micro-parties centred on decisive characters like Bob Katter and Clive Palmer–implied a particular kind of “common sense” that would unite the politician with the voter, the latter only seeing the world in terms of individual issues, not as a cohesive whole reflecting the application of a dominant ideology. Nick Xenophon’s party may have been an outlier here, as it was a small l Liberal offshoot, and seems to have suffered by being close to the middle road.

Unless the two parties of the duopoly reconnect with the “ordinary voter” by communicating with them and eschewing an ideology that determines government as sustaining a logic and practice of corporatism, the drift to minor parties can only continue. This will be a disaster because such parties are incapable of coming to terms with the fundamental issue–anthropogenic climate change–the world now faces.

Dr. Greg Bailey is an Honorary Researcher,College of the Arts, Social Sciences and Commerce, Latrobe University.



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