It’s time for all good Australians to come to the aid of a new political party

Oct 24, 2023
The Australian parliament house in Canberra.

Not long before his untimely death, Malcolm Fraser was canvassing possibilities for a new political party. He was absolutely right to note that the existing parties had lost their way. It’s time to take up Malcolm Fraser’s cudgels, to think again–and seriously – about creating a new political party. A new party would need to do what the existing parties are failing to do: to make the government more representative of, and responsive to, the needs of the electorate at large, and to bring Australia back from the brink of populist authoritarianism.

The Liberal, National and Labor parties in Australia have all reached their use-by dates. Party memberships are dwindling, the parties’ primary votes are in decline. The Greens are struggling to expand their voter base and remain internally conflicted. The Jacquie Lambie Network is really only a platform for its self-serving and lewdly eccentric leader. Meanwhile Pauline Hanson’s One Nation and Clive Palmers United Australia are the bottom feeders on the Australian body politic.

What the major parties have in common is their total disconnection from the everyday struggles of ordinary Australians. Their party organisations are obsessively focused on keeping their favoured politicians in power. They are simply machines for reinforcing what the political sociologist Robert Michels referred to as the “iron law of oligarchy”–a “law” that keeps the bastards in power while relieving them of the need to be honest. The main (perhaps the only) attribute for party endorsement of candidates is their loyalty to the party leadership. Any principled MP who baulks at cravenly following the leadership’s line incurs banishment to the backbench or threats of dis-endorsement (for example, the wonderful Bridget Archer). The party whips rule and it’s definitely not ok.

The contempt for what ordinary voters need (among many other matters) is vividly evident in the refusal of the major parties (Labor, Liberal and National) to support Zali Steggall’s far-sighted Private Member’s Bill to stop misleading and deceptive political advertising and campaigning–see: Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Stop the Lies) Bill.

Ms Steggall’s Bill would oblige them to conduct campaigns that are far more honest and cleaner than is presently the case, making her one of very few MPs in the present parliament who actually deserves the title “Honourable”.

The problem facing contemporary Australian politics is that the dominant parties in all our parliaments are dinosaurs. Their extinction is much to be desired. Independent MPs like the Teals and David Pocock in the present parliament demonstrate that there is a real hunger in the electorate for a different kind of politics. All the dinosaurs have to offer is more of the same. Younger voters in particular, and many older ones, are utterly fed up with the politics of the lowest common denominator that the present government and the opposition deliver up each farcical Question Time and in most parliamentary committees and debates.

So what would a new party look like? Clearly time and space limitations do not allow a detailed plan here for going forward. However, some broad suggestions are proffered in the hope that a conversation about a fresh approach to party politics in Australia may be revived. That at least would be a contribution to honouring Malcolm Fraser’s eminently sensible proposal for establishing a new political party.

First, the new party needs to have strict limits on the length of terms of office for its officials and its MPs. In most cases those limits should not exceed nine years (three terms of three years or three parliaments), to ensure a healthy turnover of people at both levels and to ensure the “iron law of oligarchy” does not entrench itself in the party’s culture. Moreover, the party would have to ensure that at all levels in its organisation it is inclusive and welcoming for everyone who aligns with its values.

Second, the new party would need to be based on well-articulated social democratic principles. This means cultivating a robustly mixed economy in which strategically placed public enterprises can compete with the private sector, without the necessity of heavy-handed regulation of the latter. This should include:

  • well-resourced public health institutions (hospitals, local medical and dental centres, medical professionals, including specialists) based on the early successes of the British NHS
  • a public legal network, to give access to sound legal advice for the many people presently locked out of a so-called justice system which almost exclusively serves the wealthy and celebrities
  • a publicly-owned national bank (the Bank of Australia) to compete with the big four private banks which, as the Royal Commission revealed, are in the habit of behaving very badly indeed
  • the immediate nationalisation of crucial public utilities (water, electricity) to remedy the notorious inefficiency and rapaciousness of the present mare’s nest of all those private companies which neoliberal ideologues have imposed on us

Third, the party should aim to outlaw all private and business donations, whether at election time or otherwise. Public funding will help to guarantee honest electioneering and prevent parties being bought by the highest bidders.

Fourth, the party should work for the establishment of a permanent Constitution Commission to conduct annual reviews of the Constitution while ensuring there are exciting civics education programs in all schools and universities and interesting and informative public education programs about the Constitution available to the general public. The present Australian Constitution is simply not up to par. Genuine conservatives know that continuous but cautious change and adaptation are essential for any important structure in society to survive; and progressives know that no reforms will result in social and political conflict. The Commission must include First Nations representatives and work towards resolving the bitter fallout from the Voice to Parliament referendum.

Fifth, the policy agenda of the new party will need to to address issues that are of great consequence for the country as a whole, for example:

  • abandoning coal and gas exports
  • seriously addressing the crisis of climate change
  • massively expanding the country’s clean energy facilities
  • turning our faltering multiculturalism into a strong and generous form of cosmopolitanism
  • freeing Australia from the shackles of the ANZUS alliance, AUKUS and other impediments that are preventing the country from becoming independent while cooperating closely with our South Pacific and Southeast Asian neighbours
  • guaranteeing a free and balanced media, not one that is monopoly controlled and used as a vehicle for reactionary political propaganda

Malcolm Fraser was prescient when he canvassed the idea of a new political party in Australia. He was sadly off-side with what the Liberal Party was becoming under John Howard (and has now actually become under Abbott, Morrison and Dutton). Meanwhile the Labor Party has been reduced to a nervously conservative party devoid of a strongly reformist agenda. The Nationals are a surly rump doing the bidding of mining conglomerates while contemptuously dismissing the plight of farmers and rural communities.

Malcolm Fraser wanted his new party to be a genuinely liberal centrist party. However, the times have changed dramatically since he proposed his idea. The new political party this country now needs–more than ever–will have to be innovative, reformist, courageous, and ambitious. The times demand it.

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