Political parties are a fact of life, that’s what makes them damaging to democracy

Sep 4, 2020

We have a tendency to assume the way things are is the way they’ve always been. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s time to re-examine the political party.

Very occasionally we get to read something that jolts us out of that mindset into the real world. There is a high likelihood you will read that jolting article on the Pearls and Irritations blog site. The Unravelling of America by anthropologist Wade Davis is such an article (the full article prints to over six pages and can be found on the Rolling Stone web site, and appears to have been inspired by the Covid-19 pandemic).

As you read that brilliant piece of penmanship it is impossible not to draw analogies with Australia. Sure, we are not as far down this road as America is, and we don’t have as far to fall, but all the signs are there already. And when you finally home in on the common curse that is causing this unravelling of our two supposedly democratic societies, it turns out to be party politics.

I have long and loudly lamented the fact that two major political party groupings have together taken a stranglehold on Australia’s no-longer-representative democracy. Party politics is fundamentally about getting more for your group, and hence our two dominant political parties are dividing our society into two almost equal sized adversarial halves. They are playing us for fools by deluding us into believing we are effectively exercising our democratic rights when we vote for – or, more commonly, against – one of them every few years.

But I wonder how many Australians realise the extent to which allegiance to political parties has divided us. In an insightful piece in the NY Times published on 9 August 2020, Thomas L. Friedman writes of America:

“First, our political differences are becoming so deep that our two parties now resemble religious sects in a zero-sum contest for power” … “And second, as in the Middle East, so increasingly in America: everything is now politics – even the climate, even energy, even face masks in a pandemic.”

“But a society, and certainly a democracy, eventually dies when everything becomes politics.” “To put it differently, when everything is about politics it means that everything is about power.”

We are not there yet, but can you not see the signs here in Australia?

Like most democracies, and specifically like America, Australia seems to divide down the middle on most things, and particularly on the parties we vote for. The percentage division of the two-party preferred vote almost invariably finishes up close to 51/49, so no matter which party wins, half the population wanted the other party to govern.

Birds of a feather flock together, so we typically live in suburbs where the socioeconomic circumstances of most other residents are similar to our own. Hence, over 90% of the 151 federal electorates are safe seats and never change hands. Swing Voters, people who genuinely switch their vote from one side of politics to the other, comprise no more than about ten percent of the population – they taught us it was seven percent in Political Science at UQ about 57 years ago – and their swinging votes really only make a difference in the tiny number of marginal seats.

It’s the Swing Voters who decide our elections, and they generally vote parties out, not in. The 2019 federal election was illustrative of this, when a clever scare campaign persuaded the swing voters to not turf out a stale LNP government, as they were on track to do, for fear of having their superannuation tax benefits or their inheritances reduced. So it was that only 8 of the 151 lower house seats (5.3 percent) changed hands, with one Coalition seat going to Labor and one to an independent, and the LNP Coalition government was formed with a mere one seat majority – albeit with a generally supportive cross bench in the Senate giving it almost unfettered power.

Every prime minister in his victory speech promises to govern for all Australians, but none of them ever do. They govern for their own constituencies. We are seeing it every day in this country, in middle class welfare, tax breaks, sports rorts, and under-funded social welfare services.

To the victor go the spoils. Cameron Murray and Paul Frijters, in their book Game of Mates – How favours bleed the nation, explain in some detail the many ways in which those with political power and their Mates exploit the many benefits and opportunities for largesse that come with political power. Hiding in plain sight, we see it played out before our eyes every day.

Why do we let them do this to us?

So, fundamentally, our democracy is now inextricably in the hands of the two major political parties. Those two parties take it in turns to form government, and to govern primarily for their own support base, thereby amplifying the division of our society into two camps which now see one another not just as the opposition, but as the enemy.

You can feel the strengthening of the emotions in the awkward silence which follows any polite attempt to discuss politics in a non-homogenous group. Meanwhile, the hierarchy of the defeated major party enjoy all the benefits of being in parliament until their turn to govern comes around again. Hence the distinct lack of weeping and gnashing of teeth when Labor lost the “unlosable” election in 2019.

Thus two political parties serving identifiable interest groups at the expense of the rest of us are apparently an irremovable blight on our democracy, and lobbyists will therefore continue to dictate government policy. Sadly, the two-party stranglehold appears unbreakable.

We at least owe it to our children to alert them to this dire state of affairs.

(In a future post I will explore the theoretically possible solutions to this problem.)

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