Several weeks ago I wrote a post in which I expressed my concerns about recent changes to federal electoral laws to make it harder for minor parties to operate.
Since that time, two long established minor parties, who have enjoyed a small degree of electoral success over the years, have had their registrations challenged by the major parties, due to the similarities of their names. One is the Liberal Democrats, whose existence is being objected to by the Liberal Party. The other is the Democratic Labour Party, who is being objected to by the Australian Labor Party.
A High Court case looms:
It is disturbing when a major change to electoral laws occurs, with the support of both major parties, which radically alters the political ecosystem in which the minor parties have operated for many years. In the case of the DLP, who in the past 15 years have enjoyed a minor resurgence in Victoria (one Senator and two Legislative Councillors elected), they have operated under their existing name since the late 1950s, without any previous challenge to their existence.
It is a cosy stitch up, which shows how, whilst the major parties disagree on who should be in government, they agree on so much more when it comes to screwing over minor parties and alternatives.
Our political system is already very heavily loaded towards the two main political forces – the LNP coalition on one side and the ALP on the other. Compulsory voting makes campaigning a lot easier as it forces the apathetic out to make a choice on Election Day to avoid a fine. Taxpayer subsidies are given out to candidates and parties based on obtaining a certain threshold of votes.
These measures make it easier for established mainstream parties to operate and make it difficult for alternatives and protest movements to break into the system with any success.
I am not a big fan of proportional representation, except that I believe it is healthier for a cross bench to hold the balance of power in the upper house in order to prevent the government of the day from having its own unfettered way. But proportional representation does provide an opportunity for minor parties to make themselves somewhat more relevant, for as long as the electoral laws are not rewritten to impede their existence.
Why now has there been this change to the rules so that the major parties can put the screws to minor parties in an unprecedented way?
I think it has something to do with primary votes for the major parties collapsing. At the 2019 Federal Election, the primary vote for the Coalition was 41.44%, whilst for the ALP it was 33.34%. Compare that to 1980, where the primary votes were 46.40% and 45.15% respectively. Historically, for most of the second half of the 20th Century, both major parties could consistently count on a minimum primary vote of 45%.
The response from the major parties to the growing disenchantment in the electorate with their policies and personalities and general behaviour is not surprising. Instead of taking steps to try and re-engage with the voting public and recover their lost primary vote, the major parties are taking the lazy way out – trying to knobble the competition they fear from the minor parties.
None of this is healthy. Both of the major parties are locked in considerably vicious infighting at the moment. Branch stacking and purges have in recent years made front page news for both sides, revealing an inability to attract and retain genuine committed members.
Our democracy deserves much better than this.