Most days, I enjoy reading the Pearls Before Swine comic strip, which alternates between childlike innocence (in the character of Pig), and dark cynicism (in the form of Rat). One story arc from 2016 saw Rat, the anti-hero of this comic, run for US President, mostly on the platform of being more likeable than either of the alternatives. He won.
This does speak to me about the level of disenchantment and cynicism many of us in our anglo-phonic liberal democracies feel about the current state of the political alternatives we are offered.
The Australian Federal Election has now officially been called for Saturday 21 May. This will be the 13th time in my adult life that I have voted in a federal election, and I suppose, like many of my fellow voters, I do not feel particularly excited about either of the alternatives, even though, if I must admit it, Albo is the most authentic Labor leader since at least Bill Hayden, and probably since Chifley.
I read somewhere a few years ago that in the mid 1950s, when Australia had a population of some 10 million, about 500,000 citizens were members of a political party. That represents a very large proportion of the adult population being actively engaged in the democratic process – something which is needed to safeguard the strength of our democracy.
Now, in a population of some 26 million, it is probably less than half that. Officially published figures put Liberal and Labor each on approximately 50,000 members, with the Greens on 10,000 members. It is difficult to measure how many people actually belong to the National Party, because they like to count unfinancial members (once you sign up, you are a National Party member until the grave, and possibly even beyond then…).
And the UAP claim to have over 80,000 members. As I do not have any idea about how one joins the UAP, I suspect that, like Tory-Cory’s ill fated conservative movement, you probably get counted once you sign up to a mailing list, rather than paying up a membership fee and getting accepted by a vote at a party meeting.
All that suggests that active political and civic engagement right now is probably less than 1% of the total population, rather than the 5% it was in the 1950s.
Similarly, the primary vote of the major parties has been declining consistently in the past 35 years. In 1987, when I first voted as an 18 year old, the primary vote for both the Coalition (in its then 3 separate components) and Labor was 45.90%. When I last voted in 2019, the Coalition (with now 4 separate components) had a primary vote of 41.44, and Labor had 33.34.
Preferential voting does cause protest and third party votes to flow back to the major parties, but there is no denying that not only have the major parties been losing active members, they have also been steadily losing the support of a larger part of the public.
There are several reasons for this.
One is that people frequently wish that there was an alternative to the major parties, but in the past did not see an alternative as electorally viable, so they did not bother. Now, in the past 15 years, we have seen the Greens taking lower house seats off Labor, and independents taking seats off the Coalition. Given that the electoral viability of an alternative candidate is much greater than was the case traditionally, there is a snow ball effect, feeding the viability of alternatives to the major parties.
Another reason is money. Since the early 1990s, public funding has been assigned to candidates based on what proportion of the primary vote they win (with some minimum limits). This was done so as to try and prevent political parties from becoming too beholden on large influential donors (not that this seems to have stopped Communist China from buying influence through various sympathetic billionaires), and also because political parties are rather lazy about needing to fund raise – public funding makes it so much easier. An unintended consequence is that a strong independent or third party candidate can end up with a war chest for a future campaign.
On top of the public funding, we now have crowd funding. If you feel strongly about an issue or an independent candidate, then you can donate to their crowd funding campaign.
A third reason is that the major parties are alienating their supporters. Showing up at 6am on Election Day to decorate a polling booth and then stand there coping abuse from the odd moron who does not appreciate your civic contribution til 6pm, and then scrutineering til 8 or 9pm is a thankless task, and the parties are not exactly great at thanking their supporters for doing it. Party members have very limited say in selecting their candidates, with interventions by state or federal executives increasingly frequent.
Take for example two recent examples. Branch stacking by machine politicians in the Victorian ALP has resulted in the disenfranchisement of the entire state party, which is now ruled by a committee appointed by the federal executive. ALP members in Victoria have no say in anything to do with the election except whether or not they should make the individual effort to actually campaign.
On the other side of politics, the NSW Division of the Liberal Party was unable, due to deliberate bad faith behaviour by the Prime Minister and his nominee to a key committee, to endorse its candidates through the usual process (ie a ballot which involves local party members in each seat). This recently resulted in a very cynical intervention which enabled candidates to effectively get appointed by the Prime Minister. Matthew Camenzuli, a member of the NSW Liberal Executive, unsuccessfully challenged this bad faith behaviour and was summarily expelled from the party last week.
Both examples show how the major parties are holding their grassroots members in contempt, and seeing them as solely campaign fodder for election day and its lead up, rather than as partners deserving of a say in the way their political parties are run and who represents them.
The consequences downstream will be that people will not volunteer their time and their money to support the parties with whom they normally feel an affinity.
Whilst the major parties are increasingly alienated from (and alienating) their grassroots supporters, they are still both very willing to look after their semi-retired apparatchiks with plum appointments at tax payer expense. Six days before the election was called, the Attorney General announced a giant life raft of appointments to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. The count of apparatchiks appointed to those positions is higher than the 6 or 8 reported in the mainstream media – at least 13 Liberals and 1 National were appointed. Whilst such appointments have long been regarded as spoils by both parties, who have long rewarded (or pensioned) senior supporters accordingly, this does not make such conduct at all laudable, especially where it flies in the face of the spirit, if not the letter, of caretaker conventions.
Whilst Albo has claimed underdog status and said that Labor has, post war, only won government from opposition three times (Whitlam, Hawke, Rudd), we should remember that the Coalition has similarly only won government from opposition three times (Menzies, Howard, Abbott), given that Fraser was, post dismissal, caretaker PM when the election occurred in December 1975. Also, in that time, there have only been three governments which have won more than three terms (Menzies-Holt-McEwan-Gorton-McMahon, Hawke-Keating, and Howard), and three governments which lasted two or three terms (Whitlam, Fraser, Rudd-Gillard-Rudd).
So what is the takeaway for 21st May? I think that the electorate will probably see a major swing to the opposition, and that the Coalition will lose a significant number of seats, including potentially several to independents. The Greens probably will not gain more seats, as there is an “It’s Time” vibe to the campaign. I see parallels in this election to the 1996 and 2007 elections – where a change of government followed a previous upset defeat of the Opposition in an unlosable election.
You have to ask yourself whether an Albanese led Labor government would be necessarily a bad thing? A healthy democracy requires strong competition, and governments do get stale, arrogant and out of touch when they are in power for too long. I just hope that Albo is too busy doing necessary things to safeguard our national security and economy to go off and do silly (but still highly destructive) things like trying to implement a republic or increasing taxes on middle Australia.