Tuesday, July 05, 2016

The current instability in Australian politics - an historical perspective

One of the really interesting features of current Australian political debate lies in the concern about the rise of minority parties. Implicit in this is the assumption that the Australian party system has always been stable. It is true that if you graph the national vote since the Second World War, you can see a rise accelerating recently in the non-Coalition, non-Labor vote, but that doesn't tell us a great deal. In reality, the Australian party system has always been marked by a degree of instability.

 Let's start with the Liberal Party

As Wikipedia notes, the Liberal Party's ideological ancestry dates back to the anti-Labor groupings in the first Commonwealth parliaments. The Commonwealth Liberal Party was a fusion of the Free Trade Party and the Protectionist Party in 1909 by the second prime minister, Alfred Deakin, in response to Labor's growing electoral prominence. The Commonwealth Liberal Party merged with several Labor dissidents (including Billy Hughes) to form the Nationalist Party of Australia in 1917. That party, in turn, merged with Labor dissidents to form the United Australia Party in 1931.The UAP largely collapsed and was replaced by a new political party, the current Liberal Party in 1945.

 The Australian Labor Party dates back to the 1890s and followed the emergence of the union and labour movements. It split during the First World War, then during the Depression and then again in 1955 leading to the formation of the Democratic Labor Party, a split that helped keep the Menzies Government in power. Interestingly, the Wikipedia article on the ALP somehow fails to mention the DLP at all. A case of selective memory loss?

For much of its history, neither the Liberal Party nor its precursors has been able to govern in its own right, but has been forced to depend upon the Country Party, later National Party. The Country Party emerged in 1920 as a consequence of long standing farm grievances and, more broadly, country grievances. The coalition relationship has often been fractious and unstable, while the Country Party/National Party has faced its own splits, as well as challenges from Country independents.

Formed in 1992, the Greens are the new kid on the political block who, upon entering adolescence,
are now successfully laying down their own claim to be an established party. In doing so, they have taken over some of the vote of and helped destroy another political party, the Australian Democrats (formed 1977), a party that in part was a spin off from the Liberal Party.

Even at this level, you can see that the claims about a rise in the instability in Australian politics are some what a-historical. If you drop below national level to state, regional and local levels, that instability increases with constant new political movements or agitations, as well as conflicts between existing parties. Each reflects particular dissatisfactions as well as power struggles.

Australia has always had right and left political movements, in broad terms what would be called today conservative versus progressive, although those terms have to be treated with great care. The political parties themselves as structured political machines really emerged in the 1890s partly as a consequence of the emergence of the Labor Party. Again we have to be careful with terms, for when you look at what has been described as the factional system of politics in the nineteenth century, it had all the features of what we might call party politics.

The emergence of the political machine, the central party organisation, has increased party survivability. However,  no political party has a god given right of survival. If you look at Australian history over the last 150 years, you see that new political movements emerge because the existing structures do not properly reflect changing community attitudes and needs. You will also see that those movements force changes in existing structures to try to resist or capture the new forces. In that change process, existing interests always appeal to stability, to the importance of maintaining the status quo. That's hardly surprising, for they are the ones who stand to lose from change.

If we now look at Australia in July 2016, you can see that the current position is not really unusual in historical terms. Those of us still around in forty years' time will be able to get a feel for the real historical importance of this election. For the rest of us, we will just muddle through as we always have!


Anonymous said...

On the other hand, I am four days into NBN connection here. Installed with a minimum of fuss, and what was previously 245K down/up via ADSL has become 24Mb/4.5Mb via wifi.

I'm really looking forward to finally taking advantage of iView etc. It will otherwise not affect me too much as I mainly use internet for reading rather than viewing - but it's nice to finally have the capability.

Dunno about NBN outages, so will retain my old connect facility for this month, just in case. Belt and braces...


Jim Belshaw said...

Its so good to to see Kangaroo Valley join the internet world!

Winton Bates said...

Jim, it is sometimes possible to have too much historical perspective, I think. There has been some instability in the Australian political parties over the last 100 years, but I doubt whether the political system in the UK has been less stable over that period.
If we think in terms of the last 50 years, the Australian political system has been quite stable. For as long as I can remember the Government of this country has been either by the Liberal-Country/Nation party coalition or the Labor party. You could argue that during the Gillard years the government was really a Labor-Green-independent alliance, but that must help the case of those who argue that there has been a rise of minor parties and independents.
The national trend over the last 30 years or so has been fairly clearly a rise in primary vote for minor parties and independents, accompanied by a decline in primary vote for the Labor party. See:http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-07-03/election-results-historical-comparison/7560888

Jim Belshaw said...

You can indeed have too much of an historical perspective, Winton. I accept that. I suppose that one point I was making is that what we take as stability is in fact, a feature of the relatively recent past just as the voting shifts are a feature of the relatively recent post. I would hold to that point.

I have to think about this, but a few opening points.

The first is the importance of the electoral system that is in place. The second is the pattern of organisational instability in the major parties over time. The third is on-ground changes that can suddenly lead to shifts, shifts in the balance of power, shifts that may appear sudden but in fact are not.

In both Australia and the UK, power was shared between the equivalent of the whigs and the tories. The rise of the labor movements created a new challenge, an ideological left party. In Australia, the centrist smaller l Deakinite Liberal party was squeezed out, forced to merge with more conservative interests. Something of the same happened in the UK although the Liberals were able to survive but never break through to power until that fatal Lib_dem coalition. The emergence of that coalition was connected to the 1981 split in the Labor party leading to the formation of the 181 formation of the Social Democrats who ultimate merged with the Liberal Party.

In Australia, a distinctive feature was the emergence of the Country party. Both Labor and Country emerged because certain sections of the community felt that they were not being adequately represented. Both parties were then absorbed into the political order.

In both Australia and the UK, new parties struggled to gain seats in the face of entrenched power, although some independents or split parties were successful for periods. In the UK, Northern Island always had a different system, but it wasn't until the rise of the Scottish and to a lesser degree Welsh nationalists that you had a very real split in the landscape.

In Australia, the voting figures people quote for the more recent past at the Reps figures. The Senate figures would, I expect, show a different pattern for it is in the Senate that the duopoly was really challenged. But even in the reps, for most of recent history the Libs have been dependent on coalition with the Country/National Party.

I think that my point is that the apparent stability and apparent pattern of Australian party politics is just that, apparent. You can mount a broader argument that since the professionalisation of politics, since the arguably increased fragmentation of society, the process has become more intense. I'm not sure of that, although I think that there is some truth in that. I just think that some of the recent discussion is unbalanced.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thinking about this overnight, Winton, I suspect that I am mixing things together in my mind. Certainly I am being influenced by my own experiences.

Winton Bates said...

Jim, I think the Country Party/ National Party has always been vulnerable to competitors who can claim to better represent the interests of country people than can representatives who are in coalition with the Libs. Similarly, the Democrats were vulnerable to competition from the left after they did deals with the Howard government.

However, there has been an increase in instability in politics in many countries in recent years, with the resurgence of people/ parties representing anti-immigrant and trade protectionist sentiments. This may be a product of the economic instability/ uncertainty of the last decade or so, but I suspect it might be an ongoing feature of political life for the next decade or so.

There is a question of how well parliamentary systems will be able to avoid disaster. A bit more protection of a few industries would be unfortunate, but I am more concerned that the system we have in place in Australia will not be able to deliver sustainable fiscal outcomes. The Senate has too much power, I think.