Wednesday, 04 June 2014

The rise and fall of the minor parties

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Minor parties have long played a role in Australian politics, but they’re becoming more powerful and, with that, more vulnerable. How is that going to play out in the battle over the budget?

We've all become accustomed to the two main players on our political landscape. The Liberal/National Coalition and Labor have swapped leadership in Australia for decades. No other party has come close to being able to be a realistic challenge.

It's not for want of trying. Over the years, a number of new parties have flared up and then, just as suddenly, disappeared from view.

One Nation and the Democrats came from nowhere, become major players, wielded considerable power, and then quickly faded away. They live on now only as cautionary tales for other minor parties.

Historically, the major parties could always rely on at least 30% of the electorate turning up and checking their box without really thinking about it too much. Life is different for a minor party. Just about every vote needs to be won and then carefully nurtured, and a single slip can alienate distressingly large numbers of voters.

This is particularly difficult once a minor party actually gathers a little power and influence.

There are so many pitfalls for a small party trying to win a seat or two that many parties who actually achieve their goal then suddenly seem very confused about what to do with it. The disparate clump of followers they have gathered may have been easily won during a campaign, particularly when both the majors have been on the nose with many voters. But they’re much harder to maintain and nurture once they've gifted you a little clout.

The small players are also vulnerable to the sort of internal divisions that can quickly tear a party apart.

We're all tired of hearing about the major parties' factional squabbles, the Labor party was particularly damaged by the public nature of the Kevin v Julia debacle and the Abbott/Turnbull stand-off is never really going to go away. But the major parties are bigger than any one crisis, and certainly much bigger than one person or their ego (even if that person is Kevin Rudd).

Small parties are not so resilient. Support can evaporate faster than you can say “well informed sources”. Parties need to be clear on what they are trying to achieve and how they plan to achieve it. If that direction is not well articulated, things can fall apart pretty quickly.

Such is the difficulty the Greens have faced in regard to the budget.

There has, for a number of years, been tension within the Greens between the idealists and the pragmatists. On one side there are those who see the Greens as needing to fight every battle and die on every hill to further their aims.

These people are purists - their goals are less about power and more about influence. To them, the party should be purely focused on achieving policy outcomes. They regard the role of a minor party as being the expression of their supporter's desire to force change in policy, and are not particularly worried about growing power at the expense of policy outcomes.

Naturally enough, there are also those who want the Greens to mature into a respected, sensible and credible alternative, capable of wielding real political power. They are (not without good reason) wary of ending like the Democrats and disappearing from the Australian political scene altogether. They’re willing to compromise on some principles in the interests of longevity.

This tension has existed for a long time. The Greens are still being criticised for walking away from the negotiations on the ETS - to their opponents that was pure petulance - but there is little doubt it was a victory for the idealists within the party who were not going to sign up to what they regarded as being an inadequate policy.

By the same token, the Green alliance with Julia Gillard’s government was a huge victory for the pragmatists - a level of power and influence that the Greens had never before experienced, albeit at the cost of supporting a watered down carbon emissions reduction scheme.

Adding to the current political confusion is the fight over who owns the left/progressive side of politics. That was a position occupied by Labor for many years, but, as they have reduced their allegiance to the Union movement and simultaneously pursued the centre that the Coalition was dragging further and further to the Right, a space has opened up that the Greens could occupy.

But occupying that spot and trying to become a fixture on the political landscape requires making sacrifices that are wholly unacceptable to many of their members.

The two major parties obviously have their own share of tension between idealists and pragmatists - they have simply resolved it by taking a “do whatever it takes” approach to being elected and then pushing through as many ideological changes as they feel they can get away with. In this way they are actually far more like PUP than the Greens - they place the acquisition of power at the forefront of their goals and then use that power to achieve their goals.

It may be that the Palmer United Party has, or will have, the same internal tensions as all the other political parties. It is difficult to tell, because no one seems to have been able to discern any sensible basis for their policies other than “What Clive Thinks”.

And that’s not a problem in itself. If a party based solely on the personality of a high-profile troublemaker wins votes then it’s clearly giving the electorate something they want.

For now, Clive Palmer appears entirely unfussed by pesky details like longevity, coherence or even comprehensibility. It is possible therefore, that if Palmer gets bored, or, more likely, if the major parties unite against PUP and force them out of their position of power, the Palmer United Party could vanish like a blown out candle.

The problem for PUP is the 30% of the vote that each of the major parties can rely on. PUP doesn't have that cushion. If a major party heads too far off to one side and loses power, they can still rant and rave from opposition and build support for their next tilt at the crown. If PUP loses support they are all too quickly irrelevant again - and they can ask the Democrats how easy it is to rebuild that support again from outside the building.

The major parties’ advantage is reinforced by a preferential voting system that supports the two party system, and electoral funding that is proportionate to the votes received.

Given all this, one can understand why it is so desperately hard for a minor party to get any real traction.

The vote on the budget will be a litmus test for both the Greens and PUP.

For the Greens, the Deficit Levy is a difficult customer. The ideologues within the Greens were no doubt thrilled with the idea of the Deficit Levy. Higher taxes on the rich! A progressive tax system is cornerstone for the Greens, and a government that is prepared to voluntarily legislate for such a change should be actively encouraged to do so.

Never mind that the change is only temporary or that it is clearly a sop to ensure that the government could not be criticised for hitting the poor whilst leaving the rich unscathed. This is an important opportunity to wave through an increase in the tax rates for the rich and to even consider criticising the government for it is counteractive to their basic ideals.

Of course, the pragmatists had a different view. As we have all heard repeated constantly since this tax was announced, Tony Abbott PROMISED no new taxes. This is a new tax. After the horrendous whipping the Libs gave Gillard over her “broken promise”, this is an unmissable opportunity to stick it to Abbott. Taking the fight to Abbott on the issues of trust could increase the chance of the Coalition being kept to one term.

Where the Greens land on this will tell us whether the pragmatists or the idealists have greater sway in the party and give an indication of where they are likely to land on the big issues for the next 3 years.

For PUP - well, who knows? Their 3 senators will take their seats come July and, in all likelihood, create utter havoc for 6 years. If they win a few more seats at the next half senate election then we really will have a show on our hands.

Whatever happens, the minor parties will always be a thorn in the side of the majors, but how much of a thorn is really up to them, and how they choose to utilize the power they’ve managed to accrue.

Andrew Tiedt

Andrew is a criminal defence lawyer from Sydney. 

Follow him on twitter @mrtiedt