Where To From Here?

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Do Our 20th Century Political Parties Still Serve Us Well?

Australian political history is littered with dozens of now defunct parties that once served a purpose but over time have lost relevance and appeal.

Whether it be the Australian Family Movement (1974-1990) with their opposition to homosexuality, transvestism, androgyny, abortion and euthanasia; the One Australia Movement (1986-1992) with their support for the monarchy, a biblical system of morality and opposition to union strike movements; or the Confederate Action Party of Australia (1992-1993) advocating the return of the death penalty, a denial of all applications for political asylum and the re-introduction of the use of convict labour, they have all passed into history.

Historically, parties have aligned themselves with issues, causes or even perceived social classes to obtain electoral support. The Coalition was traditionally seen as the voice of the middle classes while the working classes were seen as supporting Labor.

This two-party duopoly has enjoyed many years of relative stability in Australia but things are changing quickly. The rise of the Greens and independents reflects a growing dissatisfaction in the electorate with the two major parties.

We have undoubtedly entered a new phase in Australian politics.

A phase of significant disaffection with the political landscape, a phase where respect for political office is at its lowest ebb, a phase where traditional divisions between labour and capital no longer define a party’s home turf.

A lack of contemporary relevance of these traditional party divisions is seeing the viability of the two major parties ebb away. There is certainly now room for and a need of a fresh approach.

Capital v Labor

In my father’s day, “the workers” were never in any doubt who to vote for. There was never an issue as to which of the two major parties best looked after the interests of the battler. Trade unions were inextricably tied to the Labor Party and any thoughts of voting Liberal were regarded as heretical. Socialist roots and working class traditions meant that these groups occupied the red corner or “The Left” of Australian politics and were by definition the “battlers”.

In the blue corner were the industrialists and the capitalists. Men who ran corporations and businesses whose principal aim was to make a profit for themselves and their shareholders. A fortunate but necessary by-product of their purpose in life was that in order to produce the dividends and the profits, they needed the help of the workers. So while they were busy securing a lifestyle that others could only dream of, they could at the same time claim credit for providing work and sustenance to those in a less fortunate position than themselves.

The Times They Are A’Changin’

But times have moved on. There is now far less clarity in the distinction between the worker and the boss because increasingly, they are one and the same person. Employers have over the last decade or more increasingly struggled to meet the cost of producing the lifestyle that previous generations could achieve. More business owners are working for themselves, cutting costs and struggling to compete.

It is now not so easy for a political party to represent a “side” in this dichotomy as the lines continue to blur. As a result, their traditional supporters have morphed from being the rusted on supporters that their parents or grandparents were. They are now prepared to think the unthinkable – they are willing to contemplate voting for the traditional “enemy”.

For the two main political parties this has proven to be extremely problematic. Not only is it more difficult for them to identify and define their true supporters, but as cumbersome organisations they find it impossible to adapt and change in a way that reflects their contemporary support base.

So we have, for example, the spectacle of a State Labor Attorney General at war with a union and a State Labor Premier advocating an increase in a tax that will most directly impact on the less wealthy. We have a Liberal Prime Minister espousing the virtues of, essentially, a socialised health care system and fighting his own party on how the wealthiest superannuants should be taxed. In this confusion of identity, it’s hardly surprising that our elections are more of a raffle than ever before.

Traditional parties have proven to be incapable of reflecting these changes without the threat of losing their identities and their support base. Having jumped into bed with either capital or labour, they now must lie in it. For this generation of voters neither falls neatly into traditional divisions nor responds to simplistic sloganeering. Political representatives must now aim higher, must embrace wider groupings and must reject old prejudices.

Today’s voters are desperately looking for a political party that does not simply seek to represent “the left”, “the right” or “the centre”. History has amply demonstrated that neither Labor nor the LNP can ever hope to provide this outcome for the S.A. public. If the electorate is to have politicians who approach the job of serving the State from the basis of state-wide interests and not self-serving sectarian interests then a new approach and, dare I say it, a new party is needed. But what would be its focus and what would it be called?

At federal level, winning prime ministers invariably fill their victory speeches with predictable platitudes about governing “for all Australians” including those who voted for their opponents. The national focus on our federal governments acts as a strong incentive to at least try to fulfil this promise and acts as a significant constraint on ruling parties blatantly pandering to its factional interests.

However, at the State level the scrutiny is less intense. We have continuously been disappointed by the quality of the candidates who win office and even more so by the quality of the governments they produce. For this to improve, a new party would have to direct its attention not to the factional interests of a minority but to the genuine interests of the State as a whole. The holistic approach to policy would replace the sectarianism of the past and we could, at long last, have Party S.A.

Stephen Pallaras

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