Australia’s Many Small Parties Help Disburse Discontent

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Australia’s Many Small Parties Help Disburse Discontent

A vibrant array of minor parties provides a release valve for discontent in Australia.

Australia’s Many Small Parties Help Disburse Discontent
Credit: takver / Flickr

It would be fair to say that globally the current dominant political sentiment is one of discontent. The anxiety caused by the modern era’s exponential economic, technological, and social change, combined with the stagnating middle class incomes in the West, is leading a range of countries to seek solutions in unconventional, and often unsavory, political actors.

While the phenomenon is seen as most pronounced in Europe and the United States, the election of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, and the prime ministership of Narendra Modi in India, indicates that even a rising Asia is not immune from these passions.

While Australia is just over two weeks away from a federal election, no mainstream vehicle has appeared in the country to fully harness this sentiment.

Yet recent polling suggests that in this election a quarter of voters will be rejecting the traditional parties of government: the opposition Labor Party and the governing conservative Coalition. So this sentiment of discontent is also present in Australia; however, it is highly dispersed, finding a range of pockets to inhabit, rather than a consolidated mass of grievance.

In the 2013 election, outspoken mining magnate Clive Palmer formed the eponymous Palmer United Party, in an attempt to harness this disapproval with the major parties and propel himself to the prime ministership. Bankrolling the party himself, he spent lavishly and made bold claims, yet only secured a lower-house seat for himself alongside three senators.

Since then his movement has disintegrated. Two of his senators have become independents, and he had the lowest attendance record of any parliamentarian. This election he won’t be contesting his seat, nor the Senate, and seems to have abandoned his one remaining senator.

Having received 5.5 percent of the national vote, and 11 percent in Queensland, there is great speculation at to whether this “Palmer vote” will float back to the major parties, or seek alternative outlets.

Palmer does leave a significant legacy, though, in the form of the vanity party. This new quirk of Australian politics will see serious contenders for seats among the Nick Xenophon Team, the Jackie Lambie Network, (Bob) Katter’s Australia Party, Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party, John Madigan’s Manufacturing and Farming Party, and the Glenn Lazarus Team.

Of these “parties” the most powerful will be the Nick Xenophon Team, who are likely to have three senators elected, and potentially one lower-house seat, in South Australia.

Xenophon is a wily charmer who has built his current campaign around the economic protectionism that he feels South Australia requires due to its declining industrial and manufacturing base — a position he knows straddles the Left/Right divide and is able to gain him widespread support.

This suspicion around the consequences of globalization is a prominent driver of much of the discontent directed toward the country’s major parties. Alongside Xenophon, these grievances can be found within The Greens, Katter, Lazarus, Hanson, Lambie, Madigan, and the Democratic Labor Party (a conservative, mostly Catholic party which split from the Labor Party in the 1950s), as well as a number of other far-right and far-left parties who fill out the Senate ballots in each state.

This sentiment also finds some sympathy within elements of the conservative bloc of parties, yet has almost dissolved from the Labor Party, whose philosophical roots have been mostly abandoned for a platform of rational pragmatism instead.

However, Pauline Hanson aside, most of these nativist tendencies are not overtly racist, like current European populism or the politicking of Donald Trump in the United States. The Liberal Party has always adopted a strategy of throwing enough bones to the country’s more insular sections in order to prevent darker forces from arising.  Yet they still maintain a fear that their vote will be siphoned off by parties with more aggressive agendas.

The immigration minister’s recent evoking of Schrödinger’s Immigrant — one who steals your job and lives off welfare simultaneously — was the party’s current attempt keep these votes under its wing.

While nativist instincts run deep in Australia, options do abound. The libertarian Liberal-Democrats may potentially win seats in New South Wales and Western Australia. Although the party is nominally socially liberal, it maintains a subscription to the Fusionist project.

However, in Victoria (and possibly NSW) positivity finds a prominent voice through The Sex Party, a party forming the vanguard of a progressive/classical liberal fusion, and whose leader was elected to the Victorian State parliament in 2014.

There is a strong advantage to having a vibrant array of minor parties who are able to garner significant support. It provides a release valve for discontent that allows political stability to be maintained while different voices gain access to, and mature within, the system. The successes of these minor parties also provide strong signals to the major parties about their failings. The dispersed nature of the phenomenon prevents political discontent and inflamed emotions from becoming dangerous mass insurgencies.

How the complex web of Senate preference deals plays out will be the most intriguing feature of the election, especially if the new Senate voting system, designed to limit the influence of smaller parties, achieves its goal. Its unintended consequences may be a further arousing of vexed feelings for the major parties to contend with.