A couple of weeks ago I wrote a piece pondering whether the Liberal Party was in terminal decline.
The day after the piece was published, a by-election was held for a federal electorate in the outer-eastern suburbs of Melbourne – an area that should be demographically suited to the Liberals. Prior to the election the seat was held by the Liberal Party, and historically the party should have retained it. No government had won a seat from an opposition party in a by-election since 1920. Yet this is exactly what happened. The Labor Party candidate cruised to a comfortable victory.
So if the Liberal Party is in decline, does this mean that the Labor Party is in ascendency? In terms of governing jurisdictions, this clearly looks to be the case – Labor currently controls all federal, state, and territory governments except Tasmania, a state of just half a million people. Yet in terms of overwhelming support for the party things are a little more complex.
The Labor Party won last year’s federal election with a primary vote of just under 33 percent. In Australia’s preferential voting system a primary vote is the percentage of people who placed a number 1 next to a party’s candidate’s name. Primary votes are important for understanding trends, but in a voting system that builds consensus within each electorate it is less important for determining outcomes.
The declining share of primary votes for Labor and the wider conservative Coalition of the Liberal and National parties is the current major theme of Australian politics. Fifteen years ago these two blocs attracted 85.5 percent of primary votes between them. At last year’s federal election this had been reduced to 68.5 percent. The public has become increasingly suspicious of its governing parties and is seeking other options.
The Labor Party has been able to form governments because people are ranking the party’s candidates higher on their ballots. Preferential voting allows the voter effectively two votes – one to signal their preferred candidate, and a second to indicate who they would trust otherwise. In a political culture of increasing distrust in Australia’s governing parties, the consensus is that Labor is more trustworthy.
A desire to protect stability is one of the defining elements of the Australian psyche, but this doesn’t necessarily mean Australians have an aversion to change. Preferential voting allows the public to slowly chip away at a party system that they feel isn’t representing their interests without completely setting fire to it. What we are witnessing is a very Australian revolution – measured and methodical, a revolution of process over protest. The preferential voting system provides a safety net for the public’s experiments.
The Australian public is engaged in a long term project to reshape the country’s political landscape to better reflect the current era. Both the Liberal and Labor parties are very much products of the 20th century. Their traditional ideas and interest groups no longer reflect 21st century economic and social realities. This is the current struggle of most conservative and social-democratic parties throughout the West, and some parties are handling it better than others.
The Liberal Party’s response to these economic and social changes has been haphazard and agitated – approaches that are confronting to the country’s general disposition. The party’s incessant negativity is also proving exhausting. In a system of compulsory voting, the sentiments of the most politically active are almost irrelevant. Yet the party has become mentally captured by American-style politics that requires constant fervent support and the need to inspire people to the polls. These are counterproductive tactics when most Australians are deeply suspicious of fervor.
While also affected by this century’s economic and social shifts, Labor’s current approach to politics is aligning better with the national demeanor. The party is demonstrating calmer and more conscientious qualities. This is the recognition that progress requires a certain conservatism – an ability to make change with stability in mind; to give weight to those who struggle with change, protect what works, and to be wary of unintended consequences. This more considerate approach to politics is one that Labor has grasped as the Liberals have abandoned it.
However, while coast-to-coast Labor governments may make it look like the party is thoroughly dominant, this disguises what is actually taking place in Australian politics. There is a sophisticated, decentralized, challenge to the country’s long-standing party system developing with each subsequent election. The election of Labor governments is simply a temporary faith being placed in them to govern seriously while the public is constructing the more multipolar political system they clearly desire.