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The two-party system is dead – hooray?

Roger Scott describes the Brexit referendum as the last nail in the two-party Westminster system coffin, and discusses the history of the model applied in Australia, particularly the rejection of ‘first-past-the-post’ voting.

A response from ‘JP – Brisbane’

Roger Scott writes: “Australian students have been taught at school and at university that the two party system that which operates in Britain – the Westminster model – is the ideal type.”

JP has responded:

‘Really Roger? I don’t believe I ever was, and I did a few weeks of Politics I with Hetherington and Reid when I was in Adelaide.

‘I was taught that it was what we had, but did anyone ever idealise it? Don’t think so. It was just what we had, because politics was basically the industrial conflict reflected into democratic politics. Whose law is it that says the number of significant parties is the number of significantly-divisive issues plus one? Seems intuitively sensible to me.

(It is of course an ideal type in the Weberian sense but I don’t think that’s what you’re saying.)

Roger Scott responds to ‘JP’

The University of Tasmania, unlike the University of Adelaide, sat on the extremes of the British cultural fringe, facing Antarctica.   I also attended a school which was (very loosely) modelled on an English Public School, complete with cold showers and stones embedded in the chapel wall from Eton, Harrow etc.

After studying almost exclusively British history, alongside (more) ancient history at school, I received a thorough grounding in British and comparative politics at university, delivered by English immigrant academics. We only reached Australia in our second year.

The Westminster model was thus presented as an “ideal type” in both the conventional and the Weberian sense.   You were indeed privileged to have had superlative teaching from my Aussie friend Gordon Reid, who went on to higher things when he moved west – (if State Governor can be thus classified.)

We Tasmanaians did learn about the law to which you advert – from books written by continentals like R. Michels and M. Duverger, which were needed to explain the deviance away from Westminster to the inferior multi-party and thus unstable systems which prevailed across the channel.

So I accept the criticism of generalising about Australian education from such a narrow base.

A response from ‘PKR – Melbourne’

Roger – ‘Hello, enjoyed your article. I have marvelled (sometimes in writing) how it is that leaders who constantly sing the virtues of diversity seem unable to accept that such diversity has long ceased to be “representable” by a class-based two party system.

‘Re your point on the preferential system. Was that really some sort of non-acceptance of the UK FPP or more the pragmatic response to the rise of the Country Party? And later, PR for the Senate- certainly self-serving (albeit misjudged) by Labor.

‘Agree totally about the SSM plebiscite. Those who think that the current level of support will be reflected in the vote are in for a huge shock. Sad that no-one in this country can make the case that “rights” should not be dependent on the (often) transient views of a majority.’

‘PLR – Brisbane’: When we became preferential

I did not know that T J Ryan’s arch-enemy had been the progenitor of preferential voting for predictably slippery reasons.  ‘PLR Brisbane’ sets the record straight:

‘The Constitution in 1901 did not specify an electoral method. The colonies had inherited, and used the UK FPTP electoral system as did the federal Parliament until the Flinders by-election in 1919(?) when the newly emerged Country Party threatened to split the non-ALP vote, so Billy Hughes legislated for preferential voting which the became the norm for subsequent federal elections and mostly by the states, although they tripped around from time to time with other variants and methods. Interestingly when PR was adopted for the Senate in 1948 for the 1949 election, there were no minor parties extant. The strategic use of PR for minors came in 1955 with the DLP and has been used, with increasing alacrity, since then – which leads to the thrust of your argument.

‘The binary 2-party system whose corrosiveness you identify cannot, in my opinion, be precisely dated, and in any event, I would think is not an institutional phenomenon. With hindsight I think its roots lay in the anti-Vietnam war protests, women and gay liberation movements of the 1970s – 80s. This socialised a new generation into issue voting. As these were then largely nascent issues the two major parties were able, with varying degrees of success, to move to cover these, but issue voting rose with environmental matters on all fronts, globalisation, erosion of blue collar work, the over supply of graduates and the proletarianisation of the professions.

‘Two related phenomena then, over time, conjoined. First was the rise of single issue pressure groups some of which morphed into parties or quasi – parties, standing candidates as a way of publicising their causes, however disparate they may be. The second was the rise of protest voting of the “pissed off” voters who could see no advantage in the majors, and for whom the minors offered only little answers (e.g. Hanson, Palmer, Lambie). With our compulsory voting, both these classes of people have to go somewhere. In UK or NZ, many would not vote and in voluntary voting systems one can accurately gauge the disaffected by the rise and fall of the DNV.

‘The attenuation of the old class system, based on education level, occupation and income has under pinned this whole shift in Australian and other like systems. It has not fully eroded but means that the majors have to scramble for a new class of voter concerns. Interestingly the Coalition has retreated into the old Tory mantra of economy, and ALP in to social welfare related issues. Is this the last role of the old dice? Super business man and former lawyer Turnbull versus former lawyer and TU leader Shorten. Remember the cry of the Jack Cade rebellion in the early1400s, “First hang the lawyers”!’

Roger Scott responds to ‘PLR’

This erudite contribution requires (another) ‘mea culpa’ for my deficient knowledge of constitutional history relating to voting systems. I had anticipated that the Tasmanian AG in the talks on federation, the Clark of Hare/Clark, had inserted preferential from the start! Tasmania was already PR by 1906 – my own honours thesis covered 1906-1956 for this reason.

‘SK – Brisbane’: Why the spiral continues

1. Of the four rich-nation, Westminster systems (UK, NZ, Canada, and Australia), to varying degrees, all seem to have moved away from the traditionally understood (and traditionally taught) two-party, government/opposition dynamic. Yet, there is no single, unifying reason for this (aside from PLR’s post-materialist/post-ideological reasoning, but more on that below.) Canada and the UK can trace this in particular to regional/nationalistic causes; NZ arguably to a change to MMP, and Australia….again, more on this below. Yet, at these countries’ most-recent elections, they managed to elect majority governments: Australia 2013, NZ 2014 (though not quite: 60 of 121 seats, but as close as could be expected under MMP); UK 2015, and Canada 2015. But, in all jurisdictions, the opposition parties/independents are far from a unified whole, or even coalition: the anti-two party dynamic remains in the wings.

2. As to post-materialist/post-ideological politics, owing to compulsory and preferential voting, Australia may have been uniquely affected by this. In short, an intertwined dynamic of “issues” based voting and the decline of mass-based parties was in operation. Parties moved towards an “electoral-professional/catch-all/cartel” modus operandi, in order to capture increasingly unaligned voters. They were buttressed in this by not having to appeal to their base in order to “get out the vote”. Yet, the more they did this, the more voters felt/feel that the major parties “stood/stand for nothing”. This, in turn, raises the appeal of populist and other candidates and smaller parties; and indeed of non-party participation as a means of political expression and engagement. In turn, the parties become even more cartelised, and so the spiral continues….

Political endangered species – the decline of the major party voter

Richard Denniss of The Australia Institute writes:

‘The state of Australia’s democracy has been much maligned in recent times with many commentators lamenting the “chaos” of hung parliaments and powerful crossbenches. While this may have upset the major parties and some commentators the Australian public are far more relaxed about the rise of minor parties and independents. A majority of Australians consider it normal for the government to have to negotiate with crossbenchers.

‘But the rising influence of minor parties and independents is a symptom rather than the cause of the disconnection between voters and the major parties. It is also likely that this influence will increase with the double dissolution halving the voting quota for a Senate position.

‘A shrinking portion of Australia’s voting age population casts a valid vote in elections. In 2013 federal election only 75 per cent of adult Australians cast a valid vote.’

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