What’s in store for Australian political parties in 2017?

| January 9, 2017

Angry and disaffected voters will increasingly be a challenge for the Turnbull Government this year. Political expert Dominic O’Sullivan talks us through the opportunities and potential pitfalls for our political parties.

The Turnbull Government has begun 2017 badly. Its changes to old-age pensions and mismanaged attempts to recover Centrelink debts are not the decisive, competent and confident beginnings that the Government needed to regain the political ground that has slowly and consistently eroded since last year’s election. The old saying that if governments look after the policy, the politics will look after itself could not be more true.

The Government’s problem is that ‘jobs and growth’ has become a slogan. There is, of course, a plan behind the slogan, but it has not been well articulated and it is not clear to the public what more there is to the plan than corporate tax cuts. In recent days, media images of corporate leaders taking a day off to ride multimillion dollar yachts, from which they called on a sympathetic government to cut weekend penalty rates for ordinary workers, can only add to the view of Menzies’ ‘forgotten people’ and Howard’s ‘battlers’ that the Turnbull Government is not for them.

The British battlers and forgotten people supported Brexit, just as those in the United States elected Trump. These are angry and disaffected voters, like those in the New South Wales state seat of Orange, who in November 2016 recorded the largest ever swing against a government in a by-election. Their discontent elected the Shooters and Fishers party to its first seat in the NSW lower House.

2017 will see parties like One Nation desperately exploit this disaffection. The party is so confident of doing well in state elections due this year in Queensland and Western Australia that it is seriously vetting candidates; a practice with which it has not previously bothered. It needs to do so; alienation and discontent is far more sophisticated and potentially much deeper than people like Rod Cullerton and Malcolm Roberts’ can understand. Conspiracy theories and confusing personal shortcomings for victimhood are not foundations for offering hope and vision to the forgotten people, the battlers searching for a politics that has something to say to them. Nevertheless, one can expect 2017 to be a good year for One Nation.

The Greens are set to retain their protest vote to Labor’s left. But The Greens, too, is an angry party. Its stance against the treatment of asylum seekers is grounded in moral outrage; not a positive and measured view of human obligation or human potential that might help to re-frame the policy debate, help set an agenda where humanity replaces the battler’s insecurity.

In 2016, the Xenophon party did well to fill a void in South Australia. Xenophon’s is not the party of the angry but it is, potentially, a party for the battlers who simply want a voice; a politics of inclusion where people, not ideology, determine public policy. The Xenophon party’s challenge is to create a base beyond South Australia and to show that it is a party, not just a name.

Cathy McGowan’s re-election as an Independent in the country Victorian seat of Indi showed that there is a place for strong personal community connectedness and attention to the parochial concerns of rural people. McGowan has a political model that might well be replicated by the right personalities in other country seats. However, Australia’s is very much a two-party system. One Nation, the Greens, Xenophon and Independents compete in a limited, though steadily growing market for votes outside the big parties. Their chance for greater influence is a change to a proportional electoral system.

The growth of voter disaffection and consistent decline in combined support for the two big parties provide the ideal circumstances in which to develop the case for a move to a proportional electoral system. Tasmania and the ACT have them and have had a succession of stable minority or coalition governments. New Zealand’s proportional representation system replaced a first past the post system in 1996, precisely because of the depth of public dissatisfaction with the two major parties at that time. Only once, since 1996, has a government failed to function and at no time has the system’s breadth of representation led to anything like Paul Keating’s senate of ‘unrepresentative swill’. As a general rule, people have confidence in the system.

The absence of proportional representation means that it is only to the ALP than one can turn for an alternative government. Bill Shorten’s leadership is secure. Party rule changes, insisted upon by Kevin Rudd, mean that there is no longer the culture of changing leaders to satisfy a factional power play; a game in which Shorten participated with great enthusiasm earlier in his career.

The Opposition’s job is to oppose, propose and depose. The former is always the easiest of these and the ALP is doing that part of the job rather well. Proposing alternatives is not always preliminary to deposing a government; sometimes governments do that by themselves. However, proposing does require a receptive public, an ability to communicate effectively and inspire. An electorate overcome with cynicism and mistrust of the process itself makes inspiration very difficult and as 2016 showed, from the Orange by-election to the United States’ Presidency, lack of confidence in the established system can lead people to search for inspiration in the oddest of places.

Alternatively, as Labor’s Jim Chalmers proposes ‘insiders’ need to think like ‘outsiders’.