Small Parties in Australia: Why they have not penetrated the heart of the two-party system

“[Minor party ‘x’] has good ideas for Australia’s future. Why can’t they get into power?” moans a disappointed minor party voter at the announcement of election results.

The simple answer that ‘they lacked the votes to propel them to power’ does not abate the disappointment of voters like this. The answer, while correct, doesn’t serve to provide understanding of the underlying barriers to small party electoral success, nor does it provide a way forward for minor parties and their supporters. A more comprehensive explanation is necessary; with a focus on the federal ‘government forming’ lower house, these barriers will be explored to develop a clear understanding of the difficulties faced by minor parties in breaking the hold of the ‘two-party’ system.

To understand why minor parties have difficulty gaining electoral success, it is necessary to understand where they ‘fit’ in the Australian context. While there is a degree of contention, Australia is generally understood to be a ‘two-party’ system (Ward & Stewart, 2010, p. 153, see also Gauja, 2010). This doesn’t imply a lack of other parties; the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) confirms a current registration total of over 30 political parties (AEC 2011). However, the majority of these are ‘minor parties’ who, in spite of putting candidates up for election, achieve little or no representation in parliament (1988). In the case of some small parties, this is not problematic; several minor parties have formed with a primary goal of politicising specific issues, and success for these parties is gained through major party incorporation. Success can also be gained for all minor parties through the passing of preferences (Haeg, 2006, Ward & Stewart, 2010, p. 163, Marsh, 2003) in a majority preferential election system. With this more flexible idea of success, minor parties can effect change (Gauja, 2010); however the fact remains that, in spite of the existence of these parties, only the two ‘major’ parties are truly ‘relevant’, in the sense that they are able gain enough votes to form government (Croissant & Merkel, 2004, pp. 3-4).

There are several reasons why these two ‘major’ parties have these privileged positions. If Von Beymes’ description of political party functions is considered (see Weil, 2001, p. 2153), it is clearly seen that through the historical development of this two-party contest the major parties have: built up their party policies; articulated, aggregated and represented interests; recruited and developed their ‘political elites’, and mobilised citizens in the electorate. The major parties have also had the time to shape the publics’ political interests and thinking (Beer, as cited in Marsh, 2003, p. 258, Conley, 2004). It can be argued that the opposite is true of the small parties; this idea forms a basis of understanding the lack of electoral success, however this explanation is still too broad, and overly simplistic.

To develop this base, consideration must be given to the simple factor of time. Major parties have had a fairly considerable monopoly in the political sphere for many years. This time has allowed them to develop policies and test them on the electorate, gradually modifying them through social and institutional change. Minor parties have not had this time to develop policies and test them; it has been noted that many small parties do not survive past a 3 year threshold (see Gauja, 2010, p. 489). This has led to a circular problem of small parties in the two party system; to develop, a small party needs to gain popularity quickly, but with the brief time the parties are in existence for, the electorates largely discount them. It is also the case that minor party platforms often lack coherence, and focus on specific issues or sectors of society, limiting their appeal to ‘mainstream’ voters.

Assisting the major parties was the fact that the primary politicised social division, or ‘social cleavage’ (Weil, 2001) between Australians through much of their history was that of social class. Particular features of the ‘Australian Settlement’ helped to ensure this (see Stokes, 2004). With a more modern, individualised (see Beck & Beck-Gernsheim, 2002) and pluralised society, this old line of cleavage has become blurred, and others become salient, encouraging the development of minor parties, who found a support base initially amongst floating and swing voters (Marsh, 2004). The advantage, however, has been with the major parties, since they were better placed to react to these changes. Platforms presented by minor parties, which usually form around new social cleavages, include policies or ideas the major parties may have preferred to ignore or avoid. This has resulted in both success and failure for minor parties; a measure of minor party ‘success’, through forcing recognition of issues, and subsequent modifications to major party policies; however it has also lead to erosion of a minor parties support base, effectively shutting them out of the competition. The major parties have taken advantage of this, by the development of their policies to a relatively ‘catch-all’ position (Puhle, 2002, pp. 68-69) towards the ideological ‘centre’; this has been primarily to target, and capture those floating and swing voters (Marsh, 2003), who had provided those minor party votes. Over time, this ‘catch-all’ position has led to major parties developing policies with broad appeal, in order to maximise their votes, while leaving little ideological space for minor parties to seize.

In concert with the limited social cleavages found in Australia, minor parties have had other significant issues in maximising their vote share. Minor parties need to compete with a relatively strong ‘party identification’ that the major parties have developed amongst the population. Wattenberg (2002) describes this as a ‘vital function’ of parties in ‘simplifying choices for voters’, so that the ‘party label’ provides ‘a key informational short-cut’ in making a decision on whom ‘people like me’ vote for (2002, p. 6). This has been compounded by an almost socially inherited allegiance to one of the major parties, usually through familial connections, in spite of the blurring cleavages that formed their original support base. This type of party identification effectively shuts out minor parties, since voters identifying with the major parties are considerably less likely to vote against that party (see Dalton et al., 2002, p. 38), and are much more likely to follow instructions on the distribution of their preferences. The minor parties have not yet been able to tap into this pool of voters with their policies, which are often specific to a particular issue, or subsection of the population.

Also affecting minor party vote share is a downward trend in engagement with social and political institutions, a perceived lack of efficacy (Cox, 2002), and a lack of interest in politics in general (Norton, 2002). This has been theorised as a result of declining social capital (Cox, 2002), and a developing ‘post-modernist’ society (various, see Marsh, 2004, p. 124); This combines a lack of confidence in interactions with others in society, with considerable changes to social values. These effects can lead to voters taking ‘short cuts’ with their vote, through ‘donkey voting’, where they simply number their ballot from top to bottom, or vice versa.. Alternatively, through disinterest, or believing their vote to be insignificant, they can simply vote for a major party on the basis that they are known entities, or follow any how to vote card offered to them, without considering the implications of such an act. This is difficult to prove, since these are all considered valid ballot papers, and questioning for ‘official’ purposes is difficult to do directly.

Interestingly, party size can also be a factor in minor party success. The major parties, with their large supporter base and time developed duopoly, have considerably greater visibility in the electorate, in turn allowing them to develop a greater perception of legitimacy. This is another circular problem for the minor parties, whereby they require a substantial member and support base to be seen as ‘legitimate’ (Paskeviciute, 2005), however in order to get their message out, and develop this membership and support base, they must be visible, and seen as ‘legitimate’. The major parties have also encouraged the notion of greater accountability through the increased visibility of politics through media advertising, which has been of greater advantage to the major parties. With access to significantly higher funding, both through membership fees and government sources, the major parties can afford increased access to national and regional advertising.

This raises another related point which inhibits small party success. Media has assumed an educative role within the political sphere, and has become the primary distributor of campaign messages and platforms. Mass media has been integrated to a point where they have become an intermediary between both politicians and the electorate. This has increased the financial costs of advertising to all parties, which makes it difficult for small parties, who most often do not have this level of financial support, to get their messages heard. This can lead to voters overlooking, or outright rejecting the minor parties through a simple lack of information, rather than issues outlined previously.

Institutional factors can also lead to the impotence of small parties. Consider the electoral system used for Australian federal elections; it favours the major parties through the compulsory nature of voting, the segregation of people by arbitrary borders into electorates, and the requirement for full preferences. All of these act to inhibit the success of minor parties.

While compulsory voting may act against major parties in cases where voters are disgruntled about being forced to ‘do their democratic duty’ (Mackerras & McAllister, 1999, Engelen, 2007), and take issue with major parties, it is commonly considered that compulsory voting is both popular (Mackerras & McAllister, 1999) and assists the major parties (Ward & Stewart, 2010, p. 223, Marsh, 2004, p. 134), especially on the left side of the spectrum (Mackerras & McAllister, 1999). By compulsion, there is less of a requirement to ‘mobilise’ their voters through active lobbying and advertising in their electorates; without compulsion, it could be considered that only those who were ‘active’ participants through encouragement or interest would turn out to vote (Engelen, 2007). Compulsion may also assist major parties through ‘default’ votes cast by disinterested voters, selecting a major party because they are a ‘known’ quantity. This also highlights a psychological effect of the electoral system on voters (Croissant & Merkel, 2004, p. 14, Norton, 2002, p. 34) in that people have a tendency to back a ‘winner’.

Due to an arbitrary segregation of the population into ‘electorates’, to win a single seat, a party must achieve more than half the total votes in their electorate, either through first preferences, or in combination with later preferences. As a result, a small party doesn’t only need to be popular, but they need to have their popularity densely grouped in one or more electorates. This is especially disadvantageous for small parties, since it is common that their support base is more evenly distributed across a much wider area. It also disadvantages small parties who do not contest in every electorate, where they are potentially missing out on a seat.

Preferential voting is an example of a majoritarian plurality system; it has been noted that ‘the “absolute majority by preferences” electoral system works to ensure two-party control of the House of Representatives’ (Haeg, 2006, p. 14). Full preferential voting also forces voters to provide preferences to candidates they do not wish to support at all, since there is no option besides submitting a blank voting slip to refuse support for a particular party or parties. Bennett and Lundie also note another disproportional feature of the majoritarian system in a single member electorate. They call it the ‘winners bonus’, where there is a strong likelihood of the winning party being awarded a greater number of seats than their vote share would entitle them to (2007, p. 8).

Despite these factors limiting minor party success, the outlook for minor parties is not all bad. The research suggests increasing areas of social cleavage and a gradual decline in party identification, or ‘dealignment’ (see Dalton et al., 2002, Ward & Stewart, 2010 and others). The increase in availability and uptake of technology may help to counter the costs of media advertising through self-advertising on the internet. These factors indicate that those minor parties who develop and promote a broad policy platform to entice supporters, utilise current and emerging technologies to promote and enable voters, and ultimately recapture the interest of the electorates will have a much greater chance of success in future elections.

Overall, there are many and varied obstacles to small party success; from party specific issues, more complex societal issues, as well as institutionalised features within the system itself. As discussed earlier, the party system fulfils specific functions, which can be seen in the major parties development. To emulate this success, a small party must utilise all resources to perform these functions earlier, and better, than their major party counterparts. With research showing that major societal shifts are occurring, minor parties have been provided an opportunity to do this, and may ultimately lead to wider participation in Australian politics.



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