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The philosophical bazaar that is politics

By Michael Sullivan - posted Wednesday, 6 October 2010

One can think about politics in Australia like an after dinner party game, a sort of philosophical bazaar. Each player is given some currency, a vote, and they play the game by purchasing a product, a political party. The problem with the 2010 version of the game was that too many dinner guests couldn’t find a product that they were really interested in. Allow me to explain.

The oldest “product” up for sale was, of course, the Australian Labor Party (ALP). The ALP was founded in 1891 in Barcaldine Queensland and, like all political parties, it was a reflection of the political and social dynamics of the time. There were 3,178,000 non-indigenous Australians in 1891 (Australia Through Time (1998), p107) and a lot of them lived in the scrub (it was only after the 1967 referendum that Aboriginal statistics were included in our census data). Farming had been a labour intensive activity for a very long time, and that made the social fabric of our country regions and towns quite different to what they are like today. At that time farmers did what their fathers had done in generations past, and there simply wasn’t the large labour saving devices in existence that now dominate life on the land.

It is very difficult to extract detailed time-series data to describe the differences between then and now, but an indication of the situation back then can be had if you consider that the proportion of workers in agriculture fell from 30.2 per cent in 1911 to 4.3 per cent in 1996. Perhaps it was because almost one third of Australia’s workers lived and worked in the country that our oldest political party was formed in a small town 520 kilometres west of Rockhampton.


The union movement decided to organise representation in the parliaments of Australia, and it makes perfect sense that they wanted to change the laws of the land if one considers what was going on at the time. In that same town, and in the same year, (Barcaldine, March 28, 1891) five unionists were jailed for conspiracy. Part of the official charge was “... to unlawfully prevent certain of Her Majesty’s subjects from following their lawful occupation” (Australia Through Time (1998), p106). The employers of the time were using the police and the law courts to prevent unionists from organising workers, so the unions paved the way to change the law.

The point worth considering here is that the ALP began life as the political wing of the union movement. While they have tried to expand their appeal by trying to be social democrats too, the union movement have maintained a commanding influence on the party.

The second oldest “product” in our party game was the Liberal Party (LPA) and it was formed in 1944. The Liberal Party came about after a three-day meeting in a small hall not far from the then Parliament House in Canberra. There is something salient about the LPA being born in the shadows of Parliament House. Rather than being a party created to fulfil a natural hole in Australia’s political landscape, the LPA was in reality nothing more than the consolidation of socially conservative anti-Labor political groups. The founder, Bob Menzies, brought together his United Australia Party and the Nationalist Party of Australia (itself being the 1917 merger of the Commonwealth Liberal Party and the National Labor Party). The Liberal Party of Australia was really only the re-branding of an existent product.

The Liberal Party went through an extremely difficult period of change when in opposition between 1983 and 1996. While the Hawke-Keating administrations were very comfortably accommodating the political middle ground, the traditional base of the Liberal Party, the Liberal’s swung between advocating radical right wing economic and industrial relations policies, “the Dries” when John Howard and John Hewson were leaders and more centrist “small-l Liberal” philosophies of Andrew Peacock and Alexander Downer when they were leaders.

The Parliamentary Liberal Party had never really settled convincingly on either of these two philosophical positions when John Howard became leader after the gaffe-prone and increasingly unpopular leadership of Alexander Downer came to an end in January 1995. It was Howard’s third attempt to lead the Liberals and he took the mantle at a very auspicious time. Paul Keating’s ALP administration was becoming increasingly unpopular and the Liberals were set to win the election scheduled for 1996, all they had to do was look stable and fit to govern.

History shows that the Liberals went on to win the 1996 election, and they did so very convincingly. Howard ruled for 13 years, and he stacked his economic and industrial relations ministries with Dries. When the Howard years ended the battle between the “small-l”s and the Dries re-emerged and the matter remains unresolved. No better evidence of the closeness of this contest can be observed than the recent one vote victory of Tony Abbott over Malcolm Turnbull.


Although they’re not really in a position to form a government, the Greens do have the balance of power in the Senate and therebye can greatly influence the decisions of a government, so perhaps I should call them a “product” too. In the Commonwealth Parliament the Greens have been very different from the Labor and Liberal parties, they have been a genuine one-issue protest party. While they go to elections with a range of policies, the fact that they repeatedly voted down the Rudd administration’s CPRS legislation in the 42nd Parliament demonstrated that they haven’t really taken their hands far from the trunk of an endemic tree. They have been unable to re-produce the constructive broad governing efforts that their regional parliamentarians in the ACT and Tasmania demonstrated. Their actions in the 43rd Parliament will determine whether they grow and become an alternative party in the Commonwealth Parliament or whether they fade into obscurity as other protest parties have done in the past.

As I said at the start, the “products” on offer at the 2010 dinner party were unattractive to the dinner guests. Since Gough Whitlam abolished university fees the nature of Australia’s constituents has altered substantially. They have become more and more educated, they have developed increasingly sophisticated problem solving skills, and they value individualism. Both major parties, and the Greens also, vote in blocks. Conscience votes are rarely allowed by the Labor or Liberal parties and that is not in step with the values of the growing majority of constituents.

It makes sense for Labor to want their parliamentarians to vote as a block. It is consistent with unionists philosophy around the world. “Divided we stand, united we fall” is the great strength, if not the only strength, that the owners of labour have over the owners of capital. By contrast, there is absolutely no logic for representatives of the Liberal Party to almost always vote as one. Since its conception the Liberal Party has espoused and applauded the freedom that individualism can provide. They have regularly derided Labor supporters as being the automatons of the shop steward and implored voters to become free and act as an individual. Why do they then club together like a mob each and every time a vote is called for in the parliament?

A political party that imposed the barest minimum number of party votes, an independent coalition, would be relevant to most Australian voters. There would be large segments from the existing major parties that would be more suited to an independent coalition. The social democrats that presently support Labor and the “small-l” Liberals would fit in better with it than they do with their present parties. The benefit to constituents would also be substantial.

An independent coalition would offer a platform from which talented individuals could champion specialist reforms without first having to embolden themselves to either the Labor or Liberal party machines. Our parliaments would become more accessable to those specialists. They could replace the dedicated and hard working, but otherwise untalented, volunteers that are presently rewarded by the major parties with a safe spot on their senate tickets. We could take power away from the apparatchiks of the major parties and hand it back to the constituents.

Better legislation, more capable parliaments, less party hacks, I’m having trouble finding a down side to this. The independent members of the House of Representatives have driven a new age of behaviour in future parliaments. It’s up to us to drive a new age of political parties to fill them.

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About the Author

Michael Sullivan has a Bachelor of Commerce degree and a Graduate Diploma in Social Science (Public Sector Management). He is now retired on medical grounds after a hectic and varied life in the paid workforce. He has been a small business operator, a milkman, a fleet manager for a major international operator, a bank teller, and a pizza delivery driver to name just a few of his many jobs. Michael is a keen observer of politics and current affairs in Australia and around the world.

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