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Towards a two-and-a-half party system?

By Ian Marsh - posted Monday, 30 July 2001

Most comment on the Aston by-election has focussed on the implications for the upcoming federal election. I believe a more fundamental game is being played out. This involves movement to a new pattern of politics. What are the signs? Recent elections show gathering public disaffection from the major parties. In Aston, the first preference vote for independents and minor parties equalled 23%. In Ryan, this vote was 18%. In the Western Australian state election this number was 28%. In the 1998 Senate election, 24%. Bob Katter’s decision to stand as an independent is another symptom. An ‘independent alliance’ is evidently under discussion. The continuing electoral standing of One Nation, despite its extraordinary organisational incompetence, is a further sign.

Assuming Democrats, Greens and independents do not cannibalise each others vote, what form might a new political order take? We need look no further than our own historic experience for a pattern. Indeed, the Federation Centenary is an appropriate time to recall the distinctiveness of Australia’s structure of government. The Senate was modelled on its American counterpart. It is a uniquely powerful chamber.

It was created as an arena for the representation and expression of minority opinion. This was achieved through equal representation of the States, whose citizens constituted the primary minorities at the time of Federation. The Senate, as the House of minorities, was to be a political check on the ‘elective dictatorship’, which might otherwise have been exercised by Lower House majorities. The combination of a ‘strong’ executive and ‘strong’ minority representation is a uniquely Australian political form.


The Senate operated as the independent Chamber it was intended to be from Federation (1901) until the emergence of the two party system, which occurred broadly from 1909. In the years before this latter event, its potential was displayed. The Senate acted as a kind of agenda gatekeeper, providing a forum for evaluating new and emerging issues. Its committee system was the medium. Committee inquiries considered whether new items should be included on the public agenda. They were catalysts in developing opinion amongst relevant stakeholders. Inquiries began the process of forming ad hoc coalitions for or against particular measures.

A cameo two-and-a-half party system constituted essential background. Over the 1901-1909 period, three political grouping vied for electoral support. These were the free traders, protectionists and the then emerging Labor Party.

The rise of minor parties and the growing support for independents points to a possible renewal of the 1901 to 1909 system. Independents may be present in increasing numbers in the Lower House. But because minority opinion is better reflected in the composition of the Senate, this chamber is the likely focus of change.

Should this possibility be welcomed? A renewal of the Senate’s role, particularly as the gatekeeper of the strategic agenda, would be consonant with changes in Australia’s society, polity and economy. In recent years, Australian society has differentiated and pluralised. Interest groups and social movements have proliferated. The representational hegemony formerly exercised by the major parties has been overturned. Meantime, economic globalisation has narrowed economic policy options. The major parties have converged.

But party rhetoric belies bipartisanship. What one side declares black, the other invariably asserts to be white. This charade has become progressively more transparent to an increasingly cynical electorate.

From the perspective of policy making, the most significant changes have involved the major party organisations. The organisations are no longer custodians of the strategic issue agenda. Party conferences have become stage-managed affairs. Party memberships have contracted. Party officials are mostly polling and marketing professionals. Save for the trade unions (whose representative role has significantly weakened), the major party organisations no longer mobilise activists or interest groups.


Further, the proportion of the electorate with strong or very strong identification with one or other of the major parties has shrunk to less than fifty percent. As a consequence, the capacity of party labels or ‘brands’ to cue public opinion has diminished.

The net effect of these changes is a significant weakening of the capacity of the political system to manage strategic issues. The political system generally lacks a capacity to seed the development of public opinion in a strategic phase or to initiate the formation of ad hoc interest group coalitions.

Yet the need for these capabilities has, if anything, expanded. A widening public agenda means overlap and interdependence between issues has increased. The proliferation of interest groups and social movements makes coalition building a necessary facet of policy development. Economic globalisation, at the least, requires governments with enhanced capacities to lead the formation of public opinion. The formal political system either lacks these capabilities altogether, or possesses them only in attenuated forms.

The rising power of minor parties in the Australian Senate, and the developing power of that Chamber’s committee system, is, in this context, a potentially positive development. The functional equivalent of capabilities that were formerly contributed by the mass party organisations, might now be lodged in parliament.

In the process, the general capacity of the political system to mediate policy development might be renewed. Such possibilities are still in embryo in Australia. Swelling public support for minor parties and independents brings change in the structure of politics within prospect. Their standing will be the really significant outcome of the up-coming federal election.

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About the Author

Ian Marsh is Adjunct Professor, UTS Business School. He is the author, with Raymond Miller of Democratic Decline and Democratic Renewal: Political Change in Britain, Australia and New Zealand (Cambridge, 2012).

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