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A political impasse

By Peter McMahon - posted Monday, 19 February 2018

Australia's political system no longer works. Politics is always messy, but the growing irrelevance of the main political parties, the failure of the Greens to find a definite role, and the rise of populist and single issue parties all indicate that national politics is becoming dangerously volatile. The complete failure of this system to properly deal with core structural challenges - such as environmental sustainability generally, the increasingly fragile global geo-political situation, immigration and long term development - indicates that basic changes are needed.

Australian voting patterns suggest that although the overall dominance of the main parties remains, voters increasingly vote against a party as opposed to for the opposition. Similarly the rise of smaller and single issue parties suggests a growing lack of confidence in the major parties. Our national constitution says nothing about political parties as such, but diminishing confidence in the major parties must represent a growing questioning of the system itself.

Political parties and the political system they both support, and are supported by, only ever represent in an approximate way the varied interests of a society. However, a case can be made that Australia's political system and related institutional forms, such as parties and parliaments, have been relatively successful in representing the country's broad socio-economic concerns, given that the realities of democratic politics tend to result in the formation of two camps.


In Australia, as in all developed nations, the party political structure was initially based in socio-economic class. In essence, Labor represented the working class and segments of the middle classes, while the Coalition represented the upper class and some of the middle classes. Over the years, what these parties stood for became increasingly clear to all and elections increasingly pivoted on swinging voters, mostly elements of the middle class.

For all its faults, most people recognised this situation and what it meant. Although national development occurred in an international context, politics in Australia was largely driven by Australian issues and had a definite Australian flavour. The main issues were maintaining social stability (including industrial relations and race issues), trade conditions and international relations (especially in relation to Asia, Britain and the US). There was in essence a broad social and political consensus that both sides basically supported.

The big shift came with the arrival and spread of the ideology of neoliberalism in the late 1970s and 1980s. Emerging out of certain European thinkers and then developed in US universities (especially Chicago University) it was further propelled by the by then powerful corporate sector. It entered into the political mainstream and achieved formal political success with the election of Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the US.

Becoming the accepted doctrine in key Australian institutions, especially some university economics departments and then national and state treasuries, neoliberalism conceptually challenged prevailing political orthodoxy. This was in part because it offered a new way of understanding the manifest challenges represented by the economic, political, social and technological changes collectively known as globalisation.

The Fraser Coalition government encountered pressure from these ideas, especially as championed by then Treasurer John Howard, but Fraser continued to opt for more orthodox nationalist policies. It was the new Hawke Labor government that decided to allow neoliberalism a foothold, albeit one in which working and lower middle class interests were protected to some degree by maintaining a strong union presence, known as the Accord.

Neoliberalism in effect undermined the class positions of both major political parties, and both have spent the subsequent years trying to find a new role even as the now global socio-economic system presented ever more thorny problems. Among these problems was the scientific evidence for global warming, the rise of an ever more comprehensive but fragile global finance system, politico-military hegemonic changes (including the end of the Cold War and the rise of China) and mass immigration.


So a major problem has been the decline of our national political system as various global forces have continued to rise in importance. The institutional structures riding the globalisation wave, especially transnational corporations, global finance companies and global media firms, have been increasingly influential in creating change within Australia.

This has been particularly true of mining companies, financial companies (including ratings agencies) and global media interests (especially the Murdoch organisations). These bodies control resources that dwarf national assets, and can set agendas and pursue long term projects in the face of just about any local interests.

At the same time national politics was going through a fundamental shift, in large part due to the relative socio-economic stability of the 50s and 60s, and even into 70s and 80s. Due to the basic agreement that national politics was primarily focused on maintaining certain key indicators (basically, acceptable employment rates, interest rates, inflation rates and foreign exchange rates) politics became centred on a few percentage points in each of these areas. This allowed for higher influence by Treasury (now dominated by neoliberal ideology) over other departments, the rise of financial specialists (not to mention lobbyists) in terms of policy-making, and a general narrowing of debate. Within the main political parties themselves increasingly young (and thus otherwise inexperienced) staffers with understanding of the latest polling capabilities but little else came to prominence.

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About the Author

Dr Peter McMahon has worked in a number of jobs including in politics at local, state and federal level. He has also taught Australian studies, politics and political economy at university level, and until recently he taught sustainable development at Murdoch University. He has been published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in Australia and has written a short history of economic development and sustainability in Western Australia. His book Global Control: Information Technology and Globalisation was published in the UK in 2002. He is now an independent researcher and writer on issues related to global change.

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