Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The Problem of Elections and Australia’s Two-Party Parliamentary System

Bruce Wearne


August 23, 2013

By Bruce Wearne

Australian voters go to the polls on September 7th for parliamentary elections. The Australian Labor Party (ALP) has held the Treasury Benches since Prime Minister Rudd led it to victory in December 2007. By 2010, the Rudd government was in trouble, in spite of helping Australia weather the global financial crisis. Anticipating an election in 2010, the party’s power brokers removed Rudd to make way for Julia Gillard, who became Australia’s first female Prime Minister. However, by late June of this year, a clear majority of Labor’s federal parliamentarians believed that Gillard was in fact an electoral liability. Rudd won a leadership ballot among his parliamentary colleagues and has been back in the top job for the past few months. Now pundits have given Labor a greater chance although most polls indicate a Liberal-National coalition victory. I suspect that Rudd’s reinstatement came about from a belief that with him as leader, the potential losses would be minimized and the party could survive even should the Coalition take Government.   

Despite all the distraction of populist politics, government is a God-given duty for which citizens are also accountable. But our political system is very wobbly and these latest wobbles only confirm the cynicism prevalent across the entire electorate. It seems that a discussion of the responsibility of citizens to uphold justice can only ever be an afterthought once it has been decided which party will hold the reins of power for the next three years. In this Federated Commonwealth, Australia’s version of parliamentary representation continues on in the presumption that all political issues can be resolved by either leaning to the left or to the right. Both the ALP and the Liberal-National coalition avoid making a clear and unequivocal statement of policy when it comes to legislation that might touch sensitive moral issues. The accountability of elected representatives to their electors is confused and easily undermined by unscrupulous back flips in order to win more votes.

Both parties doggedly hold tight to policies that attempt to marry pragmatism with neo-liberalism. In Australia, the ALP has been the political harbinger of neo-liberalism, while the Liberal-Nationals continue to scramble to project a pragmatic image as "fixers of the economy". And so ALP liberalism parading as progressive finds itself opposed to Liberal-National pragmatism parading as conservative. In this context, opinion polls and mass media conglomerates maintain a decisive influence over how parliamentary parties present their policies.

With this in mind, can we still call this parliamentary democracy? Yes, but these parliamentary parties will have a struggle on their hands to discover and present their own political identities. Currently, multiple political viewpoints are corralled under one “big-tent” umbrella in order to win elections, mimicking US-style politics. Rudd’s attempt to help the ALP remain a “big tent” was on display in his announcement of the election when he called upon Labor’s supporters, old and new, to dig deep and ensure the party could run a successful campaign. This appeal was unprecedented and it actually indicates that the party, despite having received significant public funds to run its campaigns, is not in good shape.

The problem with “big tent” politics is that it displaces authentic and accountable parliamentary representation based upon political conviction. The notion that a party should represent the needs and interests of the citizens who then hold it accountable has been largely forgotten in the practical task of winning an election. This form of politics justifies itself by the accumulation of Facebook "likes," successful interest-group brokerage, and opinion polls that endorse electoral machine demands over platform principles.          

The underlying political crisis here in Australian politics is not so very different from what is being experienced in North America, the United Kingdom, and Europe. Both the ALP and the Liberal-National coalition seek to embrace all shades of political opinion under their respective “big tents.” As with the United States, the major Australian parties are so focused on advertising their indispensability to our system of government that the idea that they should welcome genuine political competition from newly formed parties sounds like a view from outer space. With the significant public funding these parties receive to run their election campaigns, one would hope that they could encourage the emergence of new political opponents, particularly when they say they are encouraging diversity. However, the ongoing commitment to pragmatism by both sides means that any organized alternative political opinion is construed as a threat to stable government. 

The Australian Labor Party and the Coalition don't need stronger stakes to keep the sides of their expansive tents from flapping in the electoral breeze. This current “big tent” tendency won't be checked without disciplined political party policy formation and civic education that persuades all citizens about their responsibilities for public justice, ensuring that their elected representatives remain accountable to electors. Without a platform outlining principles for which they and their voters are willing to lose an election, the parties will continue on a course that undermines the political morale of citizens. Australian politics is in need of refreshing political re-education to help all of its citizens better understand their responsibility for open democratic government with truly accountable parliamentary representation.

- Bruce Wearne is an independent researcher with a background in sociology living in Point Lonsdale, Australia. 

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”