Politics

Australia’s two-party system besieged, if not broken, by election


A black swan is an unpredictable event, the consequences of which are profound. If in Australia’s recent electoral history any poll qualifies as a black swan, then it was last month’s contest. The election delivered that rare thing, a change of government – only the eighth time this has happened in as many decades since the end of World War II. Even more momentously, the election left Australia’s two-party dominant system, if not broken, besieged.

Albanese celebrating victory with his partner Jodie Haydon and son, Nathan. The government has only changed eight times since World War II.

Albanese celebrating victory with his partner Jodie Haydon and son, Nathan. The government has only changed eight times since World War II.Credit:Janie Barrett

A little history of Australia’s party system illustrates how significant is the latter development. Settling in 1909, the nation’s Labor versus non-Labor party arrangement is more than a century old. During the Commonwealth’s first decade three parties vied for government: the Liberal Protectionists, the Free Traders and the Labor Party. Alfred Deakin, the leader of the Liberal Protectionists and dominant political figure of that era, famously used a cricketing analogy to characterise that situation, calling it the “three elevens”.

Deakin’s Liberal Protectionists, supported by Labor, governed for most of that decade enacting much foundational nation building legislation. But the tripartite party system made for topsy-turvy politics: there were eight separate ministries and five prime ministers in those 10 years. What made the system unsustainable in the final analysis, however, was Labor’s growing electoral might, which came largely at the expense of the Liberal Protectionists.

Cornered, Deakin sorrowfully agreed in 1909 to unification with the conservative Free Traders. Some of his colleagues, in fact, so abhorred the Free Traders that they refused to join the new non-Labor alliance. They feared, as The Age predicted, that fusion, as it was known, would be a “political boa constrictor” which would see liberalism swallowed whole by conservatism.

Alfred Deakin, Australia’s second prime minister and leader of the Liberal Protectionists early last century.

Alfred Deakin, Australia’s second prime minister and leader of the Liberal Protectionists early last century.

As this suggests, the legacies of fusion were not only the settlement of the Labor versus non-Labor party system, but the uneasy coexistence of liberal and conservative elements on the non-Labor side of politics.

The party system created in 1909 proved remarkably resilient. It has survived three serious splits in the ALP, and several reorganisations of the major non-Labor party, which, following several incarnations, settled under the title of the Liberal Party in 1944. The party system also weathered sporadic challenge from minor parties, most of which enjoyed only a relatively short-lived existence.

For most of the 20th century, the two-party dominant system (with the Liberals in permanent coalition with the Nationals, formerly the Country Party) monopolised more than 90 per cent of the primary vote. By the final election of that century, that joint primary vote declined to a smidgen under 80 per cent. It recovered in the first decade of the 21st century to hover above 80 per cent, only to trend down again from 2010. Falling under 80 per cent at the past four elections, it fell dramatically at this election to about 68 per cent.

Until this election, most of the erosion in primary vote afflicted Labor. A significant chunk of its supporter base had shifted to the Greens, tantamount to a split. The notable thing about the 2022 election is the problem of declining primary voter support has now stricken the Coalition as it sheds votes both to right-wing minor parties and progressive independents. If Labor’s record is anything to go by, having seen its primary vote fall well under 40 per cent, the Coalition will struggle to return to that level of support.



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