A multi-party Australia at last?

One of the small ironies of Australian politics is that despite the fact that one of its two dominant forces is referred to as “the Coalition”, we have very little experience of coalition politics as most of the world understands the term. There, coalitions come and go between parties that retain their freedom of movement; our Liberal-National Coalition spends most of the time joined at the hip, to the extent that in its strongest state, Queensland, the two parties have officially merged.

And counting the Coalition as a single entity, it’s been all but impossible for third parties to break into the system. Occasionally one appears in the House of Representatives; in the last parliament, most unusually, there were three – Greens, Centre Alliance and Katter’s Australian Party – but each consisted of only a single MP. Not since the dim days of the 1930s has an actual third party been seen with more than one member.

Until now, that is. The Greens have won three seats, with a fourth (Brisbane) likely and a slight chance at a fifth (Macnamara). Added to their twelve seats in the Senate, they are clearly a force to be reckoned with. The new Labor government may well find that handful of House seats very important, and if it wants to get legislation through the Senate it will have to work with either the Greens or the Coalition – there is no third choice.

But the Greens are not the only new force. The teal independents have won seven lower house seats, and another three existing members are quite likely to work with them. They are less of a presence in the Senate, with just one seat, but if they build on their success and organise themselves for next time then Senate seats will be there for the taking.

So we seem to have suddenly moved from two parties to four. And a fifth is there at least in embryo, with three far-right parties between them having one seat in the House and probably three in the Senate. If, as has been suggested, the National Party either splits or leaves the Coalition, some of its members could find a home in an explicitly far-right party.

Regular readers will be used to my refrain that “electoral systems matter.” Australians have shown themselves willing to vote for minor parties before: the Australian Democrats won 11.3% of the vote in 1990, One Nation won 8.4% in 1998 and the Greens won 11.8% in 2010. Going back further, the DLP had 9.4% in 1958. But of those, only the Greens won a seat, and it was only one in a House of 150.

If we had the sort of democratic electoral system that we see in New Zealand or in most of Europe, a party with about a tenth of the vote would, shockingly, win about a tenth of the seats. Single-member districts protect the big parties against challenge, but it only works up to a certain point: when voters become sufficiently aroused, even a bad electoral system cannot stop them.

Australia last Saturday seems to have reached a tipping point. Prime minister Anthony Albanese will have to navigate something much more like a genuine multi-party system than any of his predecessors in living memory have had to deal with. He is probably as well-qualified for the task as anyone, but it’s not going to be easy.

But in much of the world, this is part of what people mean by democracy. No-one in Germany, or Scandinavia, or Benelux, or many other well-functioning democracies thinks that the system has broken down if no single party has a majority. Quite the contrary: it is single-party government that is exceptional and risky. Parties having to negotiate and compromise with one another is normal and healthy.

It’s not just the major parties whose approach will be challenged. The minors themselves – and particularly the Greens, the only ones with much of a history – will need to adapt to the new situation. Being a party of protest can take you only so far (as the stagnation in their vote over the last decade testifies); the voters are not looking to trash the system, but to empower people who will use it more responsibly than its recent guardians.

The election result also demonstrated something that has become increasingly clear in Europe in recent years, namely the large overlap between the constituencies of liberals (as represented here by the teals) and Greens. Where the teals won seats in Sydney and Melbourne, the Greens vote plunged, but in inner Brisbane, with no teals, the Greens cleaned up instead. Many voters evidently regard them not as opposites but as reasonably close alternatives.

If the teals end up becoming a real political party, either in their own right or by co-opting part of the remnant Liberal Party, relations with the Greens will be an important shoal for them to navigate. A study of the European experience might give them some ideas: particularly in Germany, where liberal-Green co-operation failed dramatically in 2017 only to succeed four years later.

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