Rise of minor parties, independents more trouble for Coalition than Labor

Usually little of enduring value can be drawn from a byelection, and the West Australian Senate re-run last weekend qualifies as a byelection.

Winners usually crow about the result being a "turning point" or "the beginning of the end" for their opponents – usually the government of the day. And usually that triumphalism turns out to be hyperbole as voters return to a more sober mindset when the next general election draws near.

So when victorious Green Scott Ludlam declared the WA result a blow to the major parties, we might have dismissed this as chutzpah. After all, few political parties have shown such an enduring affection for chutzpah as have the Australian Greens ...

But on this occasion Ludlam may be right. Despite the emphatic win to the Coalition in last year’s federal election there are powerful signs that minor parties and independents are here to stay, and this spells trouble for the Coalition in particular, since it dominates most of our nation’s parliaments at the moment but fully controls few of them.

The vote for minor parties and independents has been trending steadily upwards over the last six decades. Indeed, the 2013 federal election broke records for the proportion of voters choosing non-major party candidates. When it came to the House of Representatives, more than one in five voters eschewed the major parties, and almost one in three Senate voters did likewise. (What is surprising is that this outcome occurred at the end of a parliament that was often condemned as being dysfunctional because of the crossbench kingmakers who held the balance of power in the House of Representatives.)

The WA Senate re-ballot took that desertion of Liberal and Labor further.


There are several lessons, for the Coalition in particular, from this evolution of our system. The first involves the Coalition appreciating it is a victim of its own success. Political parties have refined the art of tearing down their opponents’ credibility, through ridicule, workshopped one-liners and poll-educated advertising. Rudd used these devices to topple the prime ministership of John Howard, and Tony Abbott was even more effective at devastating three prime ministerships in a row in this way.

But a byproduct of such proficient mutual demolition is that voters become disillusioned with both major parties, and might turn to less savage alternatives.

The second lesson is that the major parties might need to rethink their support of compulsory voting. When voters in a voluntary voting system are uninspired by the offerings of parties, they tend to express their ennui simply by staying away from the polling stations. When voters are denied that escape – as in a compulsory voting system – they might turn to non-traditional or a-plague-on both-their-houses protest options, such as minor parties and independents.

The third, most crucial, lesson is for the Coalition, and that is that it will need to lift its performance in bargaining with crossbenchers for workable governments.

The Liberal Party at federal, state and territory levels, has been shut out of government on several occasions in recent decades because it was unable, or unwilling, to come to an accommodation with the Greens. In fairness, this is much more the fault of the Greens than the Liberals; the former are philosophically creatures of the far left, and have readily dredged up excuses to support Labor governments (even, as in the ACT in 2008, when they were offered a ministry by the Liberals but still supported the ALP without the reward of a ministry).

What is less easy to explain is the Liberals’ pattern of failure to stitch up deals with minor parties and independents who come from a conservative background. In 1995 and again in 1998, then ACT chief minister Kate Carnell twice did deals with leftist Michael Moore to form governments. But I cite this example because it is very much the exception that proves the rule.

In 1999, Jeff Kennett’s Victorian Liberal National government fell because it could not come to an arrangement with three independent members from conservative rural backgrounds. In 2010 Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor, both from seats in National Party heartland, backed Julia Gillard’s minority Labor government.  And just last month, a country-based independent MP passed over the more popular Liberal Party to back another minority Labor government, this time in South Australia.

To adapt Oscar Wilde, to let one chance of government with a conservative independent slip through your fingers is misfortune; to let several slip through is carelessness. Sure, there have been histories of animosity between some of these independents and the Liberal/National parties which might explain why deals were not possible. But for the less philosophically rigid of the major parties to so frequently fail to negotiate its way into power seems to speak to a propensity to attack ahead of reconcile.

It might rankle to make concessions to conservative “traitors”, but standing on principle might come at a high price in the future.

Gary Humphries, a former ACT Liberal chief minister and senator, is now a lobbyist.