Cartel Parties in Australia’s Democracy

Democracy is notoriously difficult to define, but any serious conception always includes power being somehow vested with the people. And yet in countries that would be considered democratic, the power mostly seems to stick with certain elite groups. These groups have privileged access to the media and that usually enforces their success in elections. The internet has the potential to re-shape this paradigm, but so far that potential has mostly gone under-utilised (I’m going to address that in a later post).

There are also other structures that influence power in democracies. One of those is the party system. Australia’s party system is like most others – two parties dominate to the exclusion of others, except for minor players who come and go. Within those parties, power is often concentrated in the hands of a few. For a demonstration of this point, Google the words parachute, preselect and election on Google Australia. (What the hell, I’ve done it for you.)

While (mildly) challenged by the Greens in recent years, Australian politics remains dominated by the Liberal-National Coalition and the Labor Party. They represent classic cases of cartel parties, and the comfortable arrangement leaves many questioning the difference between the two.

I subscribe to the theory that adversarial left-right thinking is out of date. Instead, I propose a broad shift to smaller parties huddled around core issues. Governments could then be made up of true coalitions who must openly debate every issue and legislate in the interests of the broader community who voted for their local representative.

To start with, I suggest:

  • Dissolving the Liberal-National Partnership, which would allow Liberals to focus on liberal philosophy and the Nats to focus on country matters.
  • Weeding conservatives from the Liberal Party and creating a Conservative Party. This would allow Conservative voters to vote at a local level and know the philosophy their party will follow. It would also give Liberal voters certainty over who they are voting for, and remove the farce where a liberal leader is replaced by a conservative leader (or vice versa) and an about-face on most issues occurs.
  • Reform the Greens. The Greens are a mostly socialist party, having moved away from their environmental origins. Leave the Greens to become experts on environmental issues and allow the socialists to move into other parties. In a sense, this would open the Greens up and encourage non-socialists who are concerned about the environment to join the party.
  • Reshape the ALP. The Australian Labor Party has forgotten about the conditions of the working class and moved more toward socialist positions. Of course, there is a lot of overlap between socialism and the labour movement. However, as with the Greens above, it would be beneficial for Labor to properly utilise the skills and experience of worker’s rights activists rather than relying on socialist Prime Ministers.
  • The Socialist Alliance is a minor party, but could grow in influence with input from the Green-Socialists and the Labor-Socialists who would leave those other parties.

The above suggestions are broad, blue-sky thinking and they are obviously controversial. However, by removing the adversarial nature of Australian politics and encouraging smaller parties, we could end up with a more representative and cooperative democracy.

NOTE: This post is written mostly tongue-in-cheek. While I think there is a need to move away from the left-right paradigm, there are probably more workable ways to do it than overhauling the entire political system. Still, its an interesting proposition. Feel free to disagree in the comments.