The two party system

polling-stationHere is the latest guest post by my mum, @KayRollison. This is partly in response to my post from yesterday and the responses to it, and partly just because mum is really good at explaining politics based on her wealth of knowledge about what has happened in history.

Why is it that we still hear intelligent and otherwise well informed people lamenting the dominance of the two major political parties in Australia? If only there were more Independents, they cry. Or more minor parties. If only MPs could vote as they like – or as their constituents direct them – instead of being bound to vote as their party decrees. Then we’d have much better government. I’m not making this up; I heard it again just the other night.

As Winston Churchill said in 1947:

‘No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.’

Similarly no one pretends that the two party system is perfect or all-wise either. But having two major parties, each potentially capable of forming a government is also better than the other forms that have been tried from time to time.

Back to Politics 101. In the Westminster system, you need a majority to form a government. So in a parliament full of independents, how do you form a government? Do you go round asking each of the 150 members whether they will support you? Since there are no parties, who gets to do the asking? Is it like in N.F. Simpson’s Resounding Tinkle, where someone knocks on your door and asks you to form a government – ‘he’s working through the street directory’? And do we just hope that the 76 Independents who will support you (after the knock on the door) on introducing a carbon price are the same 76 who will support you on raising the Newstart allowance? Maybe, but then maybe not. It’s called political instability. Or maybe chaos. Ever heard of the phrase ‘herding cats’? It certainly isn’t coherent and long term political action.

OK, so this is the reductio ad absurdum of the position, and maybe that’s not fair. So what about several small parties, and some Independents? You’re the leader of the largest party, so you get to try and form a government. This is roughly how it worked before there were two major parties. And how did this work? Well I’m pretty familiar with how it worked under one Thomas Bent, Premier of Victoria 1904-9. He was terrific at it. It’s called support in return for concessions. Pork barrelling, in other words. You vote for my government, and I’ll give your electorate a bridge. And if you can bring a few friends with you, I’ll make it a railway. I promised at the last election to regulate the sale of alcohol. Don’t like that idea? Well we can easily change it. You made a promise to your electorate? That’s tough. Maybe we could do something about freight rates. Where are you from again? Didn’t work so well in bad years when there wasn’t a surplus to play round with. And government was maybe a bit less complicated than now, but you get the picture.

It’s true some parliamentary democracies operate on a multi-party system. And all of them have to negotiate coalitions to form a majority government. So after electors have voted for the party that represents what they want, that party has to compromise with another party that wants something different. We can see how well that is working out in Britain at the moment. The Lib Dems sold out to the Conservatives, who, being the larger party, are calling the shots. I feel for (sort of) all those Lib Dem voters who thought they were getting something quite different. And did Liberal voters in NSW really expect an alliance with a party that promotes hunting in national parks?

Sometimes a single party may not have a majority in its own right, but can attract enough Independents to form a government. Sound familiar? Labor doesn’t have a majority, but it’s not a minority government; you have to have a majority to govern. And how well is this received or understood? Shock horror seems to be the usual response. But such arrangements in a multi-party system are routine. Is that what we want here?  

I should say that I have nothing against the Independents currently in the Federal Parliament. If their electorates choose to elect someone without a party affiliation, that‘s their business. But it’s only the unusual circumstance of a hung parliament that makes them so important. Unless someone needs their support, their chance of concessions is pretty slight, whether it is on the roads and bridges front, pokie reform or any other issues.

So if you want a government that can get done what it has been elected to do, then it’s a good idea to have only two major parties to choose between. You know what you’re voting for and your party is either elected, or it isn’t. It either does what it says it will, or has to produce a very good reason for doing something different. Of course you won’t ever find a party who does everything you want exactly how you want it. So you make a choice. Which party offers the policies that best align with your values most of the time?

We normally have a variant on this system in Australia. The conservative side is a coalition between the Liberals and the Nationals and each needs the other’s preferences to get a majority of seats (except in Queensland, where it’s one party. And isn’t that working well). On the progressive side the ALP either gets or falls short of a majority of seats with Green preferences. You may or may not like the outcome, but what better system can you suggest?

Of course the Greens are unhappy with this arrangement, because they would like to replace the ALP as the major party of the left. None of this ‘keeping the bastards honest’ rubbish. But with one seat in the House of Representatives, and a handful of lower house seats across the states, this is looking a very big ask. So if Greens want progressive policies now, then they have to compromise with the ALP, however much it hurts. After all, they aren’t going to get anything from the LNP. Criticise all you like, but keep that basic fact firmly in view.

Of course parties require their MPs to vote as the party decides on legislation. How else can a government put its program into effect? Yes, this can make it difficult for individuals who may feel their party is wrong on an issue, and in most cases parties could afford to be a bit more flexible than they usually are. But in general, the principle of party discipline is essential for the system to work. Can you suggest a better way?

Given that our two party system requires two parties, why is it that being a member of one is so frequently seen as such a bad thing? Membership makes a statement about what you believe. It gives you a way of influencing party policy. It doesn’t mean you are uncritical – it just means you are committed to the general stance of the party. Of course there are party members who are tools. You find them everywhere. There are party members that are just in it for what they can get out of it – like pre-selection, having powerful friends, or making business contacts – but there are lots of members who just want to make a difference.  Of course political parties are influenced by special interest groups as much as by members; surely you don’t need me to tell you about the role of pressure groups? And yes, there are other ways of making a difference, as Get Up, for example, is showing. But in a society where apathy generally rules, the effort it takes to be a party member should be admired, not denigrated. Decisions are made by those that show up, as President Bartlett says in The West Wing.

It doesn’t take a lot of votes to change a government. By all means change your vote – for sound reasons based on an analysis of both parties’ policies. After all, it’s intelligent and well informed people I’m talking about here. But before you bag the two party system, be very careful what you wish for.

By Kay Rollison


  1. excellent article, our political structure is set up to be have two dominant parties. if you want a multi party system like some other nations have then the voting system would need to be changed to accommodate tha

  2. Something that’s been occupying my mind lately is that representative democracy as we have it isn’t that old. It’s a product of the industrial age, where communication was slow and cumbersome and required us to give a broad mandate to someone to go to a place and represent us for some time. Those conditions have changed, which should then cause some re-evaluation of the system, should it not?

  3. Good on you Mum. I’ll stick to the progressive side of history thanks and I have had enough of the biggest lie of all. We must go to war now, because he has weapons of mass destruction/ Which leaves Julia’s little fib No Carbon Tax a bargaining chip in the game of politic leadership with the Greens.

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  4. So glad that you are OK with some independents being elected, because on the evidence of the last 2 1/2 years, they are the ones who’ve provided the best value to their electorates. They are the ones who get to ask real questions in parliament, rather than Dorothy Dixers or just screaming, “liar!”. And apart from Katter, they seem to be very supportive of a carbon price as a start to halting climate change. Good on them.

  5. Easily McCain’s WORST performance! I rlaley wanted him to make this race more challenging but he just made himself look like an idiot. He gave Obama every opportunity to defend himself and Obama came off looking much more intelligent and honest. McCain spent too much time being flabbergasted and not enough time thinking about his replies.

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