What’s wrong with the two party system?

ChurchillQuoteI wrote recently about the mainstream media narrative of ‘yes the Liberal government has problems, but they’re no worse than the previous Labor government’- showing that these journos can’t possibly criticise Abbott without throwing in the tired old ‘but Labor was just as bad’ comment, to keep their Labor bashing credentials alive. Now we have a new play on this theme, which isn’t really a new play for this blogger as he’s been writing on this topic for some time. Tim Dunlop has contributed this week yet another edition of his narrative that the problem is the two party system – and that the Abbott government is the two party system’s symptom, not a problem in itself. Here are three recent Drum articles by Dunlop on similar themes: this one is about the problems with a two party system being unrepresentative of community attitudes, this one is a suggestion that our elected representatives could be chosen by lottery, and this one is about the community’s preference for independents and minor parties which is a symptom of a ‘a deeper democratic malaise’.

I’m going to go out on a limb here amongst left wing bloggers and will say to Dunlop, and those that agree with him, what are you talking about? What if Dunlop and people who share his views are so obsessed with their idea that our democratic system is ‘broken’ that they’re purposely looking the other way, rather than seeing all the good that has come out of our democratic system in the past, and how much good could still be done?

When Gough Whitlam died this year, there was an outpouring of grief combined with a celebration for what this leader had achieved in the very short time he led a Labor government. Correct me if I’m wrong, but this success happened in a two party system. And what about Prime Minister Julia Gillard who led a minority government successfully, in a two party system, so successfully that she was the most productive Prime Minister this country has ever seen. So this broken system that Dunlop is writing about, this system that no longer represents the wider community’s values, how was it able to produce a minority government of such amazing, but admittedly unsung and largely unappreciated, success?

I’m currently researching political narratives and framing, and I’ve learned that once a frame is secure in someone’s mind – once it’s a ‘thing’, people find it very hard to see a situation through this frame in the same way that someone else with a different frame sees it. So I would argue that Dunlop and I both think we’re equally right and perhaps we are. But let me at least argue my case as to why Dunlop’s frame clashes with mine.

Dunlop’s frame is that the previous Labor government, and clearly the current Liberal government are not interested in representing the wider community and are only interested in ‘the echo chamber of the concerns of the broader political class’. Dunlop therefore, having made this decision, lets this perception of Labor and Liberal politicians run through every judgement he makes about politics. Major parties are apparently out of touch. Minors and independents the only true representative leaders. Apparently minor billionaire Clive Palmer and his PUP Senators, Motoring Enthusiasts, Family First’s Bob Day and the now independent Jacqui Lambie amongst them.

My frame, however, is that politics is about good policies and, equally as important, implementing good policies. My values align with Labor’s values and a Labor government is therefore the best chance I have of seeing policies implemented that align with my values. I don’t just want good ideas from politicians, I want the opportunity to see these ideas become reality and therefore I will fight for Labor’s opportunity to do this. This doesn’t mean I agree with everything the Labor government does. But broadly, I do see their values aligning with mainstream Australia – at their very heart they aim for sustainable economic growth, healthcare, education, employment and opportunity for all Australians no matter what background. I see these values at the heart of Labor’s policies and for the most part, I am happy to passionately fight to see Labor achieve policy success with these values that I know align to mine. So I clearly come at this from a different view point from Dunlop. Where I see Labor government success, he sees a problem akin to Tony Abbott.

Dunlop mentions that he sees the two party system as being only interested in ‘allegiance to the economic system of market liberalism’. Yet he doesn’t mention what system he would prefer they had allegiance to. Perhaps this is where Dunlop’s disappointment comes from (and I would argue that this is not a mainstream malaise). The Liberal Party is the party of economic rationalists. The Labor Party promises to civilise capitalism – to try to reduce the inequitable power between labour and capital. But Labor has never promised to get rid of ‘market liberalism’ altogether and perhaps anyone who expects that they should is bound to be disappointed that they won’t. Again, I wonder what Dunlop would prefer from a government? A denial of globalised capitalism and a protectionist communist democracy instead? Or maybe he wants a coalition government of random small and individual factions, who have to fight out every policy to get a backroom deal done for themselves, at the expense of the wider community, and at the expense of long term planning and vision for the country? Maybe he wants a system of self-interested pork-barrelling, as outlined by Kay Rollison here. That’s the thing about Dunlop’s anti-the-system commentary; he’s very good at saying what’s wrong with the way things are now, but never quite gets to a point where he has a sensible suggestion of what could work better. And no, I don’t count a ‘lottery’ as a sensible suggestion.

And speaking of a lottery, then we have Dunlop’s preference for minor parties and independents, who apparently are another symptom of the problem with the two party system (although this is where I’m confused as to whether Dunlop sees them as a symptom or part of a solution). I’m sorry to say this about a blogger I respect, but again Dunlop, what are you talking about? The most uninformed voters I know choose the most random of independents and minor parties because it’s trendy. Because it’s hip to be ‘against the established parties’, to be an ‘anti-politician’. Not because it’s smart. Not because it’s going to be ultimately productive for their values into policies agenda. Not because they actually have any idea what on earth these independents and minors stand for. How many Family First voters realised Bob Day is on a mission to destroy the minimum wage? Seriously – poll them and see how few took any notice of Day’s very well-known values. Or what about another South Australian Senator, Nick Xenophon, who has just announced that he is starting a political party. A party based on what values? Xenophon got elected to the Senate in 2008 on the values of getting his face on TV through stunts and promising to axe pokies. I have no idea what happened to his passion for pokies policies because it’s not been mentioned in a long time. But I wonder how many people who mindlessly voted for him were aware of the lottery of votes their elected representative would contribute to in order to help the Liberals get their Direct Action joke-of-a-policy through the Senate, and more recently to reinstate Temporary Protection Visas. But that’s the thing about independents and minor parties – they escape any sort of criticism from people like Dunlop. Apparently they win the day they get elected, and after that they have a blank slate to do and say whatever they like – and no one who votes for them, or publically supports them, ever calls them out. What about when the Greens blocked Rudd’s ETS. Sorry, I haven’t forgotten because this is one policy I am extremely passionate about and I hate the idea of minor parties playing politics with it for their own electoral purposes, when the fate of our future is at stake. But no, there’s no criticism from anyone who voted for the people outside of major parties. No, it’s the major parties that are the problem apparently. The hardworking, values driven Labor MPs are heaped in with the conniving Liberals as if they’re all from the same stock. They’re just as bad as each other.

If Dunlop was clearer about what is was actually advocating in place of the two party system, I might be able to more clearly define why I disagree with him. But ultimately, it’s his prerogative to keep writing on this topic if that’s what he wants to do. And I’ll keep pointing out that I disagree with him. I believe Tony Abbott is the problem with Tony Abbott and I’m not interested in people trying to make excuses for this problem by blaming the two party political system. And I’ll be fighting, in our two party system, to get rid of him in 2016. Whether the minors and the independents are interested in supporting this campaign is also clearly, a lottery.


  1. While I agree with you in all parts of this discussion, I feel you have forgotten the sweep of history. Yes, the Greens have made a few mistakes. So did the ALP in its early days; Conscription in WW1 is an example. There is a case to be made that all successful, and unsuccessful political parties begin with an evangelical burst. I see the ALP as being over that evangelical burst. It had a shortlived revivalist campaign under Gough but has since drifted back to a moribund acceptance that the majority vote it is looking for is somewhere to the right of centre. The Greens are new, still evangelical, and are growing into a leftist party which is already has four times the voter appeal of the Nats. Yes, they made a mistake with the ETS. They will continue to make mistakes. But they are learning and, assuming Senator Milne is removed as leader (personal opinion), within four election cycles (with polling around 20% as they collect more of the young left and as the “Old Right” dies out) will begin to exert real seat-based pressure on the Major parties. Australia is headed for some decades of a three-party democratic system.

    • Sadly what is promised before elections never stands up for either party but. Lies. Distress me. And going back all the time to blame the previous government. Go forward from day 1. Stop the crap. It is boring and causes people to lose Interest. The worst was the greens with. No support for rudd and the. Ets. … We all know climate change is a fact. So. What were they thinking. I believe in health. Jobs. And. Assistance for all……so now to even consider upping the. Gst. On. Fruit verges etc. is so despicable. It will affect the lower income people and pensioners. Abhorrent. Nothing wrong with two party system but smaller parties. Do often keep the big two more honest. …. Choice. Is important

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