Don’t blame micro-parties or the Senate – update an archaic system

The cross-bench senators may call to mind Paul Keating’s charge of ‘unrepresentative swill’, but they also reflect and respond to the 21st-century world in ways that the major parties can’t. AAP/Alan Porritt

Paul Keating famously labelled the Senate “unrepresentative swill”. Similar sentiments – while not as colourful – are being voiced by those frustrated with the blocking power of the Senate’s micro-parties.

In a recent Australian Financial Review survey, leading corporate CEOs called for major reform to the Senate.

At one level it is not hard to understand why. The Senate in general, and the minor and micro-parties that hold the balance of power in particular, were instrumental in gutting the Abbott government’s budget at a time when reform is pressing.

Criticism of their power over policy will likely grow as the Senate casts a critical eye this year over the government’s attempts to reshape the budget and fix Australia’s tax system.

But behind the singular criticisms of the Senate is a bigger picture of deeper dysfunction. It’s a picture that suggests the Senate is not a root cause, but part of a long list of symptoms that indicate our political system is increasingly unfit for purpose in the 21st century.

Excluding micro-parties is not reform

A clue to understanding these deeper problems lies in the complaints these business figures make. In essence, they lament how micro-parties are an increasingly powerful phenomenon, gaining outsized power compared to their meagre vote in elections.

Many of the CEOs surveyed proposed that, in response, the Senate’s proportional voting system should be abolished. Or, at least, the system of preferential voting should be changed to stamp out the micro-party phenomenon.

This would allow major parties to pass legislation with greater certainty and reduce the range of political parties able to hold the balance of power. It would also restore “representativeness” to our democratic system by ridding it of what one CEO described as “a disparate bunch of single-issue politicians”.

Business leaders today, like Paul Keating in 1992, resent the Senate’s ability to frustrate the government’s agenda.

On a superficial level, these and other proposals aimed at restoring the primacy of major parties seem to have merit. But these complaints overlook what is occurring within our political system, and the political arena more generally.

On the face of it, democratic systems like Australia’s look the same as 20 or 30 years ago. Major parties dominate the day-to-day political process, presenting their policy programs at general elections as they vie to form government and represent the general public.

But beneath the surface the relationship between citizens and these parties has been fundamentally and irreversibly weakened. This is reflected in membership and support for major political parties, which have fallen across the Western world.

In contrast, support for smaller parties has risen sharply, albeit from low bases.

Why?

Because voter preferences are no longer shaped predominantly by class, ideology, ethnicity and geography. And it is to these catch-all attributes that major political parties traditionally appealed.

19th-century model is showing its age

In a 21st-century internet-driven, globalised world, the array of political choices and identities available to voters are increasing and fragmenting.

This reflects broader changes in a society in which choices – political, social or economic – are influenced by a widening collection of complex factors.

Major parties are finding it increasingly difficult to develop a coherent overarching narrative for what they seek in government and why it benefits the community as well as the individual over the long term.

In contrast, voter fragmentation suits micro and minor parties. With their single or limited issues campaigns they can cut through the political noise with more succinct appeals and arguments. They offer retail politics in a wholesale world.

Informal groupings and alliances of micro-parties likewise can respond more nimbly to the flux of 21st-century voter sentiment.

In addition to the splintering of traditional voter blocs, voter choices are rarely static. Our democratic system is now characterised by larger and unpredictable cohorts of “swinging” voters. Their political preferences and voting intentions constantly change, often heavily influenced by a single issue or narrower policy platform.

The major parties, as a result, become less flexible and responsive. Their feedback mechanisms are often stilted. They can be held up by procedural delays, adherence to party rules or structures, and even the “need” for cabinet solidarity.

All this suggests micro-parties may not be some kind of unwelcome or unrepresentative intrusion into our democratic system, as conventional views would have it. Whether by accident or design, they have allied themselves with the way the 21st-century political world is being restructured.

In short, all this should signal that new political configurations like micro-parties need to be accommodated, not curtailed.

However, advocating more collaborative attitudes to politics and policy-making can only get us so far, particularly if major parties won’t work together on long-term reform.

The decision-making processes of parliament and the major parties struggle to keep up with changing times. AAP/Daniel Munoz

Our democracy needs new organising principles

Ultimately the micro-party issue should begin to highlight how our political system is predicated on many organising principles that no longer apply.

The system requires functional majorities – built on major parties achieving stable blocs of voter support – to get anything major done. This is a system where the languid decision-making processes of parliament are increasingly left behind by a super-speed 21st century.

This is a system that seems unable to acknowledge what many citizens already know: that so much going on in our globalised and interdependent world escapes the control of territorially based parties and parliaments.

Broader, progressive reforms to our democratic institutions are urgently needed to reflect the realities of a new political and policy world.

We need to have a conversation about managing this world more effectively with more inclusive structures of policy-making and more innovative systems of voter input. The conversation needs to tackle some weighty issues, namely:

  • What is the role of political parties, both large and small, in this system and what processes might encourage more effective political and policy collaboration?

  • What sort of voting and electoral systems best capture and reflect the kaleidoscopic nature of today’s citizenry?

  • What reforms do our democratic institutions require so they can develop the policies Australia needs to thrive over the long term, beyond short-term political cycles that can turn in days?

It is this path – not attempts to restore a world that no longer exists through piecemeal changes to a single part of the system – that will give our democracy the new lease of life it sorely needs.


Other articles in The Conversation’s ongoing series, “New Politics”, can be read here.