Opinion: Is the party over for the boys in Australian federal politics?

Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko from Pexels
Sunday 5 December 2021

By Mark Kenny

A version of this article was originally published by The Canberra Times.

According to the old election-day joke, it makes no difference who you vote for because a politician will win anyway.

In a similar vein, it was once observed that America's parties resembled two soft-drink bottles standing side-by-side. Sure they have different labels, but they're both empty!

Australia's parliamentary-based duopoly is superior in several respects but we've had a similarly closed-shop dominated by major parties gaming the twin advantages of strong internal discipline and compulsory preferential voting.

So much so that at times like these when there is so little policy on offer, it seems every bit as permanent and hopeless as the American model.

Yet right before our eyes, things might be changing and not just because of plummeting primary votes, or Labor's better-than-expected 43 per cent emissions target for 2035 announced on Friday.

Both sides believe a hung parliament is a very real possibility. Is this good or bad?

We tend to think that majority governments are normal and by definition, desirable.

Minority governments by contrast are synonymous with instability, underperformance, theatrics on the floor of the House of Representatives, and general governmental dysfunction.

In her new collection of essays, Doing Politics: Writing on Public Life, the eminent Australian political scientist Emeritus Professor Judith Brett reminds us that it was the minor parties themselves that began clubbing together in the first decades after federation to form more controllable blocs - Labor moved first and then the various conservative/liberal/protectionists responded in kind.

But before all that, one of the Liberals' greatest heroes, Alfred Deakin, was not just a deft wrangler of minority parliaments but a defender of them. He relied on Labor to form two of his three governments.

In a situation where no single party could get to a majority, Brett says Deakin openly argued that compromising on bills usually improved legislation while strengthening public and cross-parliamentary support. This elevated lawmaking from merely the passing of government legislation to the status of "organic Australian policy".

"For Deakin, the centre was the place where politics connected with Australian lived experience ... it was more like the nation's beating heart than a position on an ideological spectrum, and the Liberal Party which he led, was only ever a means to express it," writes Brett in her perceptive 2021 book.

Policy came first, party second.

Such high-mindedness seems quaint in the ruthless mechanised grifting we've become used to today but remember, Deakin was no detached theorist. Sworn in as PM three times, he knew how to win, commanded significant public support, and is widely regarded as the preeminent parliamentarian of his time.

Scott Morrison is no Alfred Deakin, not by a long chalk. But he is in reach of a more dubious record of his own - becoming the first prime minister since John Howard in 2004 to make it from one election to the next.

The damning statistic speaks to the instability of politics even within majority governments in the current phase. All but one of the governments elected since Howard secured parliamentary majorities. Yet it was that single exception, Julia Gillard's 2010-2013 minority government, which stands out for legislative workload, policy ambition, and parliamentary management.

Like the early governments, progress was hard. Majorities for each bill could not be assumed, nor even support for governing itself.

Consultations occurred. Relationships were built. Minor parties and independents had to be respected, listened to. Tellingly, not a single government vote on legislation was lost.

Principal among its achievements was the carbon price - a vital reform that, were it not churlishly repealed, would have settled the major battle-ground issue still bedevilling Australian politics today, the emissions reduction task.

One way or another, that policy argument has been instrumental in every leadership collapse on both sides through the entire post-Howard period. And yet still, Morrison has attempted no decisive resolution.

While Gillard eschewed the tag of leading an inherently different government simply because she was female, there is little doubt her inclusive style mattered in the getting-stuff-done stakes. It had certainly proved decisive in the post-election phase when she out-duchessed Abbott to assemble a majority.

Again, compare this to Morrison who gets nothing done even with a majority. The past amateurish fortnight was characterised by MPs crossing the floor, retreats on cherished legislation, and ministerial scandals.

The sense of an unravelling of Morrison's government as it limps towards Christmas feels like it might be something even more significant than merely the last tired gasp of a scandal-plagued do-nothing government.

Perhaps it heralds the end of long period of inwardly focused parliamentary cartelism. A period dominated by the "election winning machine" as Christopher Pyne once skited, and the dawning of a less party-focused and more multi-interest and policy based politics?

Things are changing. In the recent Sydney mayoral race, all six candidates were women. Labor's most popular figures are women - Tanya Plibesek and Penny Wong. Before her fall, Gladys Berejiklian was the Liberals' most popular leader.

Around the country, uber-competent women are stepping up and stepping out of the old structures.

The current cross bench is already notable for the conscientious centrist women, people who might once have languished in the Liberal Party. Rebekah Sharkie, Helen Haines, Zali Steggall - these are among the 49th parliament's most effective MPs.

There will be more on offer in this election. Names like Georgia Steele in Hughes, taking on Craig Kelly. Ex-broadcast journalist Zoe Daniel in Goldstein, and Allegra Spender in Wentworth. Across Australia, quality centrist candidates are coming forward. And women working together are showing a new kind of politics, a politics closer to what Deakin would call "the beating heart" of the nation.

These candidates prioritise climate change, integrity, and the policy touchstones of a civilised society - health, education, housing affordability, social inclusion.

After a week when Morrison couldn't keep even his own MPs happy - the prospect of a hard-working minority government, mediated by a re-energised centre, doesn't sound like dysfunction at all.

Mark Kenny is a political analyst for The Canberra Times. He is a professor at the ANU Australian Studies Institute and host of the Democracy Sausage podcast. 

Updated:  17 January 2022/Responsible Officer:  Institute Manager/Page Contact:  Institute Manager