The Two-And-A-Half Party System


Even at the time it seemed like an amazing coincidence. Just a day and a night before we took our unscheduled break at New Matilda, Kevin Rudd was brutally deposed. His lead in the opinion polls had crumbled away, and with it, his support base in the parliamentary Labor Party. 

Rudd’s last press conference as Prime Minister — a surreal and emotional affair — defined this year in Australian politics. You can’t make sense of this strange year without understanding that event, and its aftershocks still echo in the halting and uncertain minority Labor government now struggling to hold on to the reins. Much of Labor’s first term now seems like a prelude to the brutal coup against the very leader who brought the party to power after 11 and a half years in the purgatory that journalists inevitably describe as "the wilderness."

How well Labor would have fared had Rudd been able to campaign for re-election against Tony Abbott is one of the great unanswered counter-factuals of recent political history. We’ll never know if Kevin Rudd could have won a second term for Labor in its own right. I suspect he could have, but such speculation is idle.

What we do know is the ultimate election result, in which Australian electoral politics was comprehensively redrawn with the result that Australia is now led by a minority government for the first time in 70 years.

And it is only a year since Tony Abbott became opposition leader. Such is the mercurial nature of politics.

So, what can we learn from Australian politics in 2010? Three main lessons stand out and I’ll be addressing each of them in this and two subsequent articles on New Matilda this week.

The most important is that Australia’s two-party system is over, perhaps forever. Instead, we’ve got a two-and-a-half party system. The Greens are here to stay as a significant third force in politics, and their appeal shows no sign of waning. At the very least, Labor will need Green preferences to win government from now on. But the rise of the Greens goes beyond preferences, or transient disaffection with major party politics.

The rising Green tide is driven by long-term demographic trends that Labor is essentially powerless to arrest. Labor’s base used to be the union movement and the salaried public sector. From this base it then built electoral coalitions with its less solid demographics like young families in the mortgage belts, inner-city lefties, the disadvantaged and marginalised, professionals, and self-employed tradespeople. But Labor’s base is now eroding. Union membership keeps falling, and many of Labor’s core voters have been alienated by the party’s drift rightwards in the 2000s in pursuit of an ever-more conservative Liberal Party.

In contrast, Green voters tend to be highly educated, live in the inner suburbs, and work in industries like IT, education, and the arts and creative industries. All of these demographics are growing, contributing to the positive trends for the Greens. More Australians are going to university than ever before, industries like the arts and recreation are expanding, and since the late 1980s our inner cities have started to repopulate. As inner-city suburbs grow dense with cafes and bookstores, community gardens and web design start-ups, swathes of Australia’s capital cities are turning Green. Jake Niall, normally a football reporter, but here showing himself to be a nimble interpreter of political trends, has an observant feature in The Age this week about the green-voting areas in Melbourne, which are spreading rapidly from core areas like North Fitzroy and Northcote into middle-ring suburbs to suburbs like Brunswick, Coburg, Preston and Thornbury. As a result, Martin Ferguson’s electorate of Batman and Kelvin Thompson’s Wills will both be quite marginal by 2013.

If the medium-term trends for the Greens are good, the really long-term looks even better. The 21st century looks set to be defined by issues such as climate change, food security and resource scarcity that naturally play to the Greens policies. Labor remains vulnerable to the jibe that it is a "20th century" party.

As everyone from Lindsay Tanner to Barry Jones to Penny Wong has pointed out, this leaves Labor wedged between different sections of its voting base. Outer suburban Sydney, where a great deal of the New South Wales Right comes from, is far more conservative on issues such as asylum seekers and carbon taxes. But pandering to these voters is in large part responsible for the defection of inner-city progressives.

For Labor strategists, one of the truly frightening lines from Niall’s article is the admission by several of the Greens campaigners he interviewed that Labor’s cave-in to John Howard over the Tampa affair in 2001 was the catalyst for their change of allegiance. For a decade or more now, Labor Party tacticians like Karl Bitar and Mark Arbib have worked on the assumption that political tactics in the heat of an election campaign are what counts. The realisation that a decision taken by Kym Beazley nine years ago could still be hurting Labor must astonish and horrify them.

This is the first of a three-part series by Ben Eltham on Australian politics in 2010. Read the next installment on New Matilda tomorrow.

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Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.