Australia’s ‘Hollowed Out’ Politics, Explained

Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia during Question Time in the House of Representatives at Parliament House in Canberra, in September. Mick Tsikas/EPA, via Shutterstock

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Labor won a landslide victory in Victoria, Julia Banks abandoned the Liberal Party, the federal budget will be delivered early and Parliament will sit for only 10 days in the first eight months of 2019 — just another messy week in Australian politics.

What does it all add up to?

Over lunch a few weeks ago, Sam Roggeveen, director of the Lowy Institute’s international security program, told me that Australia’s main political parties were in trouble. This week, I went back to Sam for some additional insight.

So what do you make of the week’s head-spinning political developments?

They say history happens slowly and then all at once. I think the convulsions we are seeing in Australian politics right now — in fact , since John Howard was defeated in 2007 — are a culmination of decades-long trends that center on the slow decline of our two big political parties.

The more popular explanations — the acceleration of the news cycle, the social media information bubble, the rise of populism — may play a part, but the big factor is the transformation of our political parties from mass movements to professionalized and hollowed-out political machines.

This is a common phenomenon in Western democracies. With party membership (and union membership) in decline, both major parties lack a real social base, a group of people that defines who the party represents and what it stands for.

The two major parties remain powerful because they have engineered the political and electoral system to their benefit, but that arrangement is now straining against the decline in their vote share.

Right now, it is the Liberals who are suffering, but Labor has had its turn and it will have another.

One headline I saw called Australian politics “fractured.” How would you describe it?

I would say hollowed out. There’s a void at the center of our politics because the public and the political class have both retreated. Again, this is happening in all Western democracies: people have stopped joining political parties and civic organizations with a political voice, and the parties have responded by making politics more elite and professional.

For most Australians, politics these days is a spectator sport rather than a participatory sport.

And the trend is self-reinforcing — when a major scandal now breaks, the public distrust in politics is so severe that often the first instinct of politicians is not to address it themselves but to call a Royal Commission.

There are also many independents emerging. Kerryn Phelps, the independent who won Malcolm Turnbull’s seat, gave her inaugural speech this week in Parliament. Is this part of a larger trend?

The prospects for independent candidates and small parties are better than ever. At the last federal election, nearly 25 percent of voters gave their primary vote to an independent or small party, and that figure is on a slow upward trend as the primary vote of the two major parties declines.

I know the conventional wisdom right now is for a thumping Labor victory at the next election, but remember that Labor has won only one federal election outright in the last 20 years.

I would not be at all shocked to see Labor form a minority government after the next election because dissatisfaction with the government will benefit independents and minor parties rather than Labor.

In fact, minority government might be the new norm in Australian federal politics.

That’s not necessarily a disaster — Julia Gillard would argue with some justification that the minority government she led got an awful lot done, and many Western democracies function perfectly well that way.

The question will be how the major parties behave as they decline. Can they adjust to this new norm?

I was at a council meeting in small town Tasmania this week and a lot of the people I talked to said they’re more distrustful of politicians than at any time in their lives. Julie Bishop says the public “can pick…

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