Tuesday, June 03, 2003

Australia remains a successful democracy

Jacob Levy at the Volokh Conspiracy discusses the threat that Australian federal politics will go the way of Canada or Britain, in which one major political party fades away and we get semi-permanent one party rule as a consequence. I don't personally think this is a serious danger, because the differences between Australia, Canada, and Britain are quite substantial.

Firstly, look what has happened in both Britain and Canada. In Canada, the Progressive Conservative Party had formed many governments over the decades, but in 1993 simple unpopularity mixed up with separatism in Quebec and regional unhappiness in British Columbia meant its parliamentary representation was reduced to just two seats. This made it essentially impossible for the Progressive Conservatives to function as a parliamentary party, and the grass roots organisation of the party simply withered away as a consequence. No parliamentarians meant no money, meaning no party rank and file. With no apparent possibility of the party serving in government in future, ambitious people went elsewhere, and the party has not been able to re-establish itself at subsequent elections. Nobody has been able to establish an alternative national opposition party since, and this is made much harder by separatist sentiments in Quebec, and the simple lack of common ground between different parts of Anglophone Canada. (How much political common ground do people in British Columbia have in common with people in Newfoundland? Not much).

In Britain, the situation is much the same with the Conservative Party. After a long time in power, the party became so unpopular that it lost most of its parliamentary seats. Subsequently, it had a very limited list of MPs from which to choose a shadow ministry, and these tended to be from extremely conservative and nationalist parts of the party, because these were the sorts of candidates most likely to be put forward by local members in safe constituencies. Therefore, the party looked even less relevant to voters, less likely to be elected, and thus less likely to be an organisation that ambitious people would want to join. And the vicious circle perpetuated itself to the extent that nobody in Britain takes the Conservative Party even remotely seriously any more.

That is not to say that the party can never come back. The Labour Party was in 1982 at least as irrelevant as the Tories are now, but the Labour Party now governs. However, it had to completely reform itself first. This reform involved alienating a fairly portion of the traditional party rank and file, and the Tories will have to do something similar if they ever want to govern again.

The trouble in both Canada and the UK is that parties have been defeated so heavily that the parties themselves have become disfunctional as a consequence. This has not happened in Australia

Firstly, the ALP never suffered a defeat on the scale of the Progressive Conservatives in Canada or the Conservative Party in Britain. Secondly, in Australia, a party gains its parliamentary caucus from its members of both houses, and the nature of the senate voting system means that unless a party gets less than about 25% of the vote (which is nowhere near happening for the ALP) it cannot be wiped out in the senate. And even then, the six year terms of the senate generally mean that this would take two elections. Plus, the way in which the ALP selects senate candidates tends to mean that senators are political pragmatists, not extremists.

Look at the situation. When the ALP suffered its heaviest recent defeat in 1996, it still ended up with a total of 78 members out of a total of 224 seats in the two houses (That's 34.8% of the total). At the moment, the ALP has 92 members out of 226 seats. (That's 40.1% of the total). With this many members, the party still functions well at the federal level. The ALP has been in a worse state than this on many occasions in its electoral history (1977, 1965, 1955, and so on). The ALP is an extremely resilient party, much more so than the Liberal Party. (And anyway, in 1987 the Liberal Party was in at least as bad a state as the ALP is now, and the Liberal Party did ultimately come back).

As several other people have mentioned, the ALP is in no danger of deteriorating into irrelevance the way the parties discussed did in Canada and Britain due to the ALP's (unprecedented) strength at the state level. The ALP controls all eight state and territory parliaments. This means that the ALP has power and patronage to offer young and ambitious people who want to join the party, and the needs of government in the states forces the party to remain ideologically relatively moderate.

And these state governments give the federal party somewhere to get a leader from. Almost everybody in politics has a secret (or not so secret) ambition to one day become Prime Minister, and that includes most of the members of the ALP state governments.

The problem is simply that that the ALP doesn't have a decent party leader. Mr Beazley and Mr Crean are both hopeless. If the ALP can find a decent leader, then it stands a good chance of winning an election soon after, because the party itself still has the political resources with which to do so. The Liberal government under John Howard is actually tired and lacks depth of talent. (There is a discussion of who is "the worst minister in recent memory" going on at Ken Parish's website at the moment, and several present ministers are being made fun of at great length). A credible ALP leader could beat the government, possibly not at the next election but very likely at the one after.

And if it really has to, the ALP can find a leader in one of these state governments. Unlike what happens in the US, the Australian political parties do not have traditions of state leaders transferring to federal politics. In the federal parliamentary system, people are traditionally expected to do a parliamentary apprenticeship in the federal sphere before becoming party leader. To some extent, this is the problem. Mr Beazley and Mr Crean have gained the leadership because of their party and parliamentary seniority, which is not always the best way to choose a leader. At some point, however, the party will become desperate. (I think it is fairly close to that point). At that point, it will be possible for a promising junior parliamentarian to become leader, or for a senior state figure to move to the federal sphere to take the leadership. Last time the ALP was in a similar position (in 1980), they imported Bob Hawke, a former union leader, to become leader without the usual parliamentary apprenticeship. Mr Hawke became Prime Minister barely two years after becoming a member of parliament, and led one of the best governments Australia has ever had.

This time, the ALP is more likely to import a state leader. Bob Carr, the long term Premier of NSW, has been mentioned as a possible candidate to do this. Bob Carr may not have the ambition to be Prime Minister (for one think I think he likes being Premier of NSW), but he has the political skills. Like John Howard and George Bush, he is someone who has been underestimated constantly throughout his political career, but he always seems to win. I do not like Mr Carr personally (mainly because he is the precise opposite of what Virginia Postrel would call a "dynamist"), but I quite honestly believe that if he moved to federal politics at the next election, he would be elected Prime Minister the election after that. (I wrote about Mr Carr and his possible federal ambitions once before).

And if this type of thing does not happen with Mr Carr, there are another seven Premiers and Chief Ministers who could conceivably make the move. The strength of the ALP at the state level means that the party remains strong at the grass roots level, regardless of its leadership problems at the federal level. And while that is the case, and while state politicians retain federal ambitions (as they always will) the party is never going to fade away at the federal level.

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