Why major parties will never recover

The NSW election followed the voting trend away from major parties, but it also helped answer the reason for the trend in a way not shown in previous federal and state elections.

For too long we have been looking at what the major parties are doing (well or badly) for the answer. But the answer lies elsewhere.

The major parties are doing now what they have been doing since federation – engaging in factional warfare, leadership squabbles, appeasing donors, cobbling together a suite of policies which might gain the support of half the population, media stunts, name-calling, blame-gaming and attracting  idealists, populists, pragmatists, the self-serving and the servers of the public.

They will continue doing so.

So we have to look elsewhere as to the reason why major-party support has fallen from almost 90 per cent of the first-preference vote from the end of World War II until mid-1970s to around 65 to 70 per cent now. And as to why the rusted on vote for each of the major parties has fallen to around 50 per cent.

When you do so, you have to conclude that before long majority government will be rare indeed.

What has changed, of course, is not the performance of the major parties, but the life experience and motivation of voters.

Perhaps the most significant factors are the breakdown of life-long employment; the reduced influence of family and religion; the removal of bureaucratic hinderances to entrepreneurship: tariffs, pubic ownership and needless regulation; greater individualism and the rise of the self-centered pursuit of instant gratification coupled with the rise of the internet.

These may be good or bad or neutral, but they have happened.

Family, religion and stable employment tended to slot people. People tended to vote how their parents voted. Unionists tended to vote Labor; managers and business tended to the Coalition. They were almost like opposition football teams: my team no matter what.

The removal of bureaucratic controls (including social controls on things like divorce and abortion) introduced something that spelt doom for the major-party monopoly: widening choice. 

If you wanted a telephone before 1970 you applied to the Postmaster-General’s Department and waited for the monopolist’s response.

The major parties now have as much chance of regaining their monopoly as Telstra has of gaining a 90 per cent share of the phone market.

A lot of people stayed with Telstra, which might have remained a good supplier overall, but many saw that other suppliers met one or two particular needs, wants or desires better than Telstra, and that those were more important than other overall factors.

Politics has gone the same way and the trend accelerated in the 1990s. It has been helped by three long-standing elements of the Australian political system: preferential voting; proportional voting in the state and federal upper houses and public-funding.

The first removed the “wasted-vote” concern that if you vote for a minor party your vote is wasted. This fear, for example, has resulted in the Republicans and Democrats still holding a 90 per cent monopoly in US elections. 

The second has resulted in a number of minor-party candidates getting elected to upper houses, creating a presence and media attention.

The third gives money to minor parties money to build on past successes. Indeed, the role of public funding has been grossly under-estimated in giving life-blood to minor parties. Any candidate with more than a few percent of the primary vote (according to jurisdiction) gets public funding which helps in the next election.

Now let’s turn to the NSW election and the societal changes which emphasised the tailoring of product to individual wants and desires.

It is summed up in the phrase: “I want this more than anything.”

And the “this” is definitely not “a competent government that acts only in the overall interest of everyone”.

Rather it is: “I want action on climate change”; “I want miners off my farm”; “I want my river to flow”; “I want a new tunnel so I can get to work quicker”; “I want a school or hospital”; “I want and en to Muslim immigration”; “I want to end racism” and so on.

And they voted this way in NSW more than ever before. Not only for parties but for or against individuals in parties according to how voters related to that individual in the self-centered universe which no longer cares much about anyone else or the broader picture.

That is how to explain the drift from major parties: not just disgust at how the major parties have performed recently (they have always performed like that) but how voters have changed.

It explains the NSW results. Usually you get a swing in one direction only, albeit of a different size seat by seat, but in NSW the swings were each and every way. The Nationals copped a swing against them of 37.2 per cent in one seat yet got a swing towards them of 9 per cent in another – that, I am fairly sure – is a record spread in an Australian election. Labor got a swing towards it of 10.7 cent in one seat and away from it of 9 per cent in another. The Liberals copped 10.7 away in one seat and 4.1 towards it in another.

It was an astonishing move away from one-way swings and the group-think tribalism of rusted-on major party support. Indeed, it confounded the usually assured ABC’s Antony Green on election night.

The result was nine independents or minor-party wins in the Lower House. Translated federally it would see 15 elected, up from five in 2016. It would be difficult for either major party to get majority government from there. But federal seats are larger so the task more difficult for non-major party candidates.

The significant thing, though, is the trend. Non-major party winners nearly always get re-elected. The political outcomes are just catching up with the economic and societal changes because it probably takes a generation for them to wash through.

But there will be no going back. It would not matter what the major parties did or how well-behaved they became, the days of a 90 per cent monopoly are over and they may as well start learning a more consensus approach with the minor parties. And vice-versa. Because minor parties and independents will have to get results for the growing number of “I want now” voters.


This article first appeared in The Canberra Times, The Sydney Morning Herald, and The Age on 30 March 2019.

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