Effect of Australia’s Two Party System on Liberal Democracy

‘The two-party system is essential to the health of Australian liberal democracy’.

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The politics of Australia takes place within the framework of a federal constitutional parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy. The bicameral body of the federal Parliament of Australian to which Australians elect parliamentarians, incorporate a fusion of executive elements inherited from the Westminster system and a strong federalist senate adopted from the United States. Australia largely operates as a two-party system in which voting is compulsory.

The Australian political landscape has been dominated by organised, national parties since federation. The Australian Labor party come into prominence during the late 19th Century and represented the organised workers. They were opposed by two main parties the first who represent the middle class & business and offered a social conservative aspect, known as the Liberal party of Australia. The second represented rural or agrarian, now the National Party of Australia. While there are a small number of other political parties that have achieved parliamentary representation, these main three dominate organised politics everywhere in Australia. Australian politics now operates as a two-party system, as a result of the permanent coalition between the Liberal Party and National Party.()

“A two-party system is a system where two major political parties dominate politics within a government. One of the two parties typically holds a majority in the legislature and is usually referred to as the majority party while the other is the minority party.”()

The two-party system had its origins in the rise of the Labor Party as a mass political organisation. This occurred in Australia roughly from 1891. Important moments occurred in 1909, when the Protectionists and Free Traders merged, and again in 1946, when Sir Robert Menzies established the modern Liberal party. In this perspective the political game is fundamentally about two main parties periodically contending for public support. ()

“The Australian Labor Party (ALP) is a self-described social democratic party which has in recent decades pursued a neo-liberal economic program, founded by the Australian labour movement and broadly representing the urban working class, although it increasingly has a base of sympathetic middle class support as well.”()

“The Liberal Party of Australia is a party of the centre-right which broadly represents business, the suburban middle classes and many rural people. Its permanent coalition partner at national level is the National Party of Australia, formerly known as the Country Party, a conservative party which represents rural interests. These two parties are collectively known as the Coalition.”().

The 1913 election was important because it consolidated the two-party system. It was the first time an elected majority government was replaced by another majority government, this time the new Liberal Party that had in 1909 ”fused” together the anti-Labor forces. However it was the introduction of proportional representation that shaped the system of government we have today.

“The Commonwealth Constitution does not govern in detail how members of the House of Representatives and the Senate are to be elected, nor could it dictate the number and strength of Australia’s national political parties and the dynamics of competition among them.”()

The political dynamics in Canberra including the roles the two houses of parliament and the relationship between them is profoundly impact by the electoral and party system. Proportional representation has fundamentally affected the balance of power among the parties, the implementation of principles of responsible government, and the practical dynamics of politics in Parliament. “The decision made in 1948 that thereafter Senators would be elected by proportional representation. Until 1949, Senators were elected in much the same way as Representatives, except that three or more Senators were chosen in each state at each election. Sec.7 of the Constitution provides for Senators to be elected on a state-wide basis—each state voting ‘as one electorate’—unless Parliament provides otherwise, which it has not done. Thus, until the 1949 election, between three and six Senators were elected state-wide at each election, by a plurality system that often led, as we shall see, to one party winning most or all of the seats being contested.”()

Preferential voting protects the election against a candidate who receives a plurality, but not a majority, of the votes cast.

If more than two candidates run for the same seat, it is quite possible that none of them will receive a majority; most voters will select someone other than the candidate who receives a plurality of the votes. A closely related effect of preferential voting is to encourage more than two candidates to run for the same seat—or to put it differently, for more than two parties to field candidates for the same seat. In plurality district elections, it is typically argued that anyone who contemplates voting for a third or minor party candidate is, in effect, throwing away his or her vote. If the candidate whom a voter truly prefers has no realistic chance of winning, so the argument goes, any voter who selects that candidate thereby gives up the opportunity to affect the choice between the two candidates who actually might win. Under a preferential voting system, a voter can vote for the candidate he or she truly prefers, and then mark his or her second preference for a candidate with a better prospect of winning—the political equivalent of having one’s cake and eating it too. Precisely because of this logic, of course, preferential voting can have the effect of encouraging a multiplicity of candidates and so reducing the likelihood that any one of them will receive a majority of the first preference votes cast. In a proportional representation system, lesser parties can moderate policy since they are not usually eliminated from government. It is suggested the two-party approach may not promote inter-party compromise but may encourage partisanship.

In the past the two-party system has proved to be extraordinarily robust. The Australian major parties are required to be more pluralistic (Winner takes all) than any other democracy as a consequence of being such a stable bipolar system. Minor parties find it very difficult to gain a foothold in the lower house due to the combination of preferential voting and single-member electorates. The preferential system means minor parties vacuum up discontented voters to deliver back to one of the major parties.

Two-party systems have been criticized for downplaying alternative views, being less competitive, encouraging voter apathy since there is a perception of fewer choices, and putting a damper on debate within a nation. Two dominant parties pattern of politics involves an assumption about their ideologies. It implies that the two parties present the community with real and divergent choices and that these are based on broader differences of political philosophy or ideology. In turn, these different philosophies are assumed to provide guidance about how to respond to particular issues. Further, taken together, the philosophies of the major parties broadly exhaust the repertoire of political possibility. Again, these were all valid assumptions for most of the past hundred years. But do any of them still hold?

The community is now much more differentiated and pluralised. Australians exhibit a much wider spectrum of attachments and attitudes. We are a much more diverse and pluralised community. We do not divide along binary lines. To think of ourselves in linear, left-right terms would be a gross distortion. A kaleidoscope is perhaps a better image. Relatively small numbers of voters remain rusted on loyalists of the major parties Party organisations have a minimal role in linking the community to politics. We no longer have powerful party organisations. The remnants are shadows of their former selves. But none of the tasks that they once performed are carried out anywhere else in the political system. Power has flowed from the organisation and the members to party leaders. We no longer have two parties divided by a clear programmatic orientation. Rather the major parties agree on many aspects of the broad direction of policy, particularly in relation to the economy. Real disagreement often mostly concerns priorities or important details. Or the major parties may agree and freeze out other voices that have a right to be heard. They may also disagree profoundly about particular issues like gay marriage, environmental protection, euthanasia, education reform etc. There is now often cross-party agreement about the general direction of policy. This creates the incentives for opportunism, populism, manufactured difference and exaggeration – outcomes that now irritate many voters.

If this is the reality of political life in the early 21st century, we should remember what our parties should be representing, Liberal Democracy.

Liberal democracy is a form of government in which representative democracy operates under the principles of liberalism, i.e. protecting the rights of minorities and, especially, the individual. It is characterized by fair, free, and competitive elections between multiple distinct political parties, a separation of powers into different branches of government, the rule of law in everyday life as part of an open society, and the equal protection of human rights, civil rights, civil liberties, and political freedoms for all persons. Liberal democracies usually have universal suffrage, granting all adult citizens the right to vote regardless of race, gender or property ownership.”() Liberal democracy is base on four main principles, The belief that all individuals are rational & moral, The belief that it is a natural condition of mankind to want growth & evolution, the belief that this growth will come through order & cooperation rather than chaos & disorder and a suspicion against concentrated forms of power. Accordingly, liberal democracies are organised in such a way as to define and limit power in order to promote legitimate government within a framework of justice and freedom, Powers are limited & defined through the use of written constitutions that separate legislative, executive and judicial power, These democracies are legitimised by require a high level of support derived from the electoral system, This system provides justice to all citizens by equal treatment and being accorded dignity and respect, and lastly by granting the freedom to make decisions. to learn from them and to accept responsibility for them. Citizens must have the capacity to choose between alternatives and the freedom to do what the law does not forbid.()