In their own image
The rise of the launch-your-own political party

Image by Daniel Novta (Flickr).

The Australian Electoral Commission has announced the registration of the John Madigan Manufacturing and Farming Party. Madigan, who split with the Democratic Labour Party to become an independent Senator last September, cited disillusionment as the catalyst for his decision. “Despite years of promises from the major parties, manufacturers and farmers are still getting a raw deal in this country,” he said. “That’s why I started the party.” His aim is to field candidates for both the Senate and House of Representatives at the next federal election.

Madigan now shares the Senate crossbench with the eponymous members of the Nick Xenophon Team and the Jacqui Lambie Network. In the wings are the Dick Smith Party and Malcolm Fraser’s more imaginatively titled venture, Renew Australia. While Renew wasn’t intended as Fraser’s personal vehicle for election, it will undoubtedly run in Fraser’s ideological image.   

The recent spate of launch-your-own parties is symptomatic of a larger problem within Australia’s political system. Since the economic reforms of the 1980s, the major parties have become increasingly indistinguishable. It’s reasonable to view the political elite as a class of their own, with opposing sides having far more in common with each other than with the public.

When almost everyone shares the same philosophy, the stakes are significantly lowered. This decline in partisanship, as the late political scientist Peter Mair argued, has seen politicians and citizens mutually withdrawing from the established party system across the Western world, sharing what Mair terms an “anti-political sentiment”. Both voter turnout in elections where voting is voluntary and party membership are consistently decreasing.

The mainstream political parties have retreated from the distinct social identities that defined them for most of the 20th century. Working-class voters no longer necessarily view political conservatism as the enemy, while a number of affluent areas with highly concentrations of educated constituents are turning to the Greens. Policies are shaped by the tide: with the introduction of broad “middle-class welfare” to cater for his new constituency, the voters of western Sydney were as much John Howard’s dependents as his battlers.

The lack of defining ideologies behind the major parties means that in the new political landscape, we talk about politics in terms of narratives, not ideas. And how do you tell a story without characters? Personality politics enables the public to make emotional judgements based on character when policy positions are either extreme or lacking entirely.

It is difficult to envisage a long life for any of these personality-based parties, and it’s also probable that isn’t part of their design. Clive Palmer has got what he wanted out of his political sideshow: he has frustrated the Liberal Party, and will have a longer parliamentary career than his nemesis Campbell Newman. Lambie and Madigan are championing single issues to try to raise their own prominence, and it’s difficult to see their respective parties lasting beyond their individual time in the Senate. Smith and Fraser identified gaps in the market from the relatively recent debasing of political identities. Smith is targeting the voters who feel left behind by globalisation with ideas of curbing economic and population growth, while Fraser sought to build on his popularity with voters dismayed by the bipartisanship on the treatment of asylum seekers and the US military alliance. Pauline Hanson exploits the compulsory voting system, running in almost every election in the knowledge that name recognition alone will see her secure the minimum of 4% of the primary vote needed to obtain election funding. This entitles her to $2.50 or so of AEC funding per first preference vote.

But even those who do desire longevity will struggle to obtain it. Although the surge of eponymous parties is a symptom of the ailing party system, insurgency is unlikely to overcome the strength of the political establishment. Hanson was thwarted by Tony Abbott’s rapid fundraising campaign against her, and the chaotic Palmer United Party was cruelled by egoism and policy incoherence.

It’s tempting to see heroism in the current insurrection, but behind much of it lies experienced political operators who know how to game the system, and who seek to settle scores with former allies. Palmer employed disaffected former LNP staff to guide his erstwhile senators; former Abbott staffer David Oldfield was the brains behind Pauline Hanson; “preference whisperer” and serial candidate Glenn Druery has made a career of organising micro-party preference deals in the upper house.

It may be that the retreat from distinct social identities is a result of a more egalitarian and prosperous society, but it does not mean that differing philosophies cannot compete in the political mainstream. The malaise of the establishment has produced an era where, for the foreseeable future, the personal will dominate the political.

Elle Hardy

Elle Hardy is an Australian journalist based in the United States. She can be found at www.ellehardy.com

@ellehardy

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