May 26, 2022

Federal politics

The art of the teal

By Russell Marks
Image of a man updating a board showing a tally of votes during independent candidate Zoe Daniel’s reception for the 2022 federal election. Image © Joel Carrett / AAP Images

A man updates a board showing a tally of votes during independent candidate Zoe Daniel’s reception for the 2022 federal election. Image © Joel Carrett / AAP Images

Amid the long decline of the major parties, have independents finally solved the problem of lopsided campaign financing laws?

Despite the honeymoon period that many media outlets are giving Anthony Albanese, Saturday’s election result can hardly be called an endorsement of Labor, its campaign or its policies. Labor’s primary vote was its worst since the 1903 election. Clearly, the result was a wholesale rejection of the Liberal Party and of Scott Morrison, who had sacrificed the national interest for partisan gain whenever he could, and had always abandoned the role of statesman for the team colours. He failed, egregiously, even with the endorsement of most of the News Corp tabloids. The Liberal Party lost all of its metropolitan seats in Adelaide, and most of them in Melbourne and Perth.

But it was the way in which the Liberals lost that makes the 2022 election historic. Yes, it was the Greens’ best result, and they’ll finish with 12 Senate seats and the balance of power, plus three seats in the House of Representatives and the real possibility of more in 2025. Adam Bandt calls this a “greenslide”. But against the two major parties, these gains remain crumbs, hard-won by a mass-structured party after three decades on the hustings.

The biggest story of the 2022 election is that the conundrum of campaign financing for independents may, at long last, have been cracked. The teal independents did not enjoy the benefits of mass-party organisation, yet at their very first attempt, six of them were elected, not to the Senate with its 14 per cent quota, but to the House with its single-member electorates. And they won in blue-ribbon electorates that had until very recently been considered unassailably safe for the Liberal Party, though Malcolm Turnbull had warned the party of this outcome two years ago. The successful defeat of a major party’s moderate flank by a non-major party opponent has never been achieved before.

For decades now, political scientists have been tracking the decline of Australia’s two major political parties. They might feel like permanent fixtures – nobody alive can now remember a general election that did not feature the Australian Labor Party, and you’d need to be in your eighties to be able to recall a time before Robert Menzies created the present Liberal Party out of the wartime dregs of the United Australia Party (the real one, not Clive Palmer’s fake UAP revival outfit) – but the parties have swelled and shrunk and hollowed out over the course of the last century, moulded and then gutted by the changes happening in Australian society. Saturday showed us just how calamitous the major parties’ futures are.

Labor was born as a “mass” party: the political expression of the workers’ movement, forged in 1891 out of the desperation and the terror of Queensland’s shearers’ strike, funded via an enormous union membership and sustained via countless meetings – useful in raising consciousness and instilling group identity – and volunteer hours. Labor’s opponents joined forces in a pragmatic attempt to replicate the mass structure, and eventually settled – under Menzies – into an even more successful model, German political scientist Otto Kirchheimer’s “catch-all” party: a party capable of holding many ideologies and reliant on no single one of them, what John Howard eventually called the “broad church”.

Labor spent 23 years in postwar Opposition before its own church was broadened by Gough Whitlam, via structural reforms that grouped the main ideological divisions into formalised factions. But even as he did so, the parties were changing again. By the end of the 1980s there was much more ideological agreement – mainly on the necessity for neoliberal reform – than conflict, and the two major parties operated as a kind of cartel to block new challengers. Strikes and wage demands are anathema to this kind of politics, so Bob Hawke – after a decade as president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, and increasingly influenced by the US embassy’s CIA-backed labour attachés – engineered an Accord as soon as he became prime minister, which committed the unions to wage restraint.

Cartel parties, too, have less need of mass memberships because they collude to draw on the resources of the state. In 1983, Hawke’s government created the public funding of election campaigns using a formula that locked new parties out of the gravy train: any party that polled more than 4 per cent of the primary vote was entitled to 60 cents per primary vote – out of public coffers – ostensibly to spend on the next election campaign. (That amount has now increased – at a faster rate than inflation – to $2.90 per vote.)

Following the election in December 1984, Labor took from general revenue nearly $3.6 million, the Coalition just under $3.4 million and the Democrats not quite $490,000. (The Democrats polled better in the Senate, but Hawke’s law originally made Senate votes only half as valuable as those earned in the House of Representatives.) Nobody else got even a brass razoo. Unions and companies had always made campaign financing a barrier to entry for newcomers; after 1984 the major parties had organised for themselves compensation for declining membership as Australia atomised. This year, Labor and the Coalition will each pocket nearly three times the amount that the Greens will.

Public campaign financing has benefited the Greens since the party became entitled to it in 2001, with the election that year the first real sign that whatever had rusted voters onto the cartel parties was corroding. But it’s also denied the Greens (and One Nation, Family First and everyone else – but especially independents) the opportunity to compete on anything like a level playing field. Even as the major parties were hollowing out during the 1990s and 2000s, political scientists struggled to see how a third force such as the Greens could ever realistically become a major force. The Greens’ high-water mark (until last Saturday) was the 2010 election, when they polled 11.76 per cent of the primary vote in the House (and 13.11 per cent in the Senate). But both cartel parties were still attracting between three and four times that proportion.

Before Saturday, there were three previous stand-out elections for the non-cartel vote: 1977, which was the first election contested by the Democrats, led by Liberal defector Don Chipp; 1990, which was the Democrats’ heyday; and 1998, the GST election, in which One Nation polled 8.4 per cent. At the latter, more than one fifth of all voters gave someone other than a major party their first preference. It was a sign of things to come. A similar proportion stayed away from cartel parties at the Tampa election three years later. 2001 set a two-decade trend in Australian politics, with the cartel parties competing for a disaffected, disengaged “centre” that was otherwise at risk of voting One Nation. Depressingly for those who yearned for a politics of relevance and solutions, Tampa signalled not the end but the beginning of the charge to the bottom.

It was a charge led by the Liberal Party, which settled on a formula that John Howard eventually perfected (after a metaphorical triple bypass) from 1995: economic liberalism, social troglodytism. His successful political business model involved importing culture wars from the Republicans across the Pacific, and casting all kinds of minorities and “elites” against his imagined “mainstream”. Menzies’ “forgotten people” became Howard’s “silent majority”, disaffected workers became mortgagees, independent contractors and “battlers”, and a stuttering 1980s failure became Australia’s second longest-serving prime minister. Behind the scenes, Howard was encouraging structural changes to the Liberal Party: he swept moderates out of his ministry and worked against their preselections; he recommended a young ex-seminarian, Tony Abbott, as John Hewson’s press secretary and later endorsed him – glowingly – for preselection in Warringah; and his brand of big-C conservatism attracted the likes of Scott Morrison, Peter Dutton and Alex Hawke, whose views were once considered so extreme that he was gagged from speaking to certain media outlets following his initial preselection in 2007. Guardian Australia political editor Katharine Murphy says the broad church was emptied by Abbott and Morrison, but the real usher was Howard.

Abbott and Morrison have since led the Liberal Party, which has continued shunting itself rightward under a combination of applause and impatience from Rupert Murdoch’s media properties and their suckhole commentariat. Dutton and Hawke seem destined to continue that trajectory. Students of Australian politics, taught that the whole game is a battle for the “centre”, have been perplexed by this: before Saturday, the Coalition had won seven out of nine elections by being aggressively right-wing, and despite journalists’ fondness for describing people like Christopher Pyne, Kelly O’Dwyer and Josh Frydenberg as “moderates”, the truth is that there was no longer a place for even a Malcolm Fraser–style Liberal by the present century, as Malcolm Turnbull discovered. (Fraser resigned his party membership in 2010, and significant portions of the party would love to force Turnbull to do so as well.)

Talk of “existential”-level threat to the major parties may be overblown, however. Queensland’s Labor Party managed to recover from its seven-seat result in 2012 to regain government in a single term. But the risk for the Liberal Party is that its remaining MPs, who are overwhelmingly conservative, drag it even further to the unelectable right under Dutton. As if on cue, Matt Canavan – a Nationals senator – claimed the Liberals lost so much ground because they didn’t stay true to their “values and principles of wanting lower taxes and low red tape”. Peta Credlin had accused Morrison’s Liberals of being “Labor-lite” earlier in May, and predicted that would see them defeated.

The Coalition and its News Corp boosters complain that the teal independents weren’t really “independent” at all, having been substantially bankrolled by Simon Holmes à Court’s Climate 200 fund, which had reportedly raised $6.5 million by December, prompting incumbent Liberal MPs – who had enjoyed for so long the benefits of lopsided campaign financing laws – to complain of “immorality”, apparently with straight faces. But funding alone can’t achieve these results, otherwise Clive Palmer – who spent nearly $100 million – would have won at least one seat for his UAP.

There are obvious concerns about big money in politics, but at least this time around what the Climate 200 dollars did was to facilitate locals’ engagement in their electorates. The Climate 200 advisory council now includes independently minded people from across the political spectrum, including Barry Jones, John Hewson, Meg Lees, Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor. The sheer numbers of teal volunteers during the campaign seemed to dwarf the entire memberships of the cartel parties. Regaining seats such as Wentworth and Kooyong may prove more difficult for the Libs, because they’re up against not another centralised party but an army of committed local volunteers. Even if they can find another billionaire to bankroll them (the last one – Palmer – didn’t work out so well), they won’t be able to conscript the army of passionate volunteers they’ll need to overcome the teal revival.  

Saturday’s result showed that elections, after all, can be local affairs – which is how the Constitution imagines them. There’s a real possibility that we’ll see more teal and “Voices Of” candidates in 2025, now with a proven financial and organisational model to give them a real chance. If the seat of Oxley provided the emblematic result in 1996 by electing Pauline Hanson, the 2022 equivalent was the seat of Fowler. The retiring Labor member, Chris Hayes, had endorsed local community lawyer Tu Le as his successor in the Western Sydney seat. But Labor’s executive made the extraordinary decision to dump Le for former premier Kristina Keneally, parachuted in from the Northern Beaches. It’s difficult to imagine a more short-sighted decision, but it’s precisely the kind of decision that a centralised party makes at the expense of local concerns. Labor paid the price, losing one of its safest seats to former journalist Dai Le, an ex-Liberal running as, yes, an independent.

Russell Marks

Russell Marks is a criminal defence lawyer and an adjunct research fellow at La Trobe University, where he completed a PhD in Australian political history. His most recent book is Black Lives, White Law: Locked Up and Locked Out in Australia. He lives on Kaurna land.

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