With more than one in five voters having cast their ballots for minor parties or independents at last year’s federal election, much has rightly been said about the public’s crisis of confidence in the two major parties.
However, it should be noted that such concerns have arisen on several occasions previously, and have in fact been doing so at fairly regular intervals since the Australian Democrats burst onto the scene in 1977. Later upticks in minor party support include a surge to the Democrats and the Greens in 1990 — which famously reduced the Hawke Labor government to pleading for second preferences in its television advertising — and the peak of One Nation’s fortunes when John Howard first faced re-election in 1998.
While the long-term trend in the non-major party vote is unmistakably upward, its tendency to proceed in fits and starts argues against the presumption that voters will prove as receptive to micro-parties next time around as they were last September. In particular, the experience of 1998 — when the One Nation breakthrough was followed by three successive elections at which the non-major party vote diminished — suggests a pattern of voters venting their displeasure at politics as usual by turning to “anti-politicians”, only to revert to type when the maverick newcomers prove less prepared for the spotlight than they imagined themselves to be.
Such thoughts might well be occurring to micro-party voters as they observe the progress of Ricky Muir, whose already troubled political career has taken a distinct turn for the worse over the past few days. Muir’s success in winning a Victorian Senate seat for the Australian Motoring Enthusiasts did not follow the script of a party whose eyes had been set on Queensland, where the lead candidate was party founder Keith Littler.
“Much of this is happening under the radar of even the politically engaged, never mind the type of disaffected voter who flocked to the micro-parties last September.”
Candidates were fielded in other states largely for the sake of leverage in preference negotiations — a common tactic among micro-party entrepreneurs that did much to contribute to the absurd length of Senate ballot papers. When Muir rather than Littler emerged the winner of the preference lottery, Littler had to make do with a position in Muir’s electorate office, but was no less determined to make his mark on national politics for that. An early assertion of his authority came when the party’s central branch sacked its Victorian state council for establishing an unauthorised Facebook page and seeking to arrange for Muir to speak with The Australian Financial Review, in defiance of an edict that he be kept away from the glare of the media.
Now a new crisis in the party’s affairs has emerged with the firing of Muir’s chief of staff, Glenn Druery, whose expertise at manipulating the Senate electoral system had much to do with putting Muir where he is today. Littler claims Druery’s position was made untenable by his refusal to move from Sydney to Melbourne, but it’s clear enough that Druery, who complains Muir has fallen under the influence of persons with “less than honourable intentions”, thinks there is rather more to it than that.
Druery is reportedly responsible for circulating a letter from Peter Breen, a policy adviser to Muir and former micro-party member of the New South Wales Legislative Council, in which Littler is faulted for a “volatile temper, aggression, offensive language, inappropriate remarks about Aboriginal people, Asians and women and his disagreeable demeanour more generally when confronted by people or issues that did not comply with his world view”.
This isn’t the first time Druery has fallen out with a current micro-party senator, a shared association with David Leyonhjelm in the Liberal Democratic Party having ended after Druery ran unsuccessfully as the party’s New South Wales Senate candidate in 2010. Nor is it just the Glenn Druery axis whose internal affairs are bringing to mind the People’s Front of Judea scene of Monty Python’s Life of Brian.
A long-running legal saga involving the Democratic Labour Party re-emerged a fortnight ago when the state secretary of the Victorian branch, John Mulholland, sought an injunction to thwart a move to oust him from his position. The dispute began in 2008 with Mulholland’s defeat in a party ballot by a margin of one vote, which was followed by a series of legal challenges that most recently resulted in him being confirmed in his position by the Victorian Supreme Court last December.
Meanwhile, the Australian Democrats have shown that even an absence of spoils to fight over need not be an impediment to micro-party bloodletting. Two rival websites (here and here) purport to speak for what remains of the party, with a string of tribunal and court rulings having consistently backed the claim of one over the other.
It’s true that much of this is happening under the radar of even the politically engaged, never mind the type of disaffected voter who flocked to the micro-parties last September. Nonetheless, Muir’s troubles especially are likely to be sending voters a strong signal about the pitfalls of political inexperience. Another two years down the track, the naked cynicism of major party politics might well seem a price worth paying for their political management expertise and efficiency at negotiating the legal hurdles that attend the political process.
William Bowe is a Perth-based election analyst and occasional teacher of political science. His blog, The Poll Bludger, is one of the most heavily trafficked forums for online discussion of Australian politics, and joined the Crikey stable in 2008.