The 2004 Election and the Fate of the Small Parties

As usual, most of the focus in the 2004 elections is on the Labor-Liberal clash. But in many ways the issues of the small parties are more interesting, something the Murdoch press seem to have noticed, even if they’ve decided to invent supposed Greens policies to spice things up. Here’s my assessment of what the election means for them.

The Nationals

The Nationals may have seen off One Nation, but the future still looks tough. As I’ve said before, they are like an army besieged on three sides. This is a difficult position for any party, but made much worse by the fact that, while on two sides they both advance and retreat, on the third they seem to only move backwards. Such a situation is clearly not sustainable.

While the loss of seats to Independents last election was a blow to the Nationals they know they will eventually win these seats back if not this time, then when the sitting members retire. Likewise the loss of an electorate to the ALP is not always a total disaster because when there is a fair chance that a favourable election will see it return to the fold, as Richmond and Page did in 1996.

Losing seats to the Liberals is a different matter. Federally I have not been able to track down the last time the Nationals took a seat off the Libs, but it’s clearly a hell of a long time ago. At state level they did it in Gippsland Province in 1988, and there may be one or two other examples in the last three decades, but really, this is very much the exception.

Consequently, when the Nationals lose a seat like Farrer (2001) or Murray (1996) to the Liberals they pretty much have to assume it’s gone for good. If you don’t believe me consider the case of Indi a rural/regional seat overlapping with National territory at state levels. The Liberals ran Sophie Panopolous, known to Crikey readers as “Uptown Girl” for her minimal connection to the electorate, yet the National candidate collected just 12.3% and outpolled the Liberals in just one booth out of 88. No party can sustain such a pattern for long.

However, 2004 could be something of an exception to this pattern. As far as I am aware no National MPs are planning to retire. In most states the Liberals do not run against sitting National MPs, so the threat on their most dangerous front will not exist this time.

I don’t see Bob Katter’s sugar team being able to do more than prove a distraction, except in Hinkler where their preferences may hurt, although there could be a strong independent I haven’t heard of.

Labor on the other hand poses a very real threat. There are no Labor held seats in any danger of falling to the Nationals, but four National electorates are now within reach, Richmond (1.7% swing), Hinkler (2.2), Gippsland (2.6) and Page (2.8).

It is my contention that while losing Hinkler or Page would be a severe blow to the Nationals, it may be a disaster from which they can recover. The loss of Gippsland or Richmond would be another matter altogether. In the case of Richmond the problem is not the seat, but the candidate. Larry Anthony is the future of the federal Nationals. Which is not to say he is any sort of star politician, but he’s a damn site more credible than any of their other young MPs. If they lose him, it’s hard to see how they will make the transition from the Anderson/Vaile team to whatever comes afterwards.

The problem in Gippsland is that it is one of only two House of Reps seats they hold outside NSW and Queensland. Can the Nationals really go on as a political force if they become a two state party, particularly when there are no prospects for growth in those states?

Barker could have been the answer, but Rann’s decision to buy the sole South Australian state National MP off rather than have her run has killed that option. The federal ALP should be rather annoyed at this if the Libs had to drain off resources from marginal seats to protect Barker from the Nationals this would have given Labor a boost. However, for Nationals the loss of their one lower house opportunity to go forward is a more serious blow.

True the Nationals will probably pick up Senate seats in Queensland and New South Wales, but this won’t be much compensation if they lose several House seats.

The Democrats

Many people are inclined to believe the Democrats are finished. True, four of their Senators are not up for election, but surely they are just the walking dead, with no chance of long-term survival?

Owen is not so sure. Loyal Democrats like to point out they have been written off at every election since their formation. This is something of an exaggeration sometimes many pundits agreed they were in trouble, but on other occasions it was just a stray Jeremiah.

Nevertheless, the Democrats do have an amazing history of doing their best when their backs are to the wall, combined with a talent for stuffing it up when the brass ring is presented to them. Can they make it back from here?

It seems to me there are three ways the Democrats could survive the current crisis. The one would be internal reform find a stack of amazingly talented candidates (and campaign managers) dramatically grow their membership and prove to the public they are a force to be reckoned with.

Sorry, but I just can’t see it happening.

The second prospect (which seems to be what Greg Barnes is hanging out for) is for the Greens to collapse, and the Democrats to rise to fill the vacancy. It’s harder to rule out the possibility of a small party collapsing than swiftly rejuvenating itself, but there really does not seem much prospect of this happening, at least as long as Bob Brown is around. Green parties flourish in most advanced democracies these days, and with the presence of Brown as an added strength it’s hard to see the Greens falling apart, even if a bit of internal fighting may prevent them reaching their full potential.

But there is a third scenario which might give the Democrats hope, and it goes like this: Labor wins the election, the more comfortably the better. Out of government federally and in every state the Liberals turn to internal recriminations and bloodletting. The Greens do quite well at the 2004 lection, winning at least 4 seats to add to the two not up for election.

Latham then proceeds to lead Labor to the right on at least some key issues. With the Liberals distracted and ineffective, the political debate in parts of the country becomes mainly between the ALP and Greens (the Liberals will still be polling much better than the Greens in this scenario, but the Greens will be doing more agenda setting, as is the case in Tasmania).

Suddenly the Democrats are freed from their old bugbear how to be simultaneously a progressive party, and a force “keeping the bastards honest”. They can be the Senate arbiters between the Greens and the ALP. Their vote in the House may be dismal, but their Senate vote may return to something like their long-term average. Combined with preferences from pretty much everyone this should be enough to win them several seats at the following election, and as long as Labor stays in power.

For this to occur a number of events all need to happen, and as none of them are guaranteed the chain of probability gets a bit stretched. But I really can’t see any of the events mentioned as being impossible, or even astonishingly unlikely.

The big problem for the Democrats is they need to do well enough at this election to be around to benefit from such a situation. A complete wipeout would leave them too weak to cope.

At an absolute minimum the Dems need to win one Senate seat this time, and two is probably more what’s required. They have a decent shot in each of South Australia and Queensland, with an outside chance in NSW, so this may not be out of the question.

The other thing they must do is score enough votes to avoid bankrupting themselves. More than any other party the Democrats depend on public funding, and the rule preventing those with less than 4% in an electorate receiving money could kill them. I’m not privy to the details of their finances, but suspect they need to break the 4% barrier in the Senate in two of the big three states to avoid utter penury.

The Greens

Every single reputable poll taken over the last two years shows the Green vote either rising, or staying the same, but a higher Green vote does not necessarily translate to more seats.

It’s hard to see the Greens missing out in Tasmania, and they have good prospects in NSW, Vic and WA, but none of these are anywhere near certainties – they will not reach quota in any mainland state on primaries, and will depend on the semi-random fall of preferences. South Australia, Queensland and even the ACT are real prospects, but it would be as easy for the Greens to win no new mainland Senators as it would be for them to win our or five.

Even with an impressive primary vote, the Greens may face a severe problem of unrealised expectations if they can’t gain ground on the mainland.

The other issue for the Greens is whether they can translate their extraordinary good fortune in Cunningham into a more long term beachhead in the lower house. Cunningham would not normally be a winnable seat for them, but its not impossible incumbency could see them hold on. State and local results confirm that the seats of Melbourne, Sydney and Grayndler could all be Green potentials, although the last of these in particular depends on a low Labor vote.

Wilkie and Deegan

There is a fantasy that lurks in the heart of many Australians. It has a place in the breast of die-hard lefties, but finds a home also among decent, humane, middle-of-the-roaders and true conservatives. There are slight variations, but broadly speaking it goes like this: Somewhere around 8pm on election night they will hear Anthony Green say – And the real shock of the night comes from the Prime Ministers seat of Bennelong, where former Intelligence Officer Andrew Wilkie is pressing the Howard closely. We’ll be going back there frequently through the course of the night, but at this stage I’d say that one could be decided on postal votes. Ooowhhh, Owen gets warm inside just typing these words. The thought of Howard waiting for weeks on tenterhooks to discover if he has done a Bruce would almost make the last eight years worthwhile. Depression rates in detention centres would plummet, whistleblowers worldwide take heart.

Failing such a frabjous day, a similar fate for Alexander Downer would be an acceptable consolation prize.

So is it possible? Well I’ll admit it’s not likely. Bennelong has pockets of the sort of genuine liberalism that might rise up and overthrow a leader whose economic policies they like, but who’s dishonesty, ruthlessness and bigotry they despise. However, it’s not Kooyong or Wentworth, either of which might be more likely prospects for such a revolt. The most likely outcome is that Wilkie wins the votes that would have come to the Greens anyway, a chunk of those who would otherwise have gone ALP or Democrat, and a mere smattering of normally Liberal voters.

However, there is a real chance that, if he can gain some traction, that Wilkie will be seen as the hope of many normally ALP voters, and will pull so many across that he outpolls the Labor candidate. If there is a statewide swing of a few percent against the Liberals anyway, Wilkie does not need to pick up all that many Liberals who know what the world liberal actually means before he could be giving the Prime Minister the scare of his life. Not to be expected, but at this stage I wouldn’t say it’s impossible.

Deegan’s situation is similar but different. As John Schuman proved in 98, Mayo is the sort of seat capable of giving the Liberals a scare, filled as it is with those who are conservative economically but concerned about the environment and possibly human rights. However, the redistribution has made it even safer for the Libs (and much safer than Bennelong).

The fact that Deegan is an independent, rather than running for a party, will make him more attractive to the natural Liberal voters who want to register a protest against aspects of the government’s behaviour, but will also make it hard for him to gather the campaign team around him needed to make an impact in a seat like this. Owen once handed out in a state by-election where an independent candidate had every booth covered by family and employees. Unless you’re a very big employer you can’t do that in a federal electorate and this is going to make things hard for Deegan. However, if he can get serious people power behind his bid strange things may happen.

One Nation

Their Senate spot is as good as gone, about the best they can hope for is a stack of 4%s in their heartland and the Qld Senate to give them funds for future state elections.

Others I can’t see any other registered parties making a noticeable impact, except perhaps through their preferences in the Senate. However, one can’t rule out the chance that a few more rural independents will appear. Fred Nile will not be a Senator, although as another Crikey observer has noted, he could change the outcome as to who does win if he can hang in long enough.

Your Voice

There are attempts to register an Aboriginal Party under the name Your Voice, and people have asked me what I make of their chances. I’d like to be more positive, but I’m afraid I’m pessimistic. Failing to get party registration means their candidates have to run as independents and will likely be lost in the mix. Secondly, the logistical problems of running a party nationally are huge.

If the Northern Territory had more than two senators there might be a real shot up there, but in every state the adult indigenous population is simply too small to elect a senator, even if everyone was on the roll and voted for Your Voice, and there was a good preference flow.

There are certainly plenty of white voters who support the aims of Your Voice, and would like to see them do well, but this is a different thing from actually voting for them. Pre-Tampa plenty of people who loved the Greens’ stand on the environment didn’t vote for them because they were seen as a single-issue party. Rightly or wrongly, Your Voice will probably be even more intensely perceived the same way. And opinion polls consistently show that, as an issue determining votes, the environment out-rates indigenous issues.

However, Your Voice could still have an impact. I understand that many aborigines are not on the electoral roll. And there are a number of strong communities in marginal seats. If Your Voice can increase enrolment rates it could find itself in a position to determine the outcome of many rural/regional electorates. Howard may never regret abolishing ATSIC, but he may come to deeply rue the day he prevented the formation of a representative indigenous voice to replace it.

What about the Family First Party?

A reader writes:

I refer to your article, “Owen Outsider on the minor parties” by Owen Outsider – “The 2004 Election and the Fate of the Small Parties” on 6 September 2004.

I note that no reference whatsoever has been made about the Family First Party (see www.FamilyFirst.org.au).

During the 2002 South Australia election, the Family First Party made political history when Andrew Evans won a Legislative Council Seat in his first election.

In this federal election, the Family First Party has candidates running in nearly every seat in Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria and New South Wales.

Flinders University senior politics lecturer Dr Haydon Manning has been quoted as saying that the chances of Family First capturing a South Australian Senate seat were “quite reasonable”.

Against this background, I’m surprised Owen Outsider has chosen to disregard the Family First party in this analysis.

Tracy Skellern-Smith

Senate Candidate – Queensland

Family First Part