Some days ago, a backbencher from a conservative party stood up to denounce the leadership of her party in the strongest possible terms: as people who had failed their cause, traduced the politics they were supposed to represent, and failed to recognise the deep disquiet towards politicians among the general public.
The backbencher attracted no great onslaught of criticism because she wasn’t in an Australian political party. Heidi Allen is a Tory MP in the UK, and she was denouncing her own party, actually in the House of Commons. Of the deal done by PM Theresa May, with the Democratic Unionist Party — a deal unnecessary save for leadership survival in Tory internal politics — she said this:
“I can barely put into words my anger at the deal my party has done with the DUP. We didn’t need to do it. I cannot fault the DUP for wanting to achieve the very best for their residents in Ireland, nor for their tough negotiating skills. But I must put on the record my distaste for the use of public funds to garner political control. We should have run with a minority government, and showed the country what mature progressive politics looks like.”
Allen hasn’t lost the whip or been threatened with de-selection, for the simple reason that this is all standard practice in the UK. Backbenchers are not part of the government and not bound to solidarity with it. They can dissent, act on behalf of their constituents, and ask questions that aren’t Dorothy Dixers written out for them on cards held in their trembling hands. The reasons are partly cultural and traditional, but they’re also structural and related to first-past-the-post voting. Any victory in a four- or five-party first-past-the-post system is at least partly a personal vote. The parties are loath to replace Awkward Squad Bot No. 12 for Obedient Doofus No. 23 unless it’s absolutely necessary, or the party has succumbed to full civil war (which UK Labour is clearly on the brink of). Thus, political commentary will sometimes underestimate the degree to which internal political crises are imminent, or miss the rise of a challenger — such as UKIP, up to 2015 — on track to carve out territory.
Would that we had such a problem here. Despite the structural lock of our politics, every tremor is written up as a party’s existential crisis. Christopher Pyne, at the Cherry Bar, in a party fuelled on bubbly champagne, lashings of pop, pops his own cherry with a gloating speech about the very minor matter of same-sex marriage. Tony Abbott, second President of the Republic of Salo, gives a speech outlining a fairly traditional Thatcherite/Reaganite politics with a Catholic twist, and suddenly we’re in political existential crisis.
We’re not of, course, but the right of the Liberal Party need to pretend we are — or they are — to further their purposes of destabilising Malcolm Turnbull. The motives for the press gallery and a wider commentariat are no less murky. The more stable and difficult to disrupt Australian politics is, the more that 24-hour news platforms have to manufacture an atmosphere of crisis, to create new hooks. The effect of this, and perhaps in part its purpose, is to disguise how protected from crisis and public demand the Australian political system is.
Let’s go over this again, en breve. The Australian lower house system is not like any others, because it is a compulsory vote, single-member, exhaustive-preference system. The 30-40% of people who don’t vote in other jurisdictions have to, here. They vote, say, 2:1 towards the usual holder of the seat. So the incumbent party has a 20% cushion of people who were sent to the polling booth by the state. To crack that open, and get to second party status, sufficient to harvest minor party preferences, is extremely difficult.
The atmosphere of crisis is being generated by reference to places — Greece, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands — where populist movements have surged to power on the basis of proportional/multi-member/list systems, or fragmented FPTP electorates. Nothing like that is happening here. The whole point of the compulsory-voting/exhaustive-preferential system is to entrench major parties as quasi-state apparatuses. The press gallery fail in their duty of scrutiny, and fail deliberately, so as to preserve a series of relationships with MPs who will feed the nano-tidbits they need to fuel a four-stories-a-day news cycle. On it goes.
What, after all, is the real threat to the Liberal Party, a party said to be on the brink of collapse by John Roskam, failed preselection champion, a man born looking 40, and who now has the haunted appearance of the stationmaster of a country rail stop who has spent a life waiting for trains that never arrive? If some Thatcherite outfit jacked itself out of the party to compete in 2019, the preference system would backstop the Liberals once more. One Nation? A shambles. The party might lose the next election based on losses in the provinces, but it’s going to take something more to send it to an actual crisis of existence.
That would be welcome of course, but it would take a pretty concerted effort to do. It needs to be done, on that side, and on Labor’s as well. We need high-profile Lib/Lab independent candidates to stand in key electorates; a “rural alliance” to contest New South Wales and South Queensland seats, not as “blueberries” — blue on top, green at the root — but as a genuine centrist, rural-focused movement; and a party of the urban poor organised by socialists and other groups to take votes from the ALP but not the Greens, and gain senators; an Indigenous Peoples Party in the NT, containing a right and left faction within a single, peoples-based party; and a full-court press by NICK’S, sorry, NXT, in SA. The only way change will come is with a lower house crossbench of a dozen or so, which refuses to grant power to either major party until a full raft of structural changes are made to Australian governance. Until then, the cherries will remain unpopped as the press, once again, harvests watermelons.