There’s plenty of backslapping in the governing class today following the weekend’s election results: the minor parties have been sent packing, with the Greens failing again to take a seat they had strongly targeted, and Nick Xenophon and his new party failing in South Australia. All, apparently, is well, with political pundits declaring that the insurgent minor parties have been turned back.
As Antony Green noted, this doesn’t make a lot of sense. Both major parties in South Australia suffered swings against them. SA-Best, which didn’t exist six months ago, managed 13.7% of the counted vote. Nick Xenophon’s failure was two-fold — he personally failed to win a seat, so he’s now out of politics, and his party failed to come anywhere near the levels of support suggested by polling. But if you can manage 14% of the vote from a standing start and basically no policies, you’re still tapping into a significant disaffection within the electorate, regardless of how you match expectations.
Too often the story of third parties is written in terms of personalities like Xenophon and Hanson, and less about why more and more voters, especially in regional areas, have been backing them. This defeat-of-the-minors narrative also treats the third party vote as a kind of homogenous mass; inner-city soyaccino-sipping Greens lumped in with regional One Nation voters, suburban Xenophon voters and white right-wing “silent majority” types (so silent, few of them bothered to turn up and vote for Cory Bernardi’s Old White People for Jesus Party). Some of these voters are permanently outside the mainstream — they hold values that simply aren’t shared by the major parties and they will never vote for them. Others are temporary minor party voters, protest voters, or voters who vote differently in different elections and different houses in the same elections. The only thing that they all have in common is a dislike of neoliberal economics, or what they perceive as neoliberal economics (the two may not be the same): Greens because, say, they prioritise education, welfare or the environment; Xenophon because they want to bring back manufacturing; One Nation types because they like protectionism, closed borders and pine for the good old days when white men ran everything (it’s OK folks, white men run everything under neoliberalism too, mainly).
To the extent that the minor party vote hasn’t continued to grow rapidly may be because the major parties have stolen their policies. It was the political pressure exerted by Xenophon in South Australia that saw the government first abandon Tony Abbott’s plan for the submarines purchase to be an offshore build, then plunge fully into open protectionism on defence procurement. Labor has adopted two key Greens policies, negative gearing reform and a federal anti-corruption commission. This is a time-honoured way of dealing with a third party threat. Since compulsory voting deprives disaffected voters of the option of not turning up, major parties must either respond to that disaffection or see votes shift to fringe parties, compared to parties in other countries where disaffection is more likely to be expressed in low voter turnout.
But if the political class thinks it can go back to business as usual, that voter disaffection has been addressed and the electorate has come running home to mummy and daddy, we’ll just go through the same cycle of third parties springing surprises, and pundits wringing their hands about it, in another couple of years. It might be a new populist or it might be an old face, but the angst about neoliberalism, refracted via the prism of different voters’ personal circumstances, isn’t over yet.