Micro-parties tap into dissatisfaction

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The Drum 8th April, 2014

The 2013 federal election was a remarkable election, and Saturday's Western Australia Senate re-run has confirmed just how remarkable.

In September, nearly a quarter of Australians (23.5 per cent) voted against all the major parties - that is, against Liberals, Nationals, Labor and Greens - in the Senate as their first preference.

This is an enormous figure. In 2010 only 13 per cent voted against the major parties. In 2007 it was 11 per cent. In 2004, 12 per cent.

In other words, the non-major vote has suddenly doubled.

(I'm counting the Greens as a major party. They've been around for two decades and deserve to be treated as part of the mainstream.)

Nor was the anti-major vote a fluke, or a mistake voters are eager to rectify.

In September, 19 per cent of Western Australian voters voted against the non-major parties in the Senate. On Saturday that figure increased to 25 per cent.

Yet you wouldn't know it. The response of our political class has been to try to paper over this profound, revealed dissatisfaction - to focus on side issues and avoid tackling the deeper malaise.

Virtually at dawn on September 8 last year there were claims the electoral system needed urgent reform because micro-parties had gamed preference flows.

Nobody is suggesting our voting system is perfect. Every system has trade-offs and there's no reason to believe our system is the most optimal. But gaming preferences is something the major parties have been playing at for a very long time.

All such reform would do is hide the basic issue of 2013: given a choice between Tony Abbott, Kevin Rudd and Christine Milne, a quarter of Australians chose "other".

(One thing electoral reform would do is help the major parties protect their second and third Senate spots. If you assume that political parties work in their own self-interest - a big assumption, I know - there's good reason to be wary of any proposed changes.)

Be sceptical of anyone who tells you they know how Australian voters really wanted to vote.

To what extent do unusual voting patterns reflect voter confusion, and to what extent are they reflections of democratic choice?

Distinguishing between ignorance and intention is particularly hard in Australia because our compulsory voting system requires those who are disengaged and uninterested to vote.

A case study is the Liberal Democratic Party's (LDP) success in New South Wales in September's Senate vote. There are anecdotal stories of people being confused between the Liberal Party and the LDP. It is also clear the LDP benefited from being first on the ballot in that state.

But confusion is hardly the only possible explanation for their large showing. Disaffected Liberal Party supporters looking for a liberal-y alternative would have found a substitute at the start of the ballot paper in the LDP.

The advantage with these sorts of explanations is that they don't immediately assume voters are too stupid to recognise the name of the party they want to vote for.

But more importantly, they fit the bigger nationwide trend. The rejection of major parties manifested itself in different ways in different states. It wasn't confusion that led to Nick Xenophon's support nearly doubling in South Australia. Nor was it confusion that gave Clive Palmer more of the vote than the Greens in Queensland.

And that trend makes the criticism of micro-party success completely misguided.

Virtually by definition, micro-parties are too small to take a Senate spot by themselves.

Think of a vote for a micro-party as a vote against the mainstream, rather than intellectual support of the full platform of, say, the HEMP Party or the Secular Party of Australia.

(Not everybody rigorously compares party policies. Again, voting is compulsory.)

All those micro-party votes pool together through the preference system and throw up a micro-party representative.

In past elections micro-party votes would just dissipate, because the micro-parties weren't working together and there weren't as many Australians voting against the big players.

Yes, Ricky Muir of the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party got a tiny number of direct votes. But it's not about him. A Senate seat isn't a personal reward. Muir represents all those in Victoria who voted "other".

If we rewrote our electoral system to prevent micro-parties from preference aggregation we would, in a very real way, be disenfranchising those who rejected the majors.

The Clive Palmer phenomenon is slightly different. He has the money to elevate his party's profile above the noise. That allows him to take advantage of the dissatisfaction without having to play the preference game.

But the key thing is this: Palmer's money didn't create the demand for non-majors. It simply helped funnel that demand towards him. When a disengaged but frustrated voter goes into the booth they remember the gregarious billionaire who hates Canberra and has all the yellow ads.

Of course Palmer is in politics for himself. A dissatisfied voter might ask: what's new?

The real question is why so many voters are unhappy with the usual political choices.

One argument is there's a longer-running decline in trust in the Federal Parliament. Yet this Essential Vision report suggests a more complex dynamic in the medium term. After a precipitous fall in 2012, trust in Federal Parliament has begun to recover.

An alternative is that many voters simply hated the choices on offer this time around.

The latter would only be comforting if you believed major parties choose their leaders and policies essentially randomly - that is, they do not reflect the internal structure and values of the party itself.

Either way the major parties have no interest in publically discussing why so many voters dislike them.

They'd rather talk about kooky micro-parties, as if those parties aren't a symptom of the deeper failures of the majors.

But micro-parties weren't the issue in 2013. Nor was Clive Palmer. Dissatisfaction was.

This article was originally published on ABC's The Drum, available at: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-04-08/berg-micro-parties-tap-into-dissatisfaction/5374204

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