As the dust settles on the recent federal election, it is becoming increasingly clear that both the Labor and Liberal parties are attempting to frame the close result as a victory. This might have been a compelling narrative were it not for the inconvenient fact that both parties have suffered a clear decline in their primary vote. The significance of this has largely been ignored in favour of leadership speculation and Cabinet reshuffles, meaning a deeper narrative from the election was missed. The electorate is deeply dissatisfied with the major political parties meaning we are likely to see even more political instability in the future.
It’s a bit of a cliché at this point to suggest that the public is unhappy with politicians; however, it’s only in recent times that this unhappiness has threatened the continued viability of the major parties. In the twenty-four years prior to 2007 there had only been three changes in Prime Minister; from 2007 to present there have been five. Politicians are quick to deflect blame for this instability – it’s the journalists, it’s social media, it’s Getup! But the more likely explanation is that modern politicians are just unrepresentative of the wider population and this perception of being unrepresentative has damaged the standing of politicians in the community.
There is a clear career trajectory that has emerged in the past twenty or so years for people interested in taking up a career in politics – study a degree (usually law), work for either a union or a business before a stint as a staffer and then win a safe seat in Parliament. While it could be argued that it makes sense for aspiring politicians to get as much exposure to how politics works as possible, it seems as though the balance has gone too far in the wrong way, especially considering that politicians are supposed to be representative of the community. It’s difficult to be representative when your career path only reflects the views of a narrow subsection of society.
The perception of being unrepresentative leads to the further problem that the community doesn’t believe that politicians serve the interests of the community. Politicians make decisions based on what they believe is best for the community rather than what the population actually wants. To a certain extent they appear to be self-obsessed – part of what made the Gillard Government so unpopular was the view that it was more focused on leadership and factions than governing. These problems have paved the way for ‘anti-politicians’ like Pauline Hanson to make their way into Parliament.
The individuals who were the clear winners from the election don’t really have common policy ground – while Pauline Hanson is Islamaphobic, Nick Xenophon is not. But what is common amongst figures such as Hanson, Xenophon or Derryn Hinch is that they are outside the system. They don’t have the same career path as politicians, when they’re offered a question they generally answer directly and they all have very high public profiles based on campaigning on issues important to them – Xenophon is anti-pokies, Hanson argues against foreigners and immigrants while Hinch criticizes politicians for being soft on crime. The attraction for voters here is probably that there is a sense of ‘what you see is what you get’ whereas candidates for the major parties merge into a monolithic blob.
It’s also interesting to note that different ‘anti-politicians’ were more successful in different states – for example, Xenophon did extremely well in South Australia where there has been strong debate on local issues such as submarine manufacturing. The attraction for voting for minor parties ahead of the major parties is actually pretty clear – you could vote for someone like Christopher Pyne who has to balance advocacy for South Australia with his national responsibilities or you could vote for Xenophon who you know will be able to put South Australians first.
The election has made clear that the major parties face an existential threat to their continued relevance in society. The Labor and Liberal parties are obviously aware of this, as evidenced by the Government claiming that voting for independents would lead to instability or Bill Shorten ruling out a deal with the Greens. However, the problem with this tactic is it is a Band-Aid solution to the much deeper problem of resentment towards politicians. The true test for whether the parties can bounce back from the election is whether they attempt to change course or continue with their stale brand of unrepresentative politics – all evidence so far indicates that they are effectively doomed.