Decline of two-party system could open way for more extreme fringe

Decline of two-party system could open way for more extreme fringe

Andrews’ government MPs spooked by successive scandals breathed a collective sigh of relief on Wednesday with the findings of a new survey revealing that twice the number of Victorians think Labor is best placed to “govern with integrity and honesty”, when compared to the Coalition.

The survey found that a not-so whopping 42 per cent of Victorians gave Labor the lead over the Coalition which scored just 21 per cent. In Australia's political duopoly, that’s a win, right?

Daniel Andrews and Matthew Guy will battle it out to be elected the state’s next premier.Credit:Fairfax Media

Dig a little deeper into the results and both parties have cause for concern. More than one third of Victorians – 37 per cent – don’t think either side is up to the job of ruling with honesty or integrity. And that’s a problem.

While it should come as no surprise that rusted-on party supporters were more likely to back their own side on matters of integrity, even they had their doubts.

Of the respondents that usually vote Labor, 72 per cent thought the ALP was best placed on the integrity measure meaning almost 30 per cent weren’t so sure. Of Coalition voters, only 64 per cent were convinced their side were the more honest bunch.

The electoral reality of this distrust was realised at the federal election when one in three voters couldn’t bring themselves to vote for either Labor or the Coalition, causing a disruption to Australia’s near century-old political duopoly.

But long before the “teal-wave” swept independents to Canberra in May, the two-party system had started to wane. And in 13 weeks we will learn whether it will, as many strategists predict, be replicated at a state level.

Already, the trend isn't looking good for the major parties.

Forty years ago, at the 1982 Victorian election, more than 93 per cent of voters popped a number one next to Labor, the Liberals or the National Parties. A decade on, it had dropped to 90 per cent.

By 2002 first-preference support for Labor or the Coalition was 86 per cent. In 2014, it had dropped to 80 per cent and at the last election it was down to 78 per cent.

Much of the blame rests with the major political parties with scandals, abandoned election commitments, and rampant factionalism fuelling a disillusionment of the two-party system. For a new generation, political parties are considered a relic of the past.

Zali Steggall, flanked by her fellow Independent MPs. Long before the “teal-wave” swept into Canberra in May, the two-party system had started to wane.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

As Victoria’s last Liberal premier, Denis Napthine, told this masthead last week: “These days you wouldn’t dare say you were a member of a political party,”

Napthine says that the consequence of the decline in party membership has been a narrowed supporter base. That has created a cyclical problem where parties can no longer offer the strongest candidates, making them more likely to become vehicles for the ambitious to seek power.

In tandem with these local factors, there has been a global decline in membership-based organisations such as churches and charities that are also struggling to attract support as a new generation opts for narrower issue-based allegiances.

So, what does all this mean for the upcoming Victorian election?

With support and trust for the major parties slipping, the conditions are perfect for further disruption of the two-party system in Victoria. Of the 88 seats in the Legislative Assembly, 35 per cent are considered marginal. The resignation of high-profile and long-serving MPs this election also opens up new opportunities for independents.

Current polls are predicting a majority Labor government as the most likely election outcome, but a minority Labor government is now considered as the next most likely outcome. Strategists inside the major parties believe voters who supported independent candidates at May’s federal election are emboldened by their success and more likely to do so again.

Insiders from the major parties fear that strong campaigns in Liberal seats like Caulfield, Brighton and Kew, or the Labor held seats of Hawthorn, Melton and Werribee could put them at risk.

While independent victories in these electorates are unlikely to cause havoc on Spring Street – it’s a trend that deserves our attention for its potential to create room for more extremist parties from the left and the right.

So-called "teal independents" championing integrity, climate and women’s issues, aren’t the problem. But their ability to woo voters away from the major parties will further fracture Labor and the Coalition and is unlikely to improve consensus in politics in the longer term.

The party system isn’t perfect but for many years it has, for the most part, served us well. A system of broad ideological coherence has provided a stability and forces parliaments to favour the middle not political extremes. A major collapse in support for Australia’s two centrist parties will instead leave parliament more vulnerable to demands from the fringes.

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