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Who Rules?

Australian parties

Visit the House of Representatives in Canberra when parliament is sitting. Mostly you’ll find very few members sitting there. The place is virtually empty. But then a vote is to be taken. Bells ring and members flood in. They haven’t heard the speeches, some don’t know what they are voting on, but they all know what side to vote on. The Liberal and National Party members vote together, the Labor Party members vote together. The votes are entirely predictable.

Democratic reformers say that the parties have hijacked the parliament. Members don’t vote according to the wishes of their electors or what they think themselves; they vote according to their party. The reformers also say that parties have undermined the Westminster system of government. According to the theory, members of parliament watch a government carefully and if it performs badly they will refuse to support it and it will cease to be the government. Parliament is meant to be in charge of the ministers. But now party discipline is so strong, no matter what ministers do, their fellow party members will support them. They become ministers because their party is in a majority and so long as the party holds together they will remain ministers. The opposition party may move that the house has no confidence in the ministers, but ministers will always have the numbers to save themselves. It’s the ministers who control the parliament.
Party discipline

So what would a parliament without parties be like? We don’t have to imagine this; we can look at the first thirty years of the parliaments of the Australian colonies, from the 1850s to the 1880s. There were no parties of the sort we know. Sometimes there was a division between liberals and conservatives, but there was not a liberal and a conservative party and the members did not have to vote with each other. Mostly members of parliament were not divided into two sides. They formed loose groups among themselves – ‘factions’ they are called – with plenty of movement between the groups. One group and its supporters might form a government, but soon some of the supporters would withdraw their support and the government would fall.
Unstable government without parties

Members of the shearers union at a strike camp on the River Darling
Supporters of the early Labor Party: members of the shearers union at a strike camp on the River Darling, from the Sydney Mail 22/9/1894.

La Trobe Collection, State Library of Victoria

Frequently at elections politicians did not say they were members of a party or even a group. They said they would support good government, the development of the colony and, in particular, the very necessary work of a railway to their electorate. When they got elected, they would support a government which promised to build the all-important railway. If the railway did not appear, they would desert the government and look for another group to support.

There is no doubt that the Westminster system worked properly at this time. Ministers were responsible to parliament and often ministers would lose parliament’s support and cease to be ministers. The disadvantage of the system was that governments were very unstable. A government which lasted more than a year was doing well. Once parties developed, governments became much more stable. A stable government has time to carry out its plans and to think of doing things whose benefits will only come years later. It knows that its supporters, bound by party discipline, will not desert it when it does unpopular things or doesn’t give an electorate a railway.

The first modern party to develop in Australia was the Labor Party. It was formed by trade unions in the 1890s after they had been defeated in a series of great strikes. At the same time a long period of prosperity ended and many workers became unemployed. The Labor Party wanted to improve wages and conditions and get the government to provide more jobs. Some of its members wanted to replace private businesses with socialism where there is no private profit and businesses are owned by the government or the workers. For most this was a distant ideal – they wanted immediate benefits first.
The Labor Party

The Labor Party was very suspicious of politicians. It didn’t want the members it elected making up their own minds on issues. They were there to get the Labor program voted into law. They should meet together before votes were taken, decide which way they would vote to advance the Labor cause, and then everyone had to vote that way. Anyone who did not, would be expelled. This meeting of the party members was called ‘a caucus’.

The Labor Party grew very rapidly. It had the advantage of being the first well-organised party. It had thousands of workers who campaigned for the party for nothing. Usually candidates had to pay people to go from house to house asking people to vote for them (voting was voluntary) and they had to provide free drinks to their closest supporters who ran their campaign.

Within twenty years of Labor’s formation, all the politicians outside the Labor Party combined to form one party to fight it. This was the first Liberal Party, formed in 1909. It has re-formed several times and gone under different names – Nationalist Party from 1917, United Australia Party from 1931 – until it became the Liberal Party again in 1944. This party was supported by business and middle-class people. Middle-class women did a lot of the voluntary campaigning. The party defended private enterprise from Labor’s attacks and said socialism threatened individual liberties and would not work.
The Liberal Party

Politicians were important in forming the Liberal Party and they were allowed more freedom than Labor members. They were expected to follow the party program, but they were not expelled for voting in a different way from their colleagues. Liberals attacked the Labor Party for undermining parliament as a place of debate and considered judgement, but if they were to beat the Labor Party they could not be too different from it. Party discipline became tighter in Australia than in other parliamentary democracies. Even the Speaker in Australian parliaments is not independent. The majority party appoints the Speaker and expects the Speaker to support it.

The National Party began during World War I as the Country Party. Farmers wanted a party of their own because they thought neither of the other parties understood them. The Labor Party attacked private ownership and wanted farm workers to be paid more. The Liberal Party was too friendly with the city businesses which charged farmers too much for selling their produce. Both parties cared more for the cities than the country. If their own third party was to succeed, it would have to be well disciplined. The National Party has been run much more like the Labor Party than the Liberal Party, though it usually cooperates with the Liberal Party to form governments.
The National Party

Sir Robert Menzies, founder of the Liberal Party
Sir Robert Menzies, founder of the Liberal Party, with supporters: when the party was re-formed in 1944 women were granted equal representation on its governing bodies.

The Age. Reproduced by permission

As we watch political parties form, we cannot believe they are the enemies of democracy. They help democracy by allowing people of similar interests and outlook to organise and increase their influence. The workers voting Labor, the middle-class women voting Liberal, the farmers voting National were pleased to have a party that spoke for them. The parties are mini-democracies in themselves. You can join a local branch and have an influence on the party program and who gets selected as the party’s candidates.
Are parties democratic?

Dream on, say the democratic reformers. Very quickly parties are run from the top, not by the ordinary members. The paid officials and the leading parliamentarians take charge. They manage the party’s conferences so that the ordinary members don’t rock the boat. They are half-right about this. Leaders may be strong, but most start off as ordinary members. Local members cannot be ignored because they are needed in campaigning at elections. When it comes to choosing the party’s candidate for an election, the local members have a say. They would prefer to be fully in charge, but the leadership wants to make sure that good people are chosen and perhaps a place found for a good candidate from outside the district. Candidates are now usually chosen by a panel of local and central people.

The newest party, the Democrats, is determined not to be like the others. Party policy is arrived at by a vote of all members. Party members choose the party’s candidates for elections by secret ballot. In other parties the leader in parliament is chosen by the party members in parliament. The Democrats’ leader is chosen by a vote of all members. In parliament Democrats are not expected to vote ‘like sheep’, but if they vote differently from their colleagues they have to explain why to party members. It may be that the Democrats can only be so democratic because they are a minor party with no hope of forming a government.
The Australian Democrats

Even for people who are not members of them, parties serve a useful purpose. You become aware of this when you have to vote and there are no parties. In a local government election, one candidate will say he is in favour of consultation and efficient local services and he is president of the marching girls. Another candidate will say he is in favour of consultation and efficient local services and he is president of the scouts. How do you choose between them? If one said he was Labor and the other Liberal you would have some idea of their approach to government.
Parties make choice clear

Not really, say the democratic reformers. Perhaps once, but not now. Parties may claim they are very different, but actually they are very similar. Instead of clear policy differences, we are presented at elections with slick advertising campaigns that are concerned with image not substance.

Experts have long noted that in a two-party system the parties will tend to come together. If they just pleased their keen followers, they could not get a majority of the people to support them. Both parties have to appeal to people in the middle ground, those who will change their vote from one party to another. To secure the support of these people, they may have to water down their program and disappoint their keen followers. And so in practice they end up not very far apart.
Parties tend to come together

Recently other forces have moved the two major parties closer together. There has been a decline in the proportion of blue-collar workers in the workforce. Labor has made up for this by attracting many professional people to its support – schoolteachers, nurses, public servants. It has dropped socialism even as an ideal and has developed close relations with business. The Liberals, once the party of business, now attracts the votes of many working people.

Parties have a great will to survive. Even though the world in which they were born has disappeared, they will attract new supporters and live on. They have an established organisation and a core at least of people who will always vote for them. They will squeeze out, if they can, any newcomers. There are many more members of conservation groups in Australia than members of the political parties. The old parties have met this threat by adopting conservation policies. It was easier for Labor to become a green party. It was used to putting curbs on business which is often what conservation required. But then conservation policies on forests began to threaten the jobs of workers, Labor’s traditional supporters. So Labor had to be a little less green. Businesses who did not want green policies to interfere with them should have been able to look to the Liberal Party, but that party too saw the need to attract the votes of conservationists. Its business supporters then complained that it was holding back development. Even though it gets them into difficulties, the parties try to harness every new cause to their side.
Parties take up new issues

The democratic reformers say it would be much better if the conservationists and every other cause had their own members of parliament. This could happen if the system of voting for all houses of parliament, lower and upper, was changed to proportional representation. This prevents elections becoming contests between just two major parties and allows all parties, large and small, representation in the parliament according to the strength of their support. With this change, there might be five or seven parties in the House of Representatives. We could then have a party closer to our own point of view and not two major parties which are always going fuzzy as they try to please too many people.
A multi-party system

But with this many parties no one party would have a majority. There would no longer be such stable government. Good, says the reformer. Why make stability the chief aim? A stable government is an unaccountable government. A government without a guaranteed majority would have to work hard to persuade parliament that all its measures were worthwhile.

A stable government in a two-party system is not as unaccountable as the reformers claim. It will be able to pass its laws through the lower house, but it may not control the upper house which may block its laws and set up inquiries into its doings. In the lower house it will be attacked by the opposition party whose criticisms may be taken up in the media. Each day in parliament there is question time, when members can ask ministers questions about their policy and administration.
A two-party system is accountable

Members of the same party meet regularly when parliament is sitting. Here, behind closed doors, the real debates take place as the members decide what policies to support and how they will vote in parliament. In the majority party – that is, the party which is governing – ministers have to explain and justify what they are doing to their own party members. Backbench members may criticise ministers for not following party policy. Ministers will explain that unforeseen difficulties have arisen or that a policy would cost more than expected. When governments do something unpopular, backbenchers worry that they will lose their seat at the next election. Ministers tell them that their policies will bring long-term benefit or that a few people will suffer but many more will benefit. Ministers sometimes lose these arguments and policies are changed.
Where the real debates happen

The leader of the party is elected by the party members. This person becomes the prime minister when the party is the majority party. In the Liberal Party the prime minister chooses the ministers. In the Labor Party they are elected by the party room meeting (the caucus). In both parties, prime ministers will only keep their job if they have the support of a majority of the party. Prime ministers have been removed by parties. This is the ultimate hold a party has over its government. Some experts say we should still use the term ‘responsible government’, but the responsibility of ministers is now to the party rather than the parliament.
Selection of prime minister and ministers

The democratic reformers are not persuaded. All this is a long way from rule by the people. The best way to achieve that, they claim, is by the initiative and referendum. This scheme allows a certain number of people to sign a petition for a new law and the law is then voted on by everyone. You bypass parliament. You bypass the politicians.
Direct voting on issues

Many States in the United States run these schemes. Voters have been more responsible in using them than the opponents of direct democracy feared. There are problems, however. Large organisations and businesses have a great influence on the outcome. They hire people to collect signatures and can pay for television ads (sometimes misleading) to run before the vote is taken.

This is a reminder that democracy cannot be separated from the society in which it operates. Democracy in a small country of farmers and craftsmen will be different from democracy in a large country, like Australia, of big organisations, big business and advertising. These affect what sort of democracy we can achieve. It is impossible for us to reach the Athens standard of direct popular involvement.
The limits to reform

Even though the Athenians ruled directly, they still had politicians. They guided discussions and took responsibility for carrying out the people’s wishes. Democratic reformers who want more direct democracy are sometimes driven by hatred of politicians. They will never get rid of politicians. Politicians are necessary when government is by discussion and argument. If you don’t want politicians, try a dictator.

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