There. In true hard-news fashion, I’ve delivered my main talking point first. You can toddle off and make yourself a nice cup of tea now — there’s no need to read the rest of this piece unless you’re curious as to why I’ve used the words ‘desperately’ and ‘centrist’, or you’re just plain adverse to the idea on principle. Which, if you’re in the majority of Australians, you likely are.
Indeed, if you’re like the 70-odd percent of so-called ‘dyed-in-the-wool’ voters, you would probably argue, in response, that there is no real need for another major political party, and that all of this talk is silly, and that I should just shut my mouth and go away. Elections are like the footy, you’ll cry, and there are only two teams in the Grand Final, after all! (Everybody knows the Greens are just Labor players in different coloured jerseys, right?) But, I have to ask you, aren’t the football clubs’ strategies getting to be a bit… boring? To keep the analogy going, it appears they’ve both developed very conservative, defensive techniques that have, over the years, progressively boiled down to perhaps four or five plays, presently repeated at tedium throughout the ‘game’ of the election in a very mechanised and predictable sequence designed to accomplish… nothing.
Nobody breaks out from the pack lest they disadvantage their team, nobody takes any risks that could see themselves injured or sent off the field. everybody does what has been proven to be safe to stay safe and remain safe for as long as they can.
However, unlike the footy, the outcome is decided not by an arbitrary number of points scored by the players, but by a far more subjective tally calculated by those in the stands — in particular, the assessments made by those who don’t exclusively barrack for one team or the other. And generally, they vote for the team that has caused them the least offence, since it is quite likely that neither has done anything notably or extraordinarily ‘good’ in the duration of the match. Of course, this game is all about mitigating risk. Not about grand visions for the future, not about wooing the swing-vote into your camp — just about not pissing them off, so that in the (hopeful) event the other side says or does something to really annoy them, they’ll vote for your team instead.
So, to sum up, every few years the same two political teams pantomime around the metaphorical cricket ground that is Australia for four quarters, at the conclusion of which those unaffiliated observers in the stands exercise their unduly-weighted privilege to give each contestant a thumbs up — or a thumbs down — in true Roman fashion. What a marvellous spectacle! Who could ask for anything better?
It’s very Australian.
I am from Canada. Several years back, there were two major parties: the Progressive Conservatives and the Liberals. Unlike the Liberals here, the Canadian Liberals are actually liberal, but I digress.
The Progressive Conservatives brought in a GST and free trade with the Americans. Two smaller regional parties quickly formed to take advantage of conservatives consequently disaffected by the Government — the nationalist Bloc Quebecois in the east, and the western-centric Reform party in the western provinces. These two parties bled off so much of the traditional conservative vote that the Progressive Conservatives were virtually destroyed at the following Federal election, and the Liberals were handed government for a decade. Now, granted, it wasn’t a horrible government — due to the fact it was headed by arguably one of Canada’s greatest Prime Ministers, Jean Chretien — but it could have been a bad government and there would have been no recourse for the general public except to tolerate it and wait while the right-wing sorted itself out.
Which it did, eventually — the Reform party merged with the remains of the Progressive Conservatives to form — wait for it — the Conservative party. Ta da!
Sadly for them, the Bloc Quebecois declined to take part in their new little club, and meanwhile, the left-wing socialist New Democratic Party had quietly built up its own weight in Parliament. Voters tired of the Liberals then had multiple, viable choices. Although the Conservatives did form government at the following election, it was only just, and they have headed minority governments ever since. This has, in fact, worked rather well, with the NDP and the Bloc holding the balance of power when there are the occasional irreconcilable disputes between the Conservatives and the Liberals –much of the time, there is not, since although Canada has the same Westminster system, it is somehow not as ‘adversarial’ by nature as Tony Abbott makes Westminster out to be — and life has gone on perhaps a bit more equitably for the voters than when it was a two-party horse race that led to governments who felt they had a ‘mandate’ — that’s a horrible, nasty word, but once again I digress — like the Progressive Conservatives who thought the GST and free trade were both wonderful ideas.
The loose alliance between the socialists and the nationalists has become a practical third option in the sense of a real political opposition. Although oddly balanced, it seems to hold the Canadian government to account, and it would regardless of if it were formed by the Liberals or the Conservatives.
Now, how does this affect the price of bananas in Australia?
Australia has had, and will have a taste of the modern Canadian state of affairs in the current shape of its new Parliament — the balance of power controlled by a small number of socialist and arguably nationalist members. However, although similar to the Canadian model, the ‘opposition’ is quite a small number indeed — really only the three independents once you consider the — perhaps irrational — loyalty the Greens appear to show for Labor.
This is exciting, but not likely to be tenable for any real length of time. Eventually, despite the fact nobody wants another election, the House does not have the stability it needs, and will come crashing down. What the aftermath will be is anybody’s guess, but it seems unlikely either Labor or the Coalition will gain a majority of seats in the election that follows. That said, there is going to be a need for a coherent third voice, a need for a coherent balance of power.
On the left, there are the Greens, but they are way too ‘off the charts’ in too many areas to become that voice. Canada’s NDP lives somewhere between Labor and the Greens, but to form such a centre-left party in Australia would likely require both the support of the far-left, which the Greens have carefully secured for themselves, and the unions, which is Labor country. On the right, the Nationals are already in cahoots with the Liberals, so unless a competing rural or nationalist party pops out of a billabong any time soon, a party driven by right-wing sentiment is unlikely to provide that strong third voice either.
Back to the undecided punters in the stands.
These people are inherently centrists. This is why they drift back and forth from one party to another — they don’t care about left-wing or right-wing, they care about policies that generally fall somewhere in the middle. They don’t like the idea of an ETS, but they do think pollution should be regulated. They don’t particularly care where asylum seekers are processed, as long as it isn’t in suburban Sydney. They don’t care if gays can get married, but they’re not fond of late-term abortion. And so on.
If there was a party for them, it could happily sit in the literal centre of the House of Representatives. The ‘Australian Centrist Party’ would capitalise on the diminishing returns of the two major parties, and likely form the balance of power in any parliament that sits in the near future (since the ‘dyed-in-the-wool’ Labor and Coalition supporters will likely remain dyed until they… die), taking every decision on a case-by-case basis, with no formal allegiance to the party in power beyond a promise not to block supply, or support a motion of no-confidence. There is a wonderful opportunity in Australia right this very minute to form such a party, and make the necessary effort required to bring this vision into reality, if there are enough people out there who are sick and tired of the games played by the left and the right, and who just want to ensure a stable, reliable, effective government for the coming decades.
Are you willing to step up?