Australia’s two-party system beleaguered, if not shattered, by election

A black swan is an unpredictable event, the consequences of which are profound. If in recent Australian electoral history any poll is considered a black swan, then this was last month’s contest. The election brought that rare thing, a change of government – only the eighth time it has happened in as many decades since the end of World War II. More importantly, the election has left Australia’s dominant, if not broken, two-party system under siege.

Albanese celebrating the win with partner Jodie Haydon and son, Nathan. The government has changed only eight times since World War II.Credit:Janie Barrett

A little history of the Australian party system illustrates the importance of this latest development. Settling in 1909, the arrangement between the Labor and non-Labour parties in the country dates back more than a century. During the first decade of the Commonwealth, three parties contested the government: the Protectionist Liberals, the Free Traders and the Labor Party. Alfred Deakin, the leader of the liberal protectionists and a dominant political figure of that time, used a famous cricket analogy to characterize this situation, calling it the “three elevens”.

Deakin’s liberal protectionists, backed by Labor, ruled for most of that decade, passing many basic nation-building laws. But the tripartite party system led to politics in reverse: there were eight separate ministries and five prime ministers in those 10 years. What has made the system ultimately unsustainable, however, is Labour’s growing electoral power, which has largely come at the expense of liberal protectionists.

Cornered, Deakin sadly agreed in 1909 to unification with the free-trade conservatives. Some of his colleagues, in fact, hated free traders so much that they refused to join the new non-Labour alliance. They feared, as age predicted, that the merger, as it was called, would be a “political boa constrictor” that would see liberalism swallowed whole by conservatism.

Alfred Deakin, Australia's second prime minister and leader of liberal protectionists at the turn of the last century.

Alfred Deakin, Australia’s second prime minister and leader of liberal protectionists at the turn of the last century.

As this suggests, the legacies of the merger were not just the settlement of the Labor versus non-Labour party system, but the uneasy coexistence of liberal and conservative elements on the non-Labour side of politics.

The party system created in 1909 proved remarkably resilient. It survived three serious splits within the PLA and several reorganizations of the main non-Labour party which, after several incarnations, settled as the Liberal Party in 1944. The party system also withstood challenges sporadic small parties, most of which were only relatively short-lived.

For most of the 20th century, the dominant two-party system (with the Liberals in permanent coalition with the Nationals, formerly the Country Party) monopolized more than 90% of the votes in the primaries. In the last election of this century, that joint primary vote fell to just under 80%. It recovered in the first decade of the 21st century to hover above 80%, then fell again from 2010. Falling below 80% in the last four elections, it has fallen dramatically about 68% in this election.

Until this election, most of the erosion of the primary vote has plagued Labour. A significant part of his supporter base had moved to the Greens, which amounted to a split. The notable thing about the 2022 election is that the problem of declining primary voter support has now hit the Coalition as it loses votes for both smaller right-wing parties and progressive independents. If Labor’s record is to be believed, having seen its primary vote fall well below 40%, the Coalition will struggle to return to that level of support.