catallaxy files

catallaxy in technical exile

Is there a Liberal-Labor cartel?

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Do the major Australian political parties run a cartel? That’s the question Ian Marsh’s edited collection Political Parties in Transition seeks to answer. It takes its inspiration from the European analysis of Richard Katz and Peter Mair, which argues that in the face of weakening electoral loyalties and declining memberships established political parties use the state to sustain themselves through public funding of campaigns and other means (a short summary here), while denying resources and opportunities to actual and potential rivals.

Leaving aside whether or not a cartel might be a good thing (in economics cartels are almost always bad, but in politics a two-party cartel has benefits in providing stable and effective governments and clear accountability), do we have one in Australia? It’s certainly the case, as chapters by Dean Jeansch and Gary Johns make clear, that membership of the major political parties has shrunk significantly over the last few decades, and to a lesser extent the percentage of Australians identifying with one of the two major parties has also dropped (though the proportion of the electorate identifying with the Liberal Party has been growing again since the late 1990s; see p.15 of Ian McAllister’s book on the Australian electoral system). But as parties don’t get money from people who are merely supporters rather than members, they have a motive to seek state support to pay their bills.

And indeed the parties do now get state campaign funding ($42 million in 2004), as well as diverting parliamentary and when in power government resources into their re-election efforts. But as the ever-sceptical Murray Goot points out (there is an earlier version of his chapter here) it wasn’t cartel action that set up public funding, it was Labor trying to balance what it saw as a then advantage in corporate fundraising held by the Liberals. The Liberals opposed its introduction, though took the money rather than let Labor outspend them. Nor did public funding exclude minor parties competing with the major parties. It isn’t necessary to win a seat to get funding, and parties need only achieve 4% of the vote to collect the cash. Ariadne Vromen and Nick Turnbull’s chapter on the Greens – currently the most significant competitor to the major parties – notes that public funding has helped rather than hindered the Greens, which don’t have access to the corporate support of the major parties.

In his chapter editor Ian Marsh takes ideological convergence as a symptom of political cartels; since the parties are no longer constrained by opposing social groups that are their electoral base (say capital and labour) party elites have more freedom to act and to act in similar ways where there is elite consensus. Marsh claims that ‘neo-liberalism has become the ideology of both major parties’ and offers a highly theoretical account of neo-liberal ideas. But this isn’t even true of the Liberal Party, much less Labor. Like many academics, Marsh exaggerates the explanatory power of ideology. Just because some policies approximate neo-liberal recommendations doesn’t mean governments have signed up to a complete ideology. What about all the policies that do not fit into a neo-liberal analysis? The rapidly expanding welfare state, the high taxes, the money-wasting pet projects, or the red tape extravaganza created by the Howard government? Its record, like that of the Hawke and Keating governments before it, simply cannot be boxed this way. And in any case, Labor in Opposition has not adhered to a ‘neoliberal’ agenda, but out of opportunism or ideology opposed most of the Howard government’s modest efforts at market reform. In his chapter, Goot lists many further examples of significant differences between the parties and points out than polling suggests that voters perceive major differences between them.

The most cartel-like aspect of Australian politics isn’t any of these factors from the Katz and Mair thesis, it is as Rodney Smith and John O’Mahony argue in their chapter our electoral systems, particularly those using single-member electorates. While non-major party candidates do sometimes win, particularly in regional areas, no minor party has ever posed a serious threat in the post-war period. But the electoral systems weren’t a response to problems faced by major parties losing their support base, since in most cases they long pre-date that decline. And many of the changes in the relevant time period of the last few decades have made it easier rather than harder for minor parties to win. In the latest of these changes, Greens will almost certainly get elected to the reformed Victorian Legislative Council this coming November.

Labor and Liberal continue to dominate the political system not because they have rigged it in their own favour, but because they are the dominant brands and most people see no compelling reason to change. They still get an overwhelming 80% or so of the vote between them. Though they suffer from voter volatility, they suffer much less of it than the minor parties. Even the Greens, which have a stronger social base than other minor parties, have according to the Australian Election Survey 40-50% voter turnover between elections, two or three times as much as the major parties.

Whatever its analytical value in Europe, the cartel thesis doesn’t do much to explain Australian electoral politics, much less Australian politics more broadly. Rather oddly in trying to make an argument for the influence of a political cartel convinced by neo-liberal ideology, Marsh creates a tension with his own earlier work (mentioned briefly in this book) on the role of issue movements affecting the political agenda. He correctly points out that the women’s, environment, gay, Aboriginal, consumer, multicultural, New Right and republican movements all had their origins outside the major parties, though both either adopted or inherited policies flowing from most of them. This shows, I think, that the political system is much more open than the electoral dominance of two parties would superficially suggest. They way issues change over quite short periods of time shows that this political market is very open.

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Written by Admin

April 20, 2006 at 10:26 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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