Third Wheeling

Thursday, 23 October, 2014

Illustration by Jennifer Crow

In Graeme Green’s Magnum Opus The Quiet American, American CIA agent Alden Pyle argues that the way to protect democracy in 1950s Vietnam is to fund a “third force” who will overcome both communists and colonialists to be Vietnam’s saviour. The idea of a third option is one that is becoming commonplace in world democracies.

In the polls leading up to the recent Indian elections, the Aam Aadami Party (AAP) sought to present a transparent alternative to the dominant parties, showing a fresh face in the Indian political scene, different to the Hindu fundamentalist party Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or the corruption riddled Congress party. In Australian politics we have our own third force, bigger than most, of Clive Palmer and his Palmer United Party. But for some reason Clive’s policies haven’t seemed to have taken hold in Victoria, quite possibly because we’ve always preferred watching birds over watching dinosaurs. Instead we’ve got the Greens, who in all honesty are probably better for everybody than the Clive Juggernaut.

In our Westminster system, third parties are rarely seen in the Lower House and when they are, they’re usually—bar the 2010 election—not important. When they do get elected they generally find themselves squeezed by the two major parties who don’t need the help of the cross benchers to pursue their agenda. However, this all changes in the Upper house, with our unique voting system permitting a swathe of minor parties into the house. The current Senate constitutes some parties which have been on the minor party scene for a while (Greens and Family First) and others which fall into the “there’s a party for that?” category, like the Motoring Enthusiast Party.

With the 2014 Victorian election coming up, statisticians all around the country will be licking their lips, thinking of all the ‘preference whispering’ they’ll be able to do for the minor parties, getting as many of them into the Victorian upper house as possible. At the moment, the Victorian Legislative Council consists of 21 Coalition members, 16 Labor members, and three Greens. Current poling suggests that the balance will change with more Greens and Labor representatives likely to enter the upper house. The Greens may well gain the balance of power in the upper house, meaning all legislation would have to be passed with the Green’s consent, unless Labor and the Liberals collude.

I, for one, think that this would be the worst thing since Tony Abbott reckoned that there was nothing wrong with a bit of body contact. Why? Because the balance of power is fundamentally a shit idea. Parties who gain the balance of power receive very little of the vote and then force their agenda onto the nation as a whole. It allows Nick Xenophon, a man who received 14.78 per cent of the vote in one state, to compel the Government to spend $900 million on his pet project in the Murray-Darling Basin. It allows kooks such as John Madigan and Jacqui Lambie to have a say in how our government is run and how our tax dollars are spent.

Being young and left of centre, voting for the Greens does become tempting. I mean, if the policy is good, why shouldn’t I be happy to see it implemented? Yet too often what results is a knee-jerk reaction the other way. The populace becomes very pissed off if they see a policy implemented which they didn’t vote for, even if it is a good one. The prime example is the carbon tax, where the majority of Australians wanted the world to burn, got very pissed off when we took steps to save it, and left us with the clusterfuck that is the Abbott Government

That said, the principle of third parties holding the balance of power isn’t the worst, provided that the minor parties seek to vet the dickheadishness of legislation rather than seek to impose their own agenda on it. Sadly, these parties no longer exist. The Australian Democrats, made a career out of ‘keeping the bastards honest’. In 2000 they ensured that GST did not extend to things such as books and fresh food and survived in the Australian Senate for 30 years. Yet haven’t been seen since 2007.

Campaigning with no policy other than improving the policy of others has become unfashionable of late and every party comes up with a policy statement, even if it is intangible (like the Motoring Enthusiasts policy of ‘Mateship). Everybody gets sick of the Labor/Liberal paradigm, but the reality is that these two major parties will be the ones who will decide the future of our state and can implement long term policies. The Greens will likely pick up at least four upper house seats and possibly one in the lower house yet this could be damaging for the progressive movement. Voting for a minor party is tempting, but when heading to the polls we need to acknowledge their inability to provide long term change.