When it comes to elections, Australians are increasingly disengaged and don’t like what they see. Voters know that despite the “choice” between the style of leader, competing three-word slogans and a handful of modest promises from the two alternative governments — the Coalition and Labor — there’s little fundamental difference. For as long as most can remember, life keeps getting harder. Whichever party wins, the relentless cuts, privatisation and outsourcing persist, jobs grow more insecure, the climate warms and the gap between the haves and the have-nots continues to widen. There’s bipartisanship on increasingly repressive and secretive powers, the U.S. alliance and refugee policy. Is it any surprise that voters are turning away from this duopoly and voting for minor parties and independents in the hope for something better? While the preferential voting system results in most votes flowing back to this Lib/Lab duopoly, there are occasional upsets — especially in the Senate.
More bureaucratic hurdles. With their primary vote plummeting, the majors are alarmed. So, they are planning to reduce the competition by making it harder for minor parties to register and get on the ballot. The Coalition has introduced a suite of electoral bills. Rules will be changed to increase the number of members a party must have, from 500 to 1,500, before it can gain registration. This will see a wave of small parties deregistered. In August, the Labor Party caucus decided that it would back this plan.
The changes will also give existing parties a monopoly on certain words. The Freedom Socialist Party has a proud history in Australia of working towards a genuine socialist alternative to the pro-capitalist Australian Labor Party. In the 1990s we helped register the Progressive Labour Party — a name that would be banned under the new rules. Names such as Socialist Labour Party or anti-capitalist Labour Party will also be out of bounds.
This stitch-up between the Coalition and Labor to reduce voter choice is an attack on democratic rights. It is hardly new for those in power to legislate rules to stay in power. In Germany, support for socialist ideas among workers blossomed in the second half of the 19th century, including at the ballot box. The Reichstag responded with a suite of Anti-Socialist Laws. In the U.S. today, electoral regulations prevent voting for millions of working class people, predominantly people of colour, and there’s a sustained attack on existing voting rights, with new restrictive measures introduced in at least 18 states.
Reform worth enacting. In Australia, the struggle for the right to vote has been hard-fought from the Eureka stockade to the suffragist movement. First Nations people won voting rights in the 1960s. The defence and extension of democratic rights is crucial. Instead of enacting measures to entrench existing parties, we advocate that voter choice be increased by enabling all parties which can show a modest threshold of support onto the ballot.
How elections are financed must also be overhauled. The size of a candidate’s bank balance should not determine who gets heard. This will deal with the mega-wealthy, such as Clive Palmer, by preventing influence-buying. Private election financing should be eliminated and candidates given equal amounts of funding — let voters choose, based on the quality of the ideas.
The current winner-takes-all voting system in the lower house needs to be replaced with multi-member electorates and proportional representation so that minor parties which attract significant support gain some representation.
Significant reforms like these, while needed, are not the final answer. As long as social and economic structures serve big business, the political structures will, too. But the fight for a fairer electoral system can be part of the fight for more fundamental change.
Welcome to late capitalism. Parliamentary democracy depends upon the ability of the capitalists to retain the faith of the working class majority in the merits of their system. This is what George Novack refers to in his brilliant book, Democracy and Revolution, as the “consent of the governed.” Gaining this consent relied in no small part on the ability of the capitalism to grant concessions by delivering reforms. Today, crisis abounds with problems increasingly acute and neoliberalism unable to solve them. It is more important than ever for socialists to popularise the sort of radical change needed to make democracy real in this country and around the globe. The electoral arena is one place to do this. We need to stop the Coalition’s electoral bills on the way to our ultimate goal of putting the working class in charge!