This piece was published in Catalyst on the 1st of August 2013.
For those of us who value democracy—not just as the convenient status quo, but one of the few possible models in which a free, progressive society can exist—there is, at times, a troubling paradox: how can we reconcile our ideals with the often disappointing nature of the Western multiparty system? Nowhere does that problem seem starker than 2010s Australia: here, a pair of comically inept major parties battle fiercely for the title of ‘least worst’ whilst offering little in the way of policy difference; here, conservative media propaganda successfully paints an insipid, reactionary government as a bunch of dangerous radicals. That being the case, it’s understandable that many feel disillusioned.
So, why would anybody join a political party? It’s a question I’ve often wondered myself. While I admire the intentions of well-meaning people who try to effect change from inside the major parties, I fear that the machine will always win. The strength of a political party lies in how well it maintains a facade of harmony, and it seems to me that so much propaganda gets pumped in as part of that process that even the internal dissidents must end up believing at least some of what they say in public.
There’s a sense of complacency, too, about the major parties—no more evident than in the ALP’s open courting of conservatives during the last two election campaigns. Infuriatingly, their logic is sound: why bother appealing to progressives when the all-important preference is a fait accompli? No decent leftist is going to place Abbott’s Liberals higher on the ballot paper, so their concerns can more or less be automatically dismissed. This is a fact that Labor has shamelessly exploited over the course of the last six years, evident in its policies on refugees, welfare, Indigenous rights and lukewarm support for same-sex marriage and progressive taxation. It’s a grim situation, and one that shows little sign of improving.
Given that this is so, we ought to turn our attention elsewhere: minor parties. There seems to be a bit of a misconception going around that a vote for a minor party is a wasted ballot. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth—in fact, in the context of the Australian electoral system, one could argue that not voting for a minor party is pointless. The nature of preferential voting dictates that your vote will end up being distributed to whichever major party you placed higher, so you might as well put Labor and the Liberals/Nationals anywhere you please (I’d suggest no higher than the middle). In the upper house, this raises the chance of electing a minor party or independent senator; in the lower house, this means that—even though the seat is still almost certain to fall to a major candidate—a strong performance by a minor party will at least send a message. This would be no small achievement: nothing could shake the ALP’s complacency like the spectre of a serious rival emerging from its left, and the long-term result of such a threat would likely be the adoption of more progressive policies.
For the time being, that role is the domain of the Greens, a party that should be applauded for its work in agitating for positive reform, particularly over the course of the last three years. Those of us who are pleased with their successes should not, however, fear the development of similar minor parties. Here, once more, preferential voting will do its work: a vote for a fledgling left-wing minor party followed by a Greens preference will likely still end up in the latter’s pile; the advantage is that, should that minor party have an even more progressive agenda, the possibilities of those sentiments being listened to will rise accordingly.
At this point, I should probably disclose a potentially compromising fact: some months ago, I became a member of the Wikileaks Party. My reasoning was as follows: firstly, I’m happy to be part of an organisation that strives to support civil liberties whilst subjecting government and business power bases to scrutiny, opposes warfare and exploitation and supports the rights of marginalised groups; secondly, I want to offer them support during their development. Although many associate Wikileaks with the 2010 publication of diplomatic cables, I still haven’t forgotten the pivotal role they played in the collapse of Stephen Conroy’s proposed internet filter (the publication of the leaked ACMA blacklist caused irreparable damage to the scheme’s credibility and thus, I’d argue, helped save us from one of the most blatant attacks on Australian civil liberties since the days of Joh Bjelke-Petersen). Transferring that critical voice to, say, a seat in the upper house would be a victory for democracy and governmental accountability.
That’s my view, anyway. Some who share these convictions may well ask how the Wikileaks Party can differentiate itself significantly from the Greens, who have long been supporters of Julian Assange and waged their own battles in the senate against internet censorship and data retention. I think I’ll have to wait and see a complete list of policies released before I can answer that confidently, but it was, for instance, a concern to see the Greens walk away recently from a sensible, progressive idea such as inheritance tax. Sometimes, perhaps, even those keeping the bastards honest need to be kept honest themselves. Thankfully, as voting citizens in a preferential system, that’s an option we have at our disposal.
However flawed it may seem at times, our democratic system is something to be cherished. Within it lie tools for progressive reform; mechanisms that can be used to make our society a better place. On the other hand, allowing frustration or helplessness to neutralise our power at the polling booth will only play into the hands of those who fight against progress. Labor and the Coalition won’t listen unless you give them a reason to; so, this election, send them a message and vote for a minor party. It might just get through.