Politics One

Fourth edition

by Ian Ward and Randal G. Stewart

The Party System

Quick e-introduction to the 'party system'

Further reading suggestions.

  • Williams, P.D. 2006. ‘Australia’s political parties’ in R. Eccleston, P. Williams and R. Hollander Foundations of Australian Politics. (Frenchs Forrest: Pearson Education). A simple account of the party system and purpose of parties.
  • Miragliotta, N. And Errington, W. 2009. The Australian Political System in Action. (Melbourne: Oxford University Press). Chapter 10 ‘The Australian Party System’.
  • Singleton, G., D. Aitkin, B. Jinks and J. Warhurst 2009. Australian Political Institutions. 9th edn. (Frenchs Forrest: Pearson Education). Chapter 8 ‘Political Parties and party systems’.
  • Maddox, G. 2005. Australian Democracy in Theory and Practice. 5 th edn (Frenchs Forrest: Pearson Longman) Chapter 6 begins with an exploration of the party system.
  • Sharman, C. 1994. ‘Political Parties’ in J. Brett, J. Gillespie and M. goot (eds)Developments in Australian Politics. (South Melbourne: Macmillan). Now dated, but still an important account of Australia’s party system as a zero sum game.
A further note on the Duverger’s Law 
Democratic political systems can use quite different rules and processes to regulate the competition between contending social interests. The widely varying electoral systems found in advanced democracies illustrates this point. Whether two or more political parties emerge to give voice to competing social interests will be—at least in part—determined by the electoral system used. Duverger´s Law suggests that single member, majoritarian (or first-past-the-post) electoral systems encourage two-party systems. Alternatively, proportional representation fosters multi party systems. Maurice Duverger formulated this principle based on observations that he made during the 1950s and 1960s. It is possible to find counter examples (such as Canada in the 1990s). Nonetheless Australia appears to offer a modicum of support for Duverger’s Law. 

In the Senate, which is elected via proportional representation, minor parties have obtained a representation that they have been unable to replicate in the larger House of Representatives. The lower house is elected using a single member, preferential voting system which, in most cases, mimics the outcome that might be obtained were majoritarian (or first-past-the-post) voting used. (On this point see Antony Green’s table on ‘preferences distributed at past elections.’) If Duverger’s Law has merit then it suggests that the shape of the party system owes as much to the institutional context as to the underlying contending political interests which seek political expression through parties. In short Australia’s political institutions contribute to the shape of the party system. 

Different electoral laws might see a rather or even substantially different party system. The recent experience of New Zealand would seem to underline this. In 1993 New Zealanders voted in a referendum to replace the first-past-the-post method previously used to elect their parliament with a system of mixed member proportional representation. Until then New Zealand had had a two party system. Thereafter several new parties emerged and achieved parliamentary representation. Neither of the traditional established parties has since been able to secure a parliamentary majority. 

Discussion point 
"One of the results of shrinking party memberships is that party organisations have become easier to control by the factions. Mass-based parties, as both the ALP and the Liberal Party once were, are unpredictable, difficult to organise and require day-to-day management on a scale that these days is probably not feasible. Unless the purpose is to branch-stack, there's actually little incentive to grow party membership, and no point for anyone to join a political party (unless they want pre-selection)." - John Roskam, executive director at the Institute of Public Affairs. 

Is this an accurate assessment of the health of Australia’s major parties? If it is, is there an argument to be made for regulating their activities given the virtual mortgage that they have on who sits in the federal Parliament?