8. The problem with parties

This chapter discusses the numerous problems implicit with a system based on political parties.  By their very nature, political parties must put their own needs ahead of those of the electorate, a fact that significantly skews their behaviour and thus the quality of outcome that we, the stakeholders, receive.  It also highlights how political parties restrict us from getting the leaders that we actually want, instead deciding themselves who will lead us.


One of the biggest problems with well entrenched systems is that they become unquestioned norms.  “It is how it is because that is the best it can be, and if it wasn’t it would change”.  “It has stood the test of time, therefore it cannot be improved on”. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.  This is particularly the case where the people who have the power to change it, have no incentive to do so.  The Australian Prime Minister receives a larger pay packet than not only the Prime Minister of the UK, but greater than the President of the USA.  Nice work if you can get it.  And when you see the “expenses” that are available, and the pension that you will get as soon as you stop (either voluntarily or otherwise!), makes federal politics from a financial perspective, a hugely attractive career!

Of course, that is not the reason that most people decide to enter politics.  Most enter politics for altruistic reasons – they want to improve the lives of Australians, protect our way of life, help solve the many problems the country has to face.  And given that its not hard to realise that a sole voice isn’t particularly loud, most will have got involved with other people with similar political perspectives, the most obvious of which are, of course, political parties.

Party politics is very much a feature of almost every modern representative democracy.   Since the days of the Whigs and the Tories, groups of like-minded politicians have clubbed together.  In the days before mass communication, it made a lot of sense.  It was easy for the electorate to know what they were signing up for.  Party X supports these kind of policies, Party Y supports these kind, and Party Z supports theirs.  The voter aligns himself to the party of choice, and votes accordingly.  Indeed a significant minority of voters will vote for one party their entire lives, never doubting that the party they support, and the policies they propose, are the best for the country.  And they will do so with almost blind loyalty, happily changing their opinions in line with what the party says, even when their party has undertaken a complete u-turn on the subject.

Moreover, with this support comes an almost automatic dismissal of the opinions and policies of the other parties.  Everything is black and white. If you don’t support x, then you must support y.  We have recently seen some this type of false debate being used by the government regarding many of their bills related to home security, where they have almost been presented in the form of “if you don’t support our policy, you must support terrorism”.  Naive?  Yes.  Stupid?  Definitely. But also highly dangerous, because some members of the electorate actually believe that type of rhetoric, and of course the politicians know it.

In this regard, blind loyalty of a political party is akin to support of a sports team.  We pick “our team” when we are old enough to decide, and stick with them to the death. For sports, why not?  For politics – really?  But in a world where time is often a scarce commodity, not having to make choices seems an easy solution.

The problem is that what parties actually stand for is subject to change.  One leader can support a very different set of policies from another.  Old Labor looks quite different from New Labor, just as the world view of Liberal leaders like Hewson are very different from the almost neo-Conservative, Tea-Party rhetoric used by Tony Abbott.  One thing that is expected in both parties however, is a slavish loyalty to whatever your leaders decide is policy.  This is particularly the case within the cabinet, where ministers are supposed to honour the decisions of the cabinet and whilst privately they may disagree with such, publicly they must endorse, and promote, the team’s decision.  However things can get a bit tricky when Prime Ministers start making statements unilaterally, forcing cabinet members into the often insidious position of either supporting what they don’t agree with, or risk looking disloyal.  Our current PrimeMinister has made “Captain’s Calls” almost his political signature (and nearly his political death notice too!).

But perhaps the biggest issue that political parties face is that they need to be financially self-sufficient.  Running election campaigns in the modern era is not cheap. The more money you can throw at advertising campaigns the more chance you have to persuade floating voters.  Big money wins elections, so it isn’t surprising that political parties make significant efforts to collect as much as they can.

However the collection of funds creates other issues.  You need an organisation to manage the funds, to organise fund raising activities, to think of new ways to raise funds.  And of course the people that provide the funds want something in return.  They expect to be part of the process.  Indeed some make considerable donations in order that they can be pre-selected as candidates, or to get the ear of the candidate.   And this is an area where politics has got very, very murky.

Organisations, companies and lobby groups donate significant amounts of money to political parties.  But its rarely with no strings attached.  In return they expect to be looked after.  It might not be blindingly obvious, but whether it is loan schemes for farmers, or a new drug to be added to the approved drugs list, or ensuring a potential commission to look at financial planning by the banks doesn’t take place, the party in power has opportunities to ensure that its donors needs aren’t entirely ignored.

The long and short of it is that the “business” of political parties significantly impact on our democratic process.  Indeed they skew it so significantly that it is in reality no longer democratic. Let’s look at the long, but by no means exhaustive, list of problems.

1) Quality of members.  In order to become a representative of your party, you first need to go through a selection process at the local branch. This means you have to impress them that you are a quality candidate. Unfortunately in reality this often means you simply need to be a sycophantic brown-noser, who is prepared to throw your personal values out of the window in order to get into power.  In the party system, loyalty is more important than problem solving ability.  If you do get into parliament, your job, for the most part will be as lobby fodder.  Vote with your party.  Make a few inane speeches.  Perhaps ask a few questions as provided by your party.  The party system seems to encourage those whose ambition exceeds their ability, and certainly those who are willing to subsume their own personal values to those of the party are prime candidates for selection.

2) Tyranny of approach.  Once the party room decides what the approach is, as an MP, your job is to follow suit and do what you are told.  If you don’t, chances are you will be kicked out of the party, thus minimising your chances of being re-elected.  One thing that the big parties will repeat ad-infinitum at election time, is that voting for small parties or independents is a wasted vote, which given the current system works is to a large extent true.  (But not always as we shall discuss in our next chapter).

3) Groupthink.  It should be already obvious why the quality of policies proposed by governments is often so poor.  When everyone in the party thinks in the same way, because they’ve realised that going with the flow is the way to succeed, you have beaten any form of creative problem solving out of them.  As we saw in the last chapter, groupthink generally has disastrous consequences.

4) Influenced by lobbyists.  Increasingly either individual businesses, groups representing groups of businesses, or indeed collective groups such as trade unions, are becoming more and more effective in ensuring that political parties, and indeed governments, do as they ask.  Kevin Rudd was brought down as prime minister as much due to huge political pressure exerted by the big mining companies through the Minerals Council, a lobby group representing the miners collective interests, who intended to spend millions in advertising against proposed taxation on their industry, as he was by members of his own party.  Indeed we’ve seen state based crime commissions investigate shady dealings by companies wanting to influence state politicians, to the extent that some industries are actually barred from donating to political parties!  At a federal level, both major parties have resisted attempts to have a federal level commission to investigate such possible conflicts of interest and other dubious behaviour – which simply makes the electorate believe that it must be going on and is being covered up.

5) Influenced by branch party members.  With the power to undermine a candidates ability to be pre-selected, branch party members have got the ability to significantly influence whom are local representatives are likely to be.  The smearing of the originally preferred candidate in the seat now occupied by Liberal minister Scott Morrison makes particularly interesting reading…  Moreover, party “central office” has significant influence to to try to ensure that only their type of candidate gets the ticket to run.

6) Party time!  In order to keep the support of your party, both at the branch, but also at state level, requires politicians to devote time to internal party matters, particularly fund raising.   But the time spent on this has no general benefit to the electorate, so why are the people whom we are paying quite handsomely devoting so much of their time to these matters?    Surely we want politicians who can devote all their working time and their energies to the actual job we pay them to do?  Moreover, how much money are our politicians claiming as expenses to attend such functions!  Should we, the public, be responsible for funding their business ventures?

7) Power to the Party!  Decision making is as much to ensuring the party stays in power as the right thing.  As we noted in the last chapter, being in power is critical.  More critical indeed than having good policy!  Which means that policies are as much dictated by how can we use this to beat the opposition, as about what is the best thing.  Much of the policy regarding boat people, or defence against terrorism, for example, falls into this category.  The amount of money spent is totally out of proportion to the actual size of the problem.  So many, many more people are killed in Australia through domestic violence, or by suicide, than through terrorism, but if you look at the amount of federal money being devoted to each area, it is quite clearly way out of proportion.  But it “buys” votes.

8) Debate is stifled.  With loyalty to the party being of prime importance, the ability to debate is lost.  People aren’t being given a range of options, but everything is increasingly being delivered with the attitude of “if you don’t agree with this, you must agree with the opposite”.   Some of these artificially polarised arguments are simply preposterous, but they often resonate with a public who increasingly do not have the time to listen to reasoned debate, nor indeed are they encouraged to.  We currently have a position where government ministers have been banned from being on the panel of the popular current affairs show Q&A where members of the public can ask panel members topical questions.  The somewhat confected reason for the ban allows government members to escape public scrutiny, although it also prevents them from publicising their successes.  One might argue that they have less to promote, and more to avoid…

9) Facts are hidden.  Politicians would often rather we based our decisions on feelings rather than fact, particularly where they know their arguments based on fact are somewhat shaky.   Whether that is that wind farms are terrible because they look ugly, and there may be health impacts (despite no evidence for such whatsoever), or that boat people are largely economic migrants, and if not, they are possibly just terrorists trying to find an easy way here (despite evidence showing the vast majority are genuine refugees, and almost every “Australian” who has been involved with terrorist activity have either been born here or arrived by plane).

10) Poll driven. Opinion polls are published pretty much weekly in Australia.  They give the parties a feel as to whether their actions are popular or not.  Success in politics is based on poll results, not actual results.  As a measurement of success, polls are not particularly useful – except to politicians.

11) Focus on media.  The media play a vital part of a democratic process, however this power has been systematically abused.  We will look at the media in another chapter, but it is worth reflecting how governments communicate with the electorate.

12) Focus on elections.  With a three year electoral cycle, elections are never far from a politicians mind.  Lose, and you are out of a very nicely paid, and often not particularly taxing job.  The main time when back-benchers start to get concerned is when it looks like they might lose their seat!

13) Party loyalty excusing bad behaviour.  Expenses scandals seem to occur with frightening regularity, yet rarely does anything substantial happen.  For a week or two, the media is full of nothing else, but after the politician pays the incorrecly claimed fees back, and takes a light rap on the knuckles, nothing else occurs.  The party simply closes ranks around the miscreant.  Would this happen in the “real world”?  Not a chance.

14) Ease of corruption.  Whilst it is difficult to conceive that with so many politicians involved that corruption could occur, the reality is that decisions can actually be made by a very limited number of people, but then endorsed by the cabinet, then the party, and thence parliament.   Corruption is all too easy.

15) Who gets to picks our leader?   Think about it.  The choice of who gets to be the Prime Minister of Australia isn’t chosen by us, it is chosen by a “the party”.   Until very recently when the Labor party expanded the selection to include party members (though only with a minority representation), the leader of all the major parties was determined solely by those members of the lower and upper house of that party.  Opinion polls regularly reveal that the electorate would prefer a different politician to be the leader, but we have absolutely no say in the matter.   We get only what they offer, and it is often not what we want!  Wouldn’t we prefer Turnbull over Abbott?  Albanese over Shorten?  Their parties say no.

Who’s the Party Pooper?

It really isn’t hard to recognise that perhaps the major underlying problem with our system of democracy IS the political parties.  The lack of leadership.  The lack of vision.  The constant negativity.  The lack of honesty.  The spin.  The media focus on the “drama” of political leadership, rather than on policy.   Party politics has been largely reduced to a Punch and Judy show, with one side taking every chance possible to simply bash the other side.  If you can’t get your message across, blame the other side.

But whenever people complain about the current system, and state what we need is a new party, they are failing to see that a new party won’t solve a thing.  Whether that is the Palmer United Party, the Democratic Party, the One Nation Party, or the Tupperware Party.  In the UK, the first “third” party that emerged in the early 20th century was the Labour party, but since then we have had the Social Democrats, and then the Liberal Democrats.  Have these new parties made a difference to making parliament more representative?  Not a bit of it, and for all the reasons given above.

In a system based around political parties, our politicians first loyalty is to the party, not the electorate.  Without the party mechanism to back them, most would not have made it into parliament at all.  The party provides that means, but in return the party expects.  A quid pro quo.  The party expects it’s agenda to be followed, and unsurprisingly he who pays the piper, calls the tune.

Could we get rid of parties? Would that lack of order make the passing of legislation more difficult?  Wouldn’t like minded politicians put themselves into groups anyway?

We will investigate these very important issues in later chapters.




About Steve Laing

Political observer, free thinker and problem solver, Steve contends that the current democratic processes have neither kept up to date with globalisation nor modern business practices, resulting in increasing dissatisfaction with modern politics. However, new technology could be used to not only reconfigure our system, but give the electorate even greater representation than was previously the case. For more background information on Steve, please check his LinkedIn profile.

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