Why you should care
Third-party voters now say they really stand behind their fringe candidates.
On May 18, Australia’s ruling Liberal Party defied months of polling to emerge victorious in the country’s national elections. In his concession speech, Labor leader Bill Shorten – who many had expected would be Australia’s next prime minister – described the rise of minor parties as among the biggest challenges his party would need to overcome. OZY had reported on the rise of minor parties in Australia on May 16, 2019.
Political polarization is not unique to Australia. In the U.S., the U.K., Spain, Italy and other countries, mainstream parties have seen leads evaporate and coalitions become harder to form as centrist parties that have long been in power lose voter support.
Australia, which heads to the polls Saturday, has seen six changes of prime minister in the past 12 years, as the established mainstream parties — the center-left Labor Party and the center-right Liberal and National parties, which currently rule in a coalition — have succumbed to political infighting. So your average political scientist might expect that the share of minor-party votes would rise as voters get fed up with centrist squabbling. Many have argued that increased support to fringe candidates doesn’t necessarily mean support for their policies. Rather, it’s a protest vote — a way to send a message to those in power that their power depends on the voters.
This is particularly true in Australia. American voters who want to send a message can always decide not to vote, but Australia’s compulsory voting system makes that more complicated. Nonetheless, recent data from Australia shows that these ballots aren’t just a protest anymore. Rather, third-party voters now say they really stand behind the fringe candidates who are winning their votes.
Since 1987, the proportion of minor-party voters in Australia who say they “very strongly” support their candidate has risen by 120 percent.
That’s according to data from the Australian Election Study. The proportion of those who say their support is either “very strong” or “fairly strong” rose 84 percent, and now encompasses 72 percent of voters. That data doesn’t even include Australia’s Green Party, which has nine senators — far less than the Labor, Liberal or National parties, but far more than any other fringe party. “Very strong” support for the Greens rose 88 percent from 1996-2016. Meanwhile, such support for the three big parties stayed relatively flat, with only a percent or two increase over the decades.
“I voted for the Liberal Party for 30 years, but I just don’t know about what the party stood for anymore,” explains Carley Morrison, a voter in Western Australia who says she’s considering running for local government. “I didn’t see my values reflected in their policies, and, you know, I felt like that for years. They wouldn’t have a clue about the average person anymore.” This year, after three decades of voting for the conservative party, she says she will be voting for the populist United Australia Party, led by mining magnate Clive Palmer. Palmer’s media campaign this election cycle has cost tens of millions of dollars and blanketed Australia with “Make Australia Great” advertisements.
The businessman, often compared to U.S. President Donald Trump, espouses an unexpected mixture of policies: He’s for tax reduction on businesses and pro-mining, but he also supports renewable energy and a more humane refugee policy. “When I did some reading on his party, I was like, ’Oh, that’s where my values went,’” Morrison says.
In their heyday from the 1950s-1980s, the major parties commanded 90 percent of the first-preference vote in Australia. But in 2016, major parties won only 76 percent of first-preference votes. Many commentators have suggested that such disillusionment with major parties is driven by distinct groups like working-class men or lower-income families. But AES data shows that dissatisfaction among working-class men is actually slightly lower than the 40 percent reported by the general population and that minor parties are winning over low- and high-income voters in equal measure. A poll published this week predicted the Labor Party could take power by picking up a tiny majority, but the race is still considered neck and neck.
As Australia’s voting electorate has polarized, so have its politicians. In 1996, more than one-third of the country’s politicians called themselves moderates. As of 2016, that’s down to one-tenth. But major-party politicians are still expected to hold onto power — as they largely continue to around the world even with the rise of populist politics. Where upstart parties have managed to seize ruling authority, as in France, the parties are often centrist themselves. Meanwhile, the polarization of politics taking place in the U.S. is largely a faction of radicalization within the existing major parties, rather than the rise of separate fringe groups. In the EU, what many considered protest votes — as with votes for fringe parties in EU-wide elections — allowed fringe parties to take a real hold in unexpected places.
“[With] big data targeting individuals using Facebook, Twitter and massive email databases, it’s easier to exist in echo chambers with tailor-made media just for your views,” says Andrew Vandenberg, a senior lecturer in politics at Deakin University in Melbourne. He says this type of divide has been great news for the populists and single-issue parties.
Even if a member of a fringe Australian party won’t become prime minister after this weekend’s election, a rise in minor-party representation is possible … and with it a rise in the potential for fringe positions to migrate into the mainstream. Britain, for example, saw the idea of leaving the European Union shift from a fringe concept supported by a minor party to near-reality in just a few short years. When protest votes become sincere support for fringe policies, those policies — whether on the far left or far right — may attract mainstream politicians looking to garner that support.