Australia’s ‘Hollowed Out’ Politics, Explained


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Labor won a landslide victory in Victoria, Julia Banks abandoned the Liberal Party, the federal budget will be delivered early and Parliament will sit for only 10 days in the first eight months of 2019 — just another messy week in Australian politics.

What does it all add up to?

Over lunch a few weeks ago, Sam Roggeveen, director of the Lowy Institute’s international security program, told me that Australia’s main political parties were in trouble. This week, I went back to Sam for some additional insight.

So what do you make of the week’s head-spinning political developments?

They say history happens slowly and then all at once. I think the convulsions we are seeing in Australian politics right now — in fact , since John Howard was defeated in 2007 — are a culmination of decades-long trends that center on the slow decline of our two big political parties.

The more popular explanations — the acceleration of the news cycle, the social media information bubble, the rise of populism — may play a part, but the big factor is the transformation of our political parties from mass movements to professionalized and hollowed-out political machines.

This is a common phenomenon in Western democracies. With party membership (and union membership) in decline, both major parties lack a real social base, a group of people that defines who the party represents and what it stands for.

The two major parties remain powerful because they have engineered the political and electoral system to their benefit, but that arrangement is now straining against the decline in their vote share.

Right now, it is the Liberals who are suffering, but Labor has had its turn and it will have another.

One headline I saw called Australian politics “fractured.” How would you describe it?

I would say hollowed out. There’s a void at the center of our politics because the public and the political class have both retreated. Again, this is happening in all Western democracies: people have stopped joining political parties and civic organizations with a political voice, and the parties have responded by making politics more elite and professional.

For most Australians, politics these days is a spectator sport rather than a participatory sport.

And the trend is self-reinforcing — when a major scandal now breaks, the public distrust in politics is so severe that often the first instinct of politicians is not to address it themselves but to call a Royal Commission.

There are also many independents emerging. Kerryn Phelps, the independent who won Malcolm Turnbull’s seat, gave her inaugural speech this week in Parliament. Is this part of a larger trend?

The prospects for independent candidates and small parties are better than ever. At the last federal election, nearly 25 percent of voters gave their primary vote to an independent or small party, and that figure is on a slow upward trend as the primary vote of the two major parties declines.

I know the conventional wisdom right now is for a thumping Labor victory at the next election, but remember that Labor has won only one federal election outright in the last 20 years.

I would not be at all shocked to see Labor form a minority government after the next election because dissatisfaction with the government will benefit independents and minor parties rather than Labor.

In fact, minority government might be the new norm in Australian federal politics.

That’s not necessarily a disaster — Julia Gillard would argue with some justification that the minority government she led got an awful lot done, and many Western democracies function perfectly well that way.

The question will be how the major parties behave as they decline. Can they adjust to this new norm?

I was at a council meeting in small town Tasmania this week and a lot of the people I talked to said they’re more distrustful of politicians than at any time in their lives. Julie Bishop says the public “can pick a fake” and that Australian politicians need to be more honest. Do you have a suggestion for how to fix this trust problem?

I’m sure Julie Bishop has a point, but the fault does not lie only with politicians. The public needs to take its share of the blame, too. If you feel strongly that politicians are not trustworthy, then muck in. Get involved and change things!

Unfortunately, however, I don’t think the cynicism about politicians actually motivates the public to get involved. In fact, it may just reinforce the retreat I talked about.

Now, for the most part, that has not been terribly damaging — O.K., politics is hollowed out and Australians are deeply cynical, but by global standards the place is still pretty well run, and economically we are in enviable shape.

The risk is that politics becomes so broken that the voters, who are largely disengaged, are more or less forced to intervene to fix things.

That’s what happened in the U.K. with Brexit. Britain’s relationship with the E.U. was a white-hot political issue within the Tories, but it’s not as if the British public was clamoring for a vote on that subject. It was only because the Tories could not solve their internal dispute that it was “externalized.” Essentially, the Tory leadership said to the public: “We can’t fix this — you sort it out!”

The expectation, of course, was that the public was just as invested in Britain’s European future as the vast majority of the political class was. That turned out to be dead wrong.

What might that look like in Australia? Is there an Australian Brexit on the horizon?

Well, in a sense this has already happened. The Liberal Party was hopelessly split on the question of same-sex marriage, so it called on the public to intervene.

If you’re looking for a more direct parallel with Brexit, well, what about immigration, which was a key issue in the Brexit campaign? Australia’s commitment to high levels of immigration is pretty well entrenched across the two major parties, but in the past leaders of both parties have flirted with the argument that Australia is “full.”

If one of the two big parties went to an election on that kind of platform — not just a cut in migration but a sustained policy of zero net population increase — Australia would effectively be faced with a referendum on immigration.

And a vote like that would be a proxy for some pretty fundamental issues of Australian identity and our place in the region.

Now for news and features of the week from around the world …


It’s another fascinating sign that the “isms” of the 20th century have been stripped of idealism in favor of raw power and networking. This is our new era, resembling many of old.

Also big news from China:

A rogue scientist there claims to have edited a gene in two human embryos and implanted them in the mother’s womb, resulting in the birth of genetically altered twin girls. The global medical community responded with scorn.


Climate change is complicated, and there’s no shame in asking questions. In fact, we encourage it.

Readers from all over the world, including Australia, have been sharing questions all week with the climate scientist Kate Marvel, who has already started answering some of them.

She writes the Hot Planet column for Scientific American, gave a 2017 TED talk, and co-hosts the Anthropocinema podcast. So yes, she’s cool. And smart.

Bonus Read:

The insect apocalypse is here: What does it mean for the rest of life on Earth?


Many of us think, “If I had something happen to me and nothing went wrong, then surely it’s fine for everyone else,” writes Justin Coulson, author of the Australian best seller “10 Things Every Parent Needs to Know.”

Then he proceeds to tear down that argument, which was spurred on, of course, by Australian morning TV and a question about spanking.

Extra credit:

Here’s the latest reseach on spanking and why it’s bad for you and your kids.


Source : Nytimes