Multi-party politics

I’m reminded by the ACT election how much more interesting politics can be when there are more than two choices. If I lived in the US, I think I would despair at the monotony of the eternal struggle between the Democrats and Republicans.

However, Australia still hasn’t truly come to terms with multi-party politics. We certainly have more than two parties, but there are (broadly speaking) still only two likely outcomes: a Labor or Labor-Green coalition, or a Liberal or Liberal-National coalition. Admittedly, there are subtle differences between coalition and one-party rule, but the potential for cross-ideological alliances seems fairly remote.

So what precisely was the ACT Liberal leader Zed Seselja contemplating when he gave his victory-like speech, bashing the other two parties, after his own party failed to secure a majority? It’s an odd way to open negotiations. Seselja is trying to make it look as though the Liberals deserve to form government, without actually furthering that goal. In effect, despite appearances, he’s really just reapplying for his own job as Opposition Leader. He has presumably calculated that the barriers to a Liberal-Greens or Liberal-Labor coalition are insurmountable, and that it’s better to simply fire up his supporters for another term in Opposition (or perhaps “Government-In-Exile”) than to even try negotiating for Government.

This has some parallels to the picture that emerged in Tasmania after the 2010 election, with the Liberals and Labor on 10 seats each and the Greens with 5. Both major parties washed their hands of the Greens, descending into a fantasy in which, presumably, one or the other would be able to hold minority government in their own right (not strictly impossible, but highly implausible). Nobody spoke of a Labor-Liberal coalition, but there were really no other options once the Greens were excluded. The Governor eventually reinstated mathematical reality, giving us the bizarre spectacle of an incumbent Labor government being re-elected apparently against its will. However distasteful the Labor-Greens alliance, once again, nobody was prepared to entertain the alternatives.

Then there’s the Liberal-National alliance in WA. The Liberals and Nationals are separate parties in the west, with no formal standing agreement, so when the Nationals claimed the balance of power in the 2008 election, negotiations were on. Or, at least, that’s what the National Party wanted the Liberal Party to think, in no uncertain terms. But nobody expected the Nationals to side with Labor, no matter what was offered, and they didn’t.

Post-election negotiation is regarded as almost unnatural in Australia. We expect decisive victories — even if only by one or two seats. The problem with such negotiation, as Julia Gillard found to her chagrin, is that you’re negotiating with people who promised the electorate different things to you. Any compromise is most likely going to result in “broken promises”, which, as we’ve all seen, are easily spun as “lies”. This problem will inevitably beset any leader seeking a negotiated victory, which itself is the inevitable result of an evenly-divided electorate in a multi-party system.

The whole notion of an election promise only makes sense to the extent that a decisive outcome is likely. Your election promises are made on the understanding that your party (or standing coalition) alone will govern.

Perhaps political leaders should spell out what they would be prepared to trade away in hypothetical negotiations. Ah, but “I won’t speculate on hypotheticals” is the inevitable verbatim refrain from any party leader you would care to ask, unless they go for the outright lie that they won’t compromise. They won’t countenance negotiation, until they have to. They won’t, because the public would perceive it as weakness, and the other major party would further perjure itself in pursuit of the “moral highground” of total obstinance — that perverse ideal that a party’s most strident supporters seem to value above all else.

Here’s a thought experiment. What if a third “swing” party arose; one holding approximately centrist views, and one that could achieve the balance of power in most elections? How would conventional political strategies adapt to it? Would the public realise the essential meaninglessness of unilateral election promises? Would party leaders be brave enough to posit compromise policies before the election? Would they take a more sophisticated view of the centrist party than merely “friend or foe”? Would there be quite the same level of anger when “promises” are negotiated away in the forming of government?

Here’s another thought experiment. What if the “balance of power” (as we conventionally understand it) was held by a minor party of outright evil intent — say, the Hitler Party — a party whose motives and policies were so monumentally counter-productive to any mainstream ideology that no negotiated outcome was possible with anyone else at all. And what if this party retained the balance of power after each successive election. How long would it take — how much flailing rhetoric, how much campaigning, how many angry protests, how many election re-runs — before the leaders of the two major parties confronted the only possible solution: an alliance with each other?