Comment – The Age of Independents (and minor parties)

Comment – The Age of Independents (and minor parties)

By Stuart Bruce, 22/12/2018

When I was making my way through my politics degree, I recall the popular subjects on Australian politcs where a general precept was repeated constantly – that minor parties and independents might occasionally snatch a seat or two but that invariably the real power is with the two major parties and those seats will return to those major parties soon enough. This was purported to be due to Duverguers Law where preferential single-member electorates lead to two-party systems. Overwhelmingly, such voting designs do yield stubbornly bi-polar systems, yet I suspected that this wasn’t going to be the full story. I was frustrated that my lecturers couldn’t see that Australian politics, indeed the entire liberal democratic world, was undergoing a paradigm shift. This time it was different, or at least, when there are radical changes underway in society, two-party systems can be heavily challenged, moving the ‘Overton window’ of what is acceptable as policies to vote for and shifting the whole ideological landscape. This can be done one of two ways, 1) through a change in the actual political system’s design (requiring a change in the constitution through a referendum) or 2) by the enlargement of minor parties and independents. The enlargement of minor parties and independents not only has the effect of increasing their votes in the legislatures but of forcing the major parties to change in response to the competition. So the new players on the scene, change the game. They are the crucial element that is need – that we’ve been waiting for.

Thanks to neoliberalism and the matured stage of capitalism today, we have exhausted peoples’ tolerance for corruption, environmental destruction and inneficient and unfair allocations of resources (inequality, long working hours etc). Coupled with the advent of technologies that caused information to flow more freely, the people are becoming increasingly aware of how the traditional political structure was failing them. In short, the democratic paradigm itself was changing from a plutocratic, insiders-vs-outsiders-style representative democracy to a more participatory democracy (without a structure to formalise this beyond increases in opinion polling). Compared to twenty years ago, there is a much greater demand for transparency and representativeness from our politicians. The game is up and the new sherrifs in town and independents and minor parties.

The fact of the matter is that the out-moded systems of parliamentary representation are not meeting the expectations of the people in liberal democracies world-wide. Opinion polls are now run all through the year and the people’s judgment started having dramatic influence, this time between elections – akin to the principle of direct democracies. The politicians are now getting direct feedback as to their performance.

The problem is that we don’t have any constitutional structure to cope with this dramatic shift in culture and expectations and so those out-moded parliamentary systems have been put under immense strain and western democracies are almost constantly in a state of ‘crisis’ – usually stemming from the increase in the instability of the establishment parties. Given this gap between constitutional structure and culture, where does all the fury and apathy of the electorate go?

Enter the independents and minor parties who have been “snatching” seats and usurping the status quo increasingly more these past last ten years. What I believe we’re seeing is a shift towards true representativeness, that forces the out-moded parliamentary system to actually function as a representative democracy and not as a plutocracy or racket of insiders-outsiders run by major parties for their respective donors. The general apathy and disgust of politics by the electorate is not just a once off that will flood back to the major parties (it might at some point but only if they reduce corruption and incompetence) but is in fact a sign of the changing paradigm of western capitalism in the age of technology and direct democracy cultures. You can’t be corrupt and incompetent in this age anymore – the people can see it and they hate it. The dramatically increased votes for independent candidates and minor parties is proof that people will force the system to perform or change – those are the choices. And that is good for accountability, good for competent public policy-making and ultimately good for democracy.

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