Strong and what? Our unstable world and the era of the minor party

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Theresa May with her new coalition partners (Image via @LesStonehouse)

In Australia, the UK and the USA, instability and unexpected political results are the new normal, writes Patrick Keane.

IT'S EASY to tell the politicians of Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States are worried about being perceived as weak and unstable.

Because it’s difficult to imagine Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, British Prime Minister Theresa May, or the American President Donald Trump making a statement without using the words ‘strong’, ‘secure’ or ‘stable’.

The presidency of Donald Trump is a cause and consequence of this instability.

Ordinarily, one would feel the need to substantiate such a statement, but one merely has to look at a picture of the current President of the United States of America to know that something is wrong. 

The Global Financial Crisis is probably the neatest chronological bookmark to mark the beginning of this period of political instability.

Political instability in Australia means that we had five prime ministers in five years.

Australia had a minority government as recently as 2010, and the current Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and his Liberal-National Coalition Government hold only a  minority in the Senate. They will need to negotiate the passage of each piece of government legislation.

Political instability in the UK is, perhaps, more apparent at present than in Australia.

In 2016, the UK voted to leave the European Union known as Brexit. The future of the United Kingdom itself is in question, and both Scotland and Northern Ireland may seek independence after Brexit.

Since the end of the Second World War (1939-45), countries like Australia, the U.S. and the UK lived without the threat of invasion, revolution, famine or privations, like those during wartime rationing. And, in fact, it was not until the next century that a recession, the Global Financial Crisis here in Australia (called the Great Recession (2007-2008) in the U.S.) that many realised that growth and prosperity couldn’t be assumed in the future.

The generations that came after WWII have known such stability and security under our current political system they are unware it was not always present, and that it is as transitory and impermanent as any other system that has gone before.

A recent example is a comment about an article I wrote last week.

On the article, does the rise of the minor party mean the end of the United Kingdom, one commentator, Red Ned, wrote:

'Trends can be fleeting things and throughout the world over the centuries we see swings left then right etc with regularity.'

Some peoples might consider constitutional democracies a trend.

Australia, as a constitutional democracy, is only a little over a century old. Women were not officially participants in this democracy until 1902. And it was more than half a century before Indigenous Australians got the vote.

Constitutional democracies like Australia’s or America’s are older than the two-party system, but the two-party system grew organically out of constitutional democracy.

The two-party system in Australia, like the UK, is a post-war phenomenon, although in the U.S, the current parties that make up the two-party system date back to around the American Civil War (1861-1865).

Globally, constitutional democracy is only a very recent phenomenon.

Spain only became a democracy in 1977. South Korea became a democracy in 1987/88. In Eastern Europe and Russia, the process of democratisation only began after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Apartheid ended in South Africa a couple of years later, in 1991.The Jasmine Revolutions began only 6 years ago in 2011.

In Australia and the United Kingdom, the political instability we are experiencing created opportunities for minor parties. The similar experience of the Global Financial Crisis, but different electoral rules, illustrate that the two-party system isn’t as resilient in Australia and the United Kingdom as it is in the United States.

Australia has the most favourable institutional structure for minor parties than the other two, followed by the United Kingdom.

The first-past-the-post system, like that in the UK, as opposed to the most common Australian system of proportional or preferential voting, represents a serious barrier for minor parties.

The American Electoral College system has not been seriously challenged, although there are challengers like Ross Perot or Ralph Nader during the 1990s.

After the Great Recession in the United States, this instability saw the formation of the Tea Party. This insurgency within the Republican Party made way for the insurgent candidate who became nominee and now president.

In Australia since the Global Financial Crisis, we witnessed the rise and fall of the Palmer United Party. The Australian Greens crossed the threshold into lower houses of Australian Parliaments, including the Parliament of Australia. Pauline Hanson’s One Nation was resurrected.

Since the Global Financial Crisis, the UK has experienced a similar emergence of minor parties.

Over the last five years in the UK, we witnessed the rise and fall of UKIP.

There was the emergence of the Scottish National Party and coalition governments between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democratic Party, and now the Democratic Unionist Party.

After I asked whether the rise of minor parties mean the end of the United Kingdom one insightful commentator, @Kushiel79, tweeted:

'Or a new beginning?'

Patrick Keane completed an honours thesis on Pauline Hanson's One Nation and the 1998 Queensland State Election in 2010, and was an advisor to a Labor Senator. You can follow Patrick on Twitter @pckeane2014.

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