Politics Analysis

Younger voters and Independents could spell end of two-party system

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Australia's two-party system is losing traction with younger voters eager to see a change (Image by Dan Jensen)

A younger demographic seeking change, along with a shift in the popularity of Independents and minor parties, could see the demise of our traditional two-party system, writes Professor John Quiggin.

MAJOR POLITICAL PARTIES almost never disappear from constituency-based parliamentary systems, like those of the UK and Australia. The last such event in Australia was the collapse of the United Australia Party in 1945, to be replaced by Robert Menzies’ Liberal Party. But this was little more than a rebranding exercise — the two parties had the same parliamentary membership and similar policies. 

Yet the trends in recent elections suggest that such an event is likely to occur sooner or later. The primary votes for the Labor and Liberal parties are declining steadily. The same is true, to a lesser extent for the National Party. 

Until recently, the preferential voting system meant that primary votes did not matter much. Votes for minor parties flowed back to majors as second preferences. What mattered was the “two-party preferred vote”.

But this assumption is increasingly unrealistic. Independents and minor parties are winning more seats with every election. In addition, there are electorates where one or another of the major parties is eliminated during the preference count. As the decline in primary votes continues, this will happen more and more often. Eventually, the two-party system is likely to break down.

Of the existing major parties, the Liberal Party is in the gravest danger. The problem is not just that the Liberals are doing badly as part of the normal electoral cycle. The real problem is demography.

Younger age cohorts (most commonly referred to as Millennials and Gen Z) have consistently supported Labor and the Greens over the parties of the Right (Liberals, Nationals, One Nation and others).

The 2022 Australian Election Study found that only about one in four voters under 40 supported the L-NP, saying:

‘At no time in the 35-year history of the AES have we observed such a low level of support for either major party in so large a segment of the electorate.’

Opinion polling suggests that the gap has only widened since the Election. Newspolls over the last few months show Labor and the Greens with a combined support of 67%. The Greens alone (24%) outpoll the Coalition. By contrast, among voters aged over 65, the L-NP has 46% support (to which may be added 7% for One Nation), compared to 34% for Labor and the Greens.

As more Gen Z voters become eligible and older voters pass on, every percentage point shift in the population translates to a 0.4% swing to the left. That implies a gain of around 2% every electoral cycle.

The problem is primarily one for the Liberals. The political Right remains strong in country Australia. But the Liberals have lost badly among young urban voters, with the result that they now hold hardly any metropolitan seats. 

Yet far from changing policies to attract younger voters, the Liberals have shifted to the Right. On a string of culture war issues (climate change, trans rights, religious schools) the Liberals have entrenched themselves on the losing side.  

The Voice referendum looks like being another example. Even if the referendum fails narrowly (as is possible, given Australians’ long history of voting “No” in referendums), the Liberals will lose in political terms. Supporters of Indigenous rights, particularly younger voters, will blame Liberal Leader Peter Dutton for sabotaging the process. And the exodus of moderate Liberals, already underway, will continue.

This process is feeding on itself. As the Liberal Party retreats from the capital cities, its supporters and representatives become more and more like those of the National Party. Indeed, the Liberal Party now holds only 27 seats in its own right, less than the combined total of the National Party (ten seats) and the merged Liberal National Party in Queensland (21 seats). Although most L-NP members sit in the Liberal Party room, their political views are more closely aligned with the Nationals.

The end for the Liberals could come quickly. On current opinion polling, they would be nearly wiped out if an election were held today. That seems unlikely — the easy run Labor has had so far is unlikely to continue. But as their increasingly elderly voters are replaced by members of Gen Z, the Liberals have to pick up around 2 percentage points every electoral cycle just to remain in the same spot.

What would the Australian political system look like without the Liberals? The most likely outcome in the short run is something like what has happened in France since the rise of President Emmanuel Macron — a centrist government (Albanese Labor) balancing a combination of Left-wing Greens and Independents on one side and a Right-wing rump on the other. 

In the longer run, though, Labor will have to move to the Left or risk being displaced in its own turn by younger voters keen for change.

John Quiggin is Professor of Economics at the University of Queensland. His latest book, 'Economics in Two Lessons: Why Markets Work So Well and Why They Can Fail So Badly', is out now from Princeton University Press. You can follow John on Twitter @JohnQuiggin.

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