Australia’s Two-Party System Has Failed Us; Here’s How We Can Fix It

The solution to Australia’s leadership problem could lie in a criminally overlooked place: rural Australia.

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Last time I wrote about politics (‘How Malevolent Buffoonery Became The New Normal Of Australian Leadership’), I got a few messages and emails from people politely suggesting that I should fuck off and die. Which is fine, all part of the fun of writing while female, and until someone tops the chap who called me “nothing but a communist in panties” they’re just not going to hold my interest.

But there were also a fair number of people who criticised me for being too negative, for moaning on and on without having anything constructive to say. It was a fair point; the article was an essay written in rage and despair, mainly because there didn’t seem to be any alternative to a despotic and dangerously out-of-touch government and a weak, divisive, frightened opposition.

After thinking about it though, I’m pretty sure I was wrong. There actually is something we can do; something that we know works, because it’s been done before.

Both the major parties are on increasingly shaky grounds. We used to complain that politics had become too poll-driven; what’s interesting now is that politicians seem to be completely ignoring polls. Abbott’s metronomic shrieking about terrorism was something we all assumed to be a vote chaser, but this week’s Essential poll found that 74% of Liberal/National voters believe that family violence is as much or more of a threat than terrorism – a poll we can be quite sure the government will refuse to act on.

Abbott, meanwhile, demanded government frontbenchers boycott Q and A, in the face of 56% of people saying they trust the ABC, and only 16% saying they trust political parties. More people would prefer “someone else” or “don’t know” than Abbott as the leader of the Liberal Party, and Shorten’s approval rating is worse than Abbott’s.

The party that won the election partly off the back of endless wailing about Labor’s Debt and Deficit Disaster TM has taken us further into debt. Broken election promises are scattered behind the Prime Minister like confetti at a wedding between a Man and a Woman, the Great Barrier Reef is dying, women are being murdered at a rate of two a week, the housing bubble is growing, the health care system is shrinking and there are never any consequences. No one is there to hold the government to account and, as if we needed more proof of this, the opposition hit tragicomic heights this week by defending coalition policy on national TV.

Both parties are running from their base and the centre cannot hold on to either side. They’re jumping around on shifting sands of draconian legislation on asylum seekers — a conga line of sinkholes if you will – without ever stopping to consider that even the most conservative of voters will draw a line at criminalising doctors reporting child abuse.

But there’s going to be an election next year. And this is where shit could get real, if we do it right. The (We’re-Too-Scared-Of-Abbott-To-Be-An-)Opposition Party is not the answer; the Greens are still trying to work out whether they are standing on principles or pragmatism, and end up oscillating ineffectively between the two; and because we’ve always thought of our political system as a two-party system, we don’t think there’s anywhere else to go.

But there is.

The 43rd parliament was the first hung parliament in Australia since 1940. We were told by the Abbott-led opposition, while throwing the longest hissy fit the country has ever known, that it was an illegitimate and ineffective government. It wasn’t, of course. While the minority government under Gillard was eventually brought undone by the Rudd/Abbott/Murdoch coalition, it was an extraordinarily productive parliament. The NBN, NDIS, Carbon price, Gonski and many other much-needed reforms were all negotiated and debated through the hung parliament, and were probably legislated and implemented all the better for the input of the cross benchers. Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott in particular brought integrity, gravitas and intelligence to a parliament that had been sadly lacking those qualities for many long years.

So, what if a grass roots movement started to find, support and elect independent MPs? Particularly in the rural seats so taken for granted by the Nationals, whose only purpose in modern politics seems to be to aid the Liberal Party’s delusion that they were given a mandate by the electorate.

What if every rural electorate in the country took a long hard look at what happened in Indi in the last election? Cathy McGowan took on a shadow cabinet minister in a safe seat and won, because the good people of Indi were sick to death of being treated with contempt by their local member. Tony Windsor did it in New England and Rob Oakeshott did it in Lyne. And all of them proved to be exactly what a local member should be: engaged with their constituents, active on the issues that mattered to their local area, and dedicated to the good of the country.

What if every rural seat in the country sent someone to parliament who was prepared to actually fight for the things that matter to rural communities? What if the country people elected MPs who were strongly invested in rural medical facilities, mental health services, protecting farming lands, fighting climate change, assisting Aboriginal communities, domestic violence services, national internet reach, infrastructure and education?

What if all the disenfranchised voters in the cities who can’t stand the Abbott government and couldn’t stomach a Labor government had a viable alternative? Someone who didn’t have party allegiances and had to stand on issues not preferences? What if there was enough of them making enough noise, getting enough support, talking loudly enough to remind people that there are more than two or three options on a ballot paper?

What if, at the very least, all those independent candidates achieved was to remind the major parties that they need to think about something other than their own internecine idiocy? What if enough independents appeared in the next election to represent an electorate that is utterly disgusted by the behaviour of the unrepresentative gobshites swilling around Canberra?

What if they (and we) harnessed the power of social media to promote and connect every person running as an Independent in the next election? What if they got together and shared resources and connections? Running in Eden-Monaro? Riverina is just next door. So are Gippsland and Farrer. Find the other independents and work together to give everyone a reason to vote outside the two-party paradigm that no longer has any meaning.

Do you know someone with time, integrity, intelligence and reason? Someone you would want to have representing you in parliament? Are you that person? Do it. Do it now. There will never be a better time. Everything you need to succeed is already there: A connected and angry electorate with nowhere else to go; a means of communicating with them and of raising money, bypassing the increasingly irrelevant Murdoch press; and, most importantly of all, a reason to do it. Because we need it. We need it quite desperately.

So this is it, this is my solution. A call to arms. A plea to anyone who can step up to do so. A reminder to everyone who has nothing to gain by voting for the major parties that the minors might do you and all of us more good.

The two-party system has failed us, but we have an alternative. If we choose to use it.

Jane Gilmore is a Melbourne-based writer and editor. She blogs at, and tweets from @janetribune