Australia and the Emergence of the Modern Two-Party System

Article excerpt

Although the Australian party system is accepted in some literature as a "classic" example of a two-party system, information about how this system came about does not feature prominently in international studies on political parties. It is here argued that Australia indeed blazed the trail for the two-party model by being the first to link parliamentary organisation directly to a mass electorate.

Although, being important institutions in their own right, political parties are sometimes presented as having a "life of their own",(1) the concept of party only makes sense in the context of a party system. The character of a party derives as much from the system itself and the nature of its opponents within the system as from the purposes of its own constituents. From the contemporary perspective we now take it for granted that parties are meant collectively to articulate the competing interests of the wider society. Viewed historically, however, parties emerged as the creatures of Parliament itself, being first associated with the internal workings of the British House of Commons, where "divisions" became necessary to resolve controversial issues when consensual methods failed. Even with the arrival of mass-party organisation, the idea of parties remains intimately connected with the institution that pre-dates them.

Entrenched as were the adversarial procedures of the House of Commons, a case can be made for the impress of parliamentarism on British political society before the development of the mass-party.(2) Parties first arose as a procedural mechanism within the House of Commons, but during the Civil War there emerged a condition of "permanent contrariety" between Independents and Presbyterians.(3) We contend here, however, that the first articulation of parliamentary procedures with the widest concerns of the society housing them occurred in Australia. To initiate this argument it is necessary to recall that the political organisation of labour in this country long pre-dated its effective emulation in Europe; the first national labour government took office in 1904 -- thirteen years before the Russian revolution and twenty years before the first Labour government in Britain. Of course it could be argued that Liberal representation in Britain, while effectively locking out Labour governments for a period, served functions desired by labour forces; from the United States it might be argued that, in the absence of any "labour" representation at all, it is not necessary to see the effective articulation of class or other interests in labour or nonlabour forms. While we would disagree with both these contentions, we hope to show for quite independent reasons -- both social and structural -- that the Australian polity represents the first two-party system effectively to unite the decision-making organs of state with the widest interests of the community.

Giovanni Sartori describes Australia as one of the few "classic" two-party Examples.(4) Yet while Sartori affirms the significance for theories of party systems of parliamentary parties and of the transition from undisciplined (Burkean) parties to disciplined ones, he omits to recognise the Australian contribution. The history of labour representation in Australia short-circuits Sartori's model of party development by introducing a disciplined party from outside the traditional system, whereas Sartori assumes that the parties will be inside the system, from where they will "develop outward tentacles" as enfranchisement gains pace.(5) While his model is slow to achieve authentic two-partism, the example studied in this paper is rapid. But the result is the same -- a "premiership system" based on single member electorates in which "single" parties alternate in government and use strict party discipline.(6)

Australian politics is based on a party system which has faced up to the democratic challenge of mass enfranchisement and political organisation outside Parliament. …