there are more than two sides of politics

Byelections are strange beasts, and having five at a time makes for quite a menagerie. Given the unusual citizenship back stories behind four of them, and the volatile nature of Australian politics in general, it is worth tuning in even if you don’t live in one of the electorates where campaigns are afoot.

First published at the Guardian

Byelections are sometimes the place where voters can overturn some furniture without fear of overturning the government; you can “send the government a message” even if the message is just one of formless discontent. That trope doesn’t really apply here – none of the seats in contention are held by government MPs. Fremantle, Perth, Braddon and Longman are held by first time Labor MPs, and Mayo is held by the former Nick Xenophon Team’s Rebekha Sharkie. There’s no real downside in this scenario for the Turnbull government. It hasn’t even bothered to field candidates in Perth and Fremantle, and given that the last time a government won a seat off an opposition in a byelection was in 1920, ceding the remaining seats to Labor or Sharkie will hardly be a political earthquake.

So if it’s an earthquake we’re looking for, we’ll have to shake things up some other way.

A clue as to how we do this can be found in the long-run trend of voter abandonment of the major parties, and the steady post-war rise in voting for minor parties and independents. In the 2016 general election, nearly a quarter of voters chose a non-major party for their first preference in the House of Representatives, the highest in the history of the commonwealth. The full preferential, single-member system in the House of Reps guarantees that nearly all of these votes end up accruing to one of the major parties whether you like it or not, meaning that nowhere near a quarter of the seats in the House are held by MPs from outside the major parties. It is possible to win and hold a House seat from outside the majors, as Adam Bandt, Cathy McGowan and others have shown with a combination of charisma, purpose and a big volunteer effort. But until we get proportional voting in the House, the gap between voter intention and parliamentary seats will likely remain a chasm – presently the 23% minor party and independent vote translates into only 6% of the seats.

Phrases like ‘both sides of politics’ are as ripe for retirement as Tony Abbott, albeit just as unlikely to vanish gracefully

The major parties have exploited this to numbing effect for as long as I can remember, but it has reached a dangerously cynical degree in the last few turns of the electoral wheel. The LNP, to give them their due, play a more direct hand. When outflanked by a loose insurgency like One Nation, for the most part they smoothly absorb the tone and policies of these strident interlopers, stealing their political oxygen while crab-walking steadily in the direction of hard-line racist authoritarianism. Labor play a quite different game, deploying candidates of genuinely good heart to spread a progressive message on coal and gas extraction, refugee rights and the surveillance state, while their parliamentary wing routinely votes with the government to overwhelm the Greens and other crossbench members on these issues and many others. It’s a form of political gaslighting that depends on the electorate never quite having the energy to call out a party that sends finely honed and entirely contradictory messages to different constituencies.

The excruciating spectacle of Labor walking both sides of the street on Adani’s coal atrocity serves as a valuable case study. Labor’s strategy rests on the assumption that votes directed toward Green and other climate-friendly candidates will preferentially find their way back to the Labor party anyway, relieving them of the obligation to do more than express strategic ambiguity as to their real intentions. That this comatose attitude cost them the seat of Maiwar in the recent Queensland state election doesn’t seem to have changed the basic pattern.

Under the unusual circumstance of a spray of byelections in which the government has absented itself, it is time to bring this dismal strategy properly unstuck. This starts with the recognition that there are more than two sides of politics, and this has been true for a long while. A quarter of the electorate is already voting for someone else, and although the trend has its zigzags, the direction is clear. Phrases like “both sides of politics” are as ripe for retirement as Tony Abbott, albeit just as unlikely to vanish gracefully.

As Senator David Leyonhjelm is managing to demonstrate every single day, the shift away from the majors can have offensive consequences. It’s not enough to just put Labor and the LNP at the bottom of the ballot paper and hope for the best, especially if our aim is as urgent as getting innocent refugees out of camps that have been marked by reports of trauma, self-harm and deaths and that are imposed by “both sides of politics”. But the myth that voting for a progressive minor party or independent candidate is a waste of time is self-fulfilling, and it evaporates as soon as a sufficient number of us let go of it. If you live in one of the lucky five electorates, here’s your chance. Even if you don’t, you can still signal-boost candidates from afar or get in the ear of your friends in the area.

It’s time to overturn some furniture. Call it a practice run for the main event in a few months time.