Australia is in the wake of yet another leadership crisis. What started as a few years of democratic misfortune has now become a long-term trend. Despite the chaos, one thing is clear—at the eye of this storm lies an identity crisis. The two major parties are desperately trying to figure out who they seek to represent. Changing demographics and voting patterns mean no party can rely on constant support from particular groups.
Increasingly, traditional Labor and Liberal voters are drifting towards minor or micro-parties which more accurately reflect their beliefs, and this has had repercussions for both sides of parliament.
Labor, for example, is struggling to reconcile its commitment to both the progressive causes of the political left and the concerns of its traditional working-class voter base, many of whom support the party’s economic policies but hold socially conservative views. In regards to issues like marriage equality, this rift between the party’s ideology and the views of its supporters is especially clear. Labor was firm in its support for marriage equality, yet nine of the seventeen electorates which voted ‘no’ in the plebiscite were safely held Labor seats. Embattled former Senator Sam Dastyari said this electoral split “shows the difficulty of straddling a bridge between our economic and our social policies.”
The ideological divide on the Liberal party side of the chamber is similarly stark. The most recent leadership stoush has seen the Liberal Party tear itself in half, destroying the last remaining traces of a functional government in the process. ‘Moderate’ Liberals like Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop have been forced from power by the conservative fringe, a move which has pulled the ideological centre of the party further to the right—closer to their electoral rivals One Nation.
Seemingly in response to the ideological equivocation shown by mainstream political parties, online political movements have risen in popularity. These movements exist on both sides of politics, from white nationalist forums on Reddit to Facebook page “Sassy Socialist Memes”, and have in some case translated into real-world political influence. In 2015, the far-right nationalist group Reclaim Australia, which has held anti-Islam rallies across the country, even received the support of sitting politicians Pauline Hanson and George Christensen.
On the progressive left, movements which began simply as meme pages have now become openly political. Free from party politics, online political groups like the Smashed Avocado Movement (SAM) now champion progressive causes in a refreshingly unambiguous manner. Whereas Labor and Liberal have failed to take a decisive position on climate change or the Adani coal mine, the SAM’s position is clearly anti-coal. The movement is also strongly against the bipartisan mistreatment of refugees on Manus and Nauru, and supportive of diversity and inclusivity in all its various forms. These views are defended by long-form FB posts, sharply worded tweets, and screenshots of tumblr rants which outline the group’s opposition to mainstream political inaction.
SAM also has their own constitution and a set of policies and principles. The admins are committed to engaging with its 5,300 followers, and polls are used to evaluate particular policy positions and major decisions. The group’s website describes the movement as “a political party for people who are tired of the current political circus… the ineptitude, self-serving interests and selfish party politics that have corrupted our parliament to a point of crisis.” Comments threads on Facebook posts are often used as spaces for serious political interaction between the leaders of the movement, supporters, and virtual passers-by.
In July this year, the SAM moved from a political FB meme page to an explicitly political organisation.
In an effort to channel the energies of their online electorate into a more overtly political space, the SAM allied with the Australian Progressives party, a micro-party which fielded candidates in several seats in the last election. In a FB post outlining the reasoning behind this decision, the SAM stated that “a single minor party will NEVER change the twoparty system…the only way we will ever see progressive change in this country is if we have the numbers to challenge the establishment itself.” As part of this arrangement, the SAM acts as the “nation-building” arm of the movement while the Australian Progressives champion the cause in parliament (despite not yet holding any seats).
For anyone who knows the difficulty of trying to influence major party policy, for example the Labor Party’s asylum seeker policy, the idea of an accessible yet unashamedly progressive grassroots alternative is powerful.
It is difficult for these parties to reach parliament. Our electoral system strongly favours the two-party status quo, and people are understandably wary of taking too seriously a political party birthed online.
Embracing the micro-party is not without its dangers, but if the major players can’t figure out who they represent, voters will continue their drift towards the fringes.