South Australia might herald the breakdown of Australia’s two party system

The South Australian election in March this year has the potential to break the traditional two party system that has existed in some form in Australia since the 1910s. While much of the focus had been One Nation on winning the balance of power in last year’s Queensland election, the Labor majority victory has meant public concern about One Nation’s “breakthrough” has dissipated. South Australia, on the other hand, is far less predictable and it is unclear what will occur.

With Nick Xenophon resigning from the Senate and running for the House of Assembly seat of Hartley, the campaign will be focused on him. Nick Xenophon has skilfully avoided being associated with any major party despite his deal making at a federal level, portraying himself as the anti-establishment choice, and he seems likely to benefit from public dissatisfaction. It is of little surprise that Labor is trying to paint Xenophon as a ‘Liberal in disguise’.

According to some polls Xenophon is preferred Premier and his ‘SA Best’ party is ahead of Labor and the Liberals on primary votes. It seems very possible that Nick Xenophon endorsed candidates will win a swag of House of Assembly seats. His party has already recruit a number of high profile candidates including a former TV journalist and the mayor of Port Augusta. Xenophon candidates have already shown their capacity to win Lower House seats, winning Mayo federally and coming close in Grey at the 2016 federal election.

South Australian Labor has been in power since 2002 and has lots of political baggage but the public does not seem sold on the Liberal Opposition who have a range of their own problems such as former sitting Liberal MPs running as independents and concerns that former party leader, now independent MP and Government Minister, Martin Hamilton Smith, will keep his seat. There is a distinct possibility the South Australian election may result in a genuine three party system where the largest party is allowed to govern in minority but it will not have a majority and there will also be a considerably sized cross-bench.

For the most part, the success of anti-political parties has been mostly confined to Upper Houses but South Australia may be the first site of Australia’s existing political order buckling under public dissatisfaction with the political class. Rather than in Queensland, South Australia may be where the populist revolt truly breaks through and upturns Australia’s two party system.

This period may be the beginning of the regionalisation of Australian party systems. The success of Katter, the Shooters and Fisher, the Greens and Xenophon may herald distinctive state party systems over the next few years as minor parties start to win multiple lower house seats in certain geographic localities.

What would a successful Australian left-populism look like?

I have previously written how I think the desire of some in the Australian Labor Party for an Australian Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn is likely to unlikely occur within the current institutional set-up. That desire for an Australian equivalent is not limited to Labor members though.

There are some on the Left outside the major parties who think they could be the beneficiaries of this current populist mood. For example, Senator Lee Rhiannon has been arguing that the Greens should tap into this populist moment by becoming more radical and anti-establishment.

Personally I don’t think the Greens can pull off a populist reinvention, left-populism will only come through a new political vehicle. The Greens aren’t seen as anti-establishment by those disillusioned with democracy and generally disinterested in politics as usual. They aren’t seen as representatives of the people or of the working class. They are more a vehicle of civic responsibility, the exact opposite of radical left-populism.

Furthermore, the belief that the Greens can change some policies to reinvent itself ignores that successful populist vehicles are very much centred around charismatic individuals who people believe are genuine outsiders. I don’t think many would see any elected Greens MP in that way. I would also add that much of the jargon and many of the actions (of not just those in the Greens but also the broader Left) are not what people do, use or talk about, it has no real mass populist appeal.

So what would a successful new left-populist vehicle look like and what would their platform be? I have a few thoughts.

Firstly, it requires some charismatic leaders who people believe are genuine insurgents (even if they are flawed). Successful populist parties are a personification of the leader. The leader would be dominant but the party would need to be seen as very democratic. Primaries would seem to be the obvious method of doing it, riding on the coattails of the leader.

For a platform, I wouldn’t talk about socialism or capitalism or left or right or the political centre. It is irrelevant jargon to most people. If it was me, I would talk about the need to break-up the cartels that control our country and how you don’t really have a voice. Everyone knows what you mean. In most major industries, you can count the main providers on your fingers. Virgin or Qantas, Woolworths or Coles, the big four banks. The rhetoric would be “the cartels have rigged the system and it’s time to give power back to the people.”

Policies could be using the state to take on the cartels that screw over Australia such as by setting up a people’s bank to challenge the big four and building a high speed train line to give people a choice when travelling.

A left-populist would go after people and corporations who avoid tax very hard. The line would be that tax avoidance is theft because every dollar in tax they don’t pay means one less dollar for pensions, one less dollar for Medicare, one less dollar for kid’s education, one less dollar for disability services. Subsidies and tax breaks for corporations that avoid taxes would be cut and CEOs would be jailed for defrauding the public and avoiding tax.

The anti-system stance would emphasise how the classes that control Australia all went to the same universities and they have a different life, detached from everyday people, and they have all know each other for years. If something is wrong for the connected, they can pay people off with favours. Them and “the cartel” need to be cleared out by banning lobbyists, requiring MPs to be accountable for every public dollar they spend, slashing public funding for political parties and restricting political expenditure.

The framing narrative would be Australia can be better than what we have now. It was once a place where you could get a good job, a house with a block of land, you could relax on weekends. It was possible once to have a good life and we can make it that way again but “the cartels” and self-interested political class are stopping it. We need to do the right thing by other Australians because we haven’t been, those in charge have just been doing what is convenient for them.*

That vision would be tied in to rebuilding Australia because those in charge have given up on parts of the country. Rather than focusing on a post-work agenda, there would be a job guarantee so whoever wants to be employed will be and contributing to the community.

The structure, platform and narrative I outlined have their problems but broadly I think it would be necessary for a left-populist party to be successful enough in Australia to get parliamentary representation. Kickstarting it is another question though. The environment currently is conducive to anti-establishment politics but there is no spark (as yet) to set it off and then someone who take advantage of the momentum. It would require some kind of movement to really get off the ground and we have not seen anything like that as yet.

* (This framing narrative is problematic because of the oppression and dispossession of Indigenous Australians but a variant of it is needed).

UPDATE: Reinforcing my point that the Greens are not seen as the vehicle for left-populism, Essential polling shows Greens voters are even less likely than Labor supporters to believe the system needs fundamental change.