It’s just over forty years since a former federal Liberal frontbencher, Don Chipp, quit his party to form the Australian Democrats, the best-known of the trickle of new parties to emerge between the late 1960s and the mid 1980s. The Democrats disrupted the party system more than most, but eventually succumbed to deepening divisions.
The anniversary of Chipp’s fateful decision is a reminder that the recent proliferation of small parties – Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives, Nick Xenophon’s SA Best Party and the United Australia Party – is far from a novel phenomenon. Many parties have been born over the years, and almost as many have faded away, and we’ve long been worried about their effects.
Meanwhile, the big parties linger on. What distinguishes them is the fact that they emerged from, and reflect, a larger, broader set of interests. Labour-based parties in Britain and Australia, for instance, grew out of the misery of the industrial working classes in the nineteenth century and the rise of the union movement. Crucially, their large membership base was actively engaged within a bottom-heavy structure. The best talent and the best ideas were fed to party leaders, who were seen as bound by members’ collective will.
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