It has been interesting watching both the government and conservative media’s reaction to the emergence of the ‘Teal’ candidates.
We have seen claims that the Teal candidates will lead to political instability and chaos; that they lack transparency and are essentially dressed up Greens who would have us eating insects; and that they are ‘useful idiots’ doing the ALP’s bidding.
Most entertaining was the Daily Telegraph’s James Campbell who must have been reading the Communist Manifesto when he stated that the Liberal Party was “all that’s standing between the mob” and the upper middle-class Australians.
Just how serious the Coalition are now taking the Teal threat was evidenced by them bringing out former Prime Minister, John Howard, who described them as ‘anti-Liberal groupies.’
The problem for the government is, however, that the Teal candidates are not made up of one or two high profile individuals but represent a distinct failure in the Liberal Party to both deliver a policy platform and be the ‘broad church’ that it has always claimed to be.
As a sociologist, I am interested in the social and cultural trends that shape our society. The Teal phenomenon specifically represent an existential threat to both the Liberal Party and the Labor Party, and should also be a warning the Greens and One Nation.
Here are three reasons why.
We elect a party to govern
Love or hate the Howard Government and their policies, this was a government that delivered reform. From the GST to gun control, ‘Work Choices’ to the national water initiative, Howard wanted to change Australia. His commitment to the US in Iraq and Afghanistan was brought on by a deep understanding of the US political culture post the 9/11 terrorist attacks as well as a recognition of Australia’s reliance on our US defence relations.
Again, you may not agree with the position he took here, but he had a position and offered a policy agenda in response.
In contrast, it is hard to identify a policy initiative that the Coalition Government has delivered in the last decade. In fact, we can see a series of policy disasters from Robo-Debt and Religious Freedom, to claiming delivering Covid vaccines was ‘not a race’, this is a government and the current Prime Minister who has simply failed.
We can also see similar failures in former Prime Ministers Kevin Rudd, Tony Abbott, and Malcolm Turnbull.
In fact, Julia Gillard’s minority government which had to confront a feral opposition led by Tony Abbott and incredible sexism across the conservative media, has been the contemporary exceptions.
Compromise not ideology
This takes me to my second point: most of the Australian electorate understand that no one party has all the answers. We recognise that being driven by an ideological agenda rather than a need for compromise leads to policy inertia.
The Teal candidates, like other independents in both the House and the Senate, represent individuals who want solutions not ideology. They represent the idea that they would assess each piece of legislation on its merits and be willing to both negotiate and compromise.
Negotiating and compromise may not be what drives the party base, but it is what made Howard and Gillard effective reformers.
Howard had to negotiate and compromise with the Democrats. The then Democrats leader, Meg Lees, essentially rescued Howard’s tax reform by delivering her party’s support in the Senate in exchange for the exemption of basic food. This was not what Howard wanted but he compromised.
Likewise, Gillard had to negotiate in her minority government’s list of achievements including the roll out of the NBN, introducing a price on carbon, the establishment of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), and plain packaging of tobacco.
As such, both the Greens and One Nation need to take note: Australians are yearning for a way forward which involves compromise – something neither of these minority parties are known for.
A shift in the political landscape
Thirdly, we are seeing another shift in Australia’s political landscape as many of us are tired of politics as usual and see the major parties having lost their way and tolerance for diversity in opinions.
It is interesting to note that while independents where common pre-World War II, no independent was elected between 1940-90. In fact, Ted Mack, the former North Sydney MP, was the first of the modern independents – we have five currently in the parliament.
The support of the Teals and other independents reflects a decline of the major party vote which ABC’s election analyst, Anthony Greens, outlined has gradually fallen from 90 per cent in the ’70s to dipping below 70 per cent these days.
There are many reasons for this, but key here is that the politics we see in Canberra as represented by the major parties seem disconnected from the everyday experiences. Independents are more relatable than political parties, the ‘faceless men’ behind the scenes and their exclusionary pre-selection process.
If one in three Australians feel that they are not represented by the major parties, this is not about groupies but a serious failing in hearing people’s concerns and responding accordingly.
Though the Teals may come and go, the changes they represent will be more far reaching unless the established parties – both major and smaller – learn how to respond.
Professor James Arvanitakis is an Adjunct Professor at the Institute for Culture and Society at Western Sydney University, and a Fulbright Scholar.