(YES) - Report 4: 2. Political Parties in Australian Democracy

Updated: 21 January 2011

2. Political Parties in Australian Democracy

What are political parties? The oldest, 19th century definition of political parties may be the best: "…political parties are organizations that try to win public office in electoral competition with one or more similar organizations" (Lijphart 1985, p. 574). This is virtually the same as the definitions given in government textbooks, that they are like-minded groups of people who organize themselves to win elections (Singleton, Aitkin, Jinks, and Warhurst 1996).

Most democracies in the world have governments based on political parties. Political parties play a role in identifying political philosophies and policies. In this respect, political parties have been said to embrace an ideology, to exercise discipline over their members, and are institutionalized in some organizational form (Singleton, Aitkin, Jinks, and Warhurst 1996). In most countries, they are a central feature to elections. Indeed, Jaensch comments that elections and political parties are virtually "inseparable" (Jaensch 1995). Thus one could argue that without at least some knowledge of political parties, it is difficult for a person to vote intelligently in an election where the candidates are listed according to party membership.

Effectively, a two-party system has been a part of the Australian electoral scene since 1910 when the Labor and Commonwealth Liberal parties faced each other in the election that year. Although there were other candidates, these two parties received 95% of the vote. Although many political parties have come and gone since then, it is said little has changed in this basic two-party structure, at least with respect to numerical dominance (Singleton, Aitkin, Jinks, and Warhurst 1996). However, from time to time one or more minor parties have played larger roles, and have held the balance of power in the Senate (See, for example (Warhurst 1997)).

Because of this aspect of the Australian political system, it comes as little surprise that a knowledge of political parties is something of a pre-requisite for casting a meaningful vote in an Australian election. This seems to be reflected in the answer that the youth in our survey gave where less than 50% thought they had enough knowledge about political parties to vote in an election (Print, Saha, and Edwards 2004, Figure 4, p. 12).

2.1: Australian Political Parties in the 21st Century

Following the Federal election of 2004, there were six political parties represented in Federal Parliament, two of which, The Liberal Party and the National Party, were working together as a coalition party. The two major parties, the Liberal-National Coalition and the Labor Party, hold most of the seats in the Senate and the House of Representatives. The minor parties hold the remaining seats, with the Family First Party holding only one seat in the Senate.

Australian Political Parties in the 21st Century

Since the YES questionnaire, which was administered in 2004, was designed prior to the election, only the five parties were listed, with the Liberal-National coalition listed as one party. As a result, all information acquired by the questionnaire focused on four party choices. The Family First Party did not hold a seat at the time of the survey.