Too many parties?

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Too many parties?

By Dick Nichols

SYDNEY — In the 1995 NSW election there were a record 27 parties standing for the Legislative Council, the upper house of parliament. This year, with 92 parties registered under state electoral laws, a new record could be set.

The NSW Greens have called for Labor and Coalition to support urgent State Electoral Office (SEO) and parliamentary investigations into the "bona-fides of all political parties being 'rush-registered' in the lead up to this election". Conservative independent (former Labor) MLC Franca Arena and Shooters Party MLC John Tingle have supported this call.

In response, Labor Premier Bob Carr has said he will ask the SEO to investigate changing the law after March 27 to toughen criteria for registering political parties.

The Greens say that the large number of newly registered parties (37 in the last month) is suspicious and that "evidence is mounting that some of the parties may be fronts for other political parties".

However, while there is some evidence that about half a dozen registered parties are "fronts" or "feeder tickets" for other parties, this cannot account for the large rise in small, often single-issue parties. This development is not confined to NSW, or even to Australia, and it reflects the massive disillusionment in the traditional parties of government.

A Bulletin poll last year found that 66% of voters were unhappy with Labor and the Coalition. This should come as no surprise as state and federal governments of both stripes are widely recognised as having a common agenda of austerity and privatisation to boost big business profits.

With these two "economic rationalist" parties entrenched in the various lower houses of parliament, voters have sought to hold back or slow governments' social vandalism by voting more smaller parties into the Senate and state upper houses, which in most cases are elected under the more democratic proportional representation system.

The Greens say they are worried that the major parties may be trying to discredit the upper house and claim that their call for an investigation into new parties is an attempt to pre-empt this attack. Certainly, upper house "reform" is high on the agenda of big business and their parties, but the Greens are naive to think that more democracy will come out of this call.

Instead, genuine smaller parties — especially parties without big business support — will be the main victims of tighter eligibility for registration or higher deposits for candidates.

Until some party or alliance wins sufficient political authority to pose a real alternative to Tweedledum and Tweedledee, many new parties are going to be formed. Some will be single-issue parties, many will be short-lived and others will be opportunist or something more sinister. A viable alternative will have to be put together through the political sorting out of who stands for what, during and after elections.

This process is going on. Parties committed to real change persevere rather than packing up shop after elections. They campaign for the issues they claim to stand for, and win respect. Many of the single-issue parties that did better than the Democratic Socialists in the 1995 NSW election have since disappeared or were out-polled by us in NSW in the October 3 Senate election.

Channel Nine's Footy Show and former Labor right power broker Graham Richardson have set up the What's Doing Party, supposedly to demonstrate how "ridiculously easy" it is to set up any sort of party. But so it should be. Under capitalism it will always be easy for people with money to set up as many parties as they want to. Toughening the registration criteria will only knock out those with less money and power.

Making parliamentary politics a more exclusive club than it already is won't advance the causes of democracy, social justice and environmental sustainability. Instead of inadvertently feeding the big parties' campaign to further reduce our democratic rights, the Greens should concentrate on politically exposing of the big and small reactionary parties, not just the handful of possible "front" parties that might have been set up to divert a few votes.

[Dick Nichols, 53, heads the Democratic Socialists' upper house ticket in the NSW election. He has worked in the printing industry and on the railways, where he was the secretary of the Combined Unions at Eveleigh Loco railway workshops. For many years he was involved in the struggle against the privatisation of railway workshop work and, as a branch councillor for the Australian Railways Union (now Public Transport Union), also fought the anti-public transport policies of the Wran and Unsworth Labor NSW governments. More recently, Nichols has edited Links, the international journal of socialist renewal. He is presently the Democratic Socialists' national industrial work convenor.]