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Marketing Political Fragmentation

Australian media reports carried somewhat tepid images late on Tuesday afternoon of a smiling Julia Gillard, the first female Prime Minister of Australia. Finally, 17 days after the election on August 21 she and the Australian Labor Party were celebrating victory.

The announcement that the next Federal Government would be formed by an alliance of the Australian Labor Party, Greens and two former members of the National Party, the rural rump of the rickety and long standing conservative coalition, came as a relief to some Australians. Others seemd to immediately buy into the destructive efforts by Australia’s robust conservative opposition parties to undermine the minority Government.

But nothing could take the smile off Julia Gillard’s face. She had been elected in her own right as Prime Minister, despite the fact that the election result was a 50:50 result for the main parties and a real disaster for the ALP.

No doubt the ALP will go into overdrive in attempting to win back Government in its own right in three years time. In separate deals with the two rural conservatives, Prime Minister Gillard promised huge amounts of cash directly to their electorates in order to keep them within the fold of the ALP coalition. She also offered to invigorate regional Australia with $6billion (AUD) for bush infrastructure, plus other sweetners, for a total of nearly $10 billion.

Such efforts do little to undo the impression that the ALP, like many social democratic parties in the West is at the cusp of massive change: they must either reinvent themselves at the centre of politcal life and throw off their associations with labor movements, which in Australia’s case means cutting their association with whatever is left of their “parent” organinzation the Australian Council of Trade Unions, or they must move to the left.

If anything, the survivalist instinct of the ALP, like most social democratic parties, has been to side with the great and the powerful in a series of strategic compromises, thereby jettisoning their cultural and political roots. This has happened all over the world, giving rise to Green parties that have been effectively reinventing themselves as more than environmental-action parties.

The Australian Greens have done just this, offering a major-level alternative to the ALP. The party’s success in this election was not only the election of one member to the House of Representatives from the electorate of Melbourne, it was in the consolidation of representation in the Australian Senate chamber where the Greens will have nine senators in several months time when they are all finally seated.

And they will be seated in an Australian Parliament more fragmented from left to right than ever before. For example, the Greens support strong emissions trading and caps on pollutants and penalties for polluters, they support increasing taxes on the super profits being generated by the extraction industries in Australia’s seemingly endless mining boom, as the country feeds the maw of China – no questions asked. They support key policy initaitives around family care and parental leave and a stronger series of support mechanisms for Aboriginal Australians. They have what appears to be no concern about running campaings based on voter polling. They run on programs that appeal to well educated Australians who are increasingly aware that the ALP is now the business-as-usual party.

In this coalition, the Greens will not save the ALP as conservatives push the party to the right. Instead, to indulge in some crystal ball gazing, it is likely that the Greens will be able to do one of two things: establish themselves as a credible progressive force that determines social and economic policy in Australia in a long term alliance with the ALP and other left parties; or self-immolate as they mis-understand the politics of fragmentation. Many people would prefer a third scenario – the Greens as a new political formation that jettisons traditional political party processes of support for growth and consumption in favor of localized decision making, including no-growth policies. Critical thinking will be the Greens trademark.

The best recent example in the recent pre-history of this kind of action is probably represented by Joscha Fischer the German Foreign Minister from 1998-2005, who was a member of the Greens and part of a coalition led by Gerhard Schroeder of the German Social Democratic Party. Fischer stands as the key example of a brilliantly independent, often critical voice – for good or bad remains open to debate.

The Global Trend?

If a generalization can be applied from the Australian federal election outcome it is that the trend in westen democracies is pushing large political parties toward redundancy. The current mainstream political radar shows that the UK is governed by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat alliance; in the US the Tea Party is reconfiguring the Republican Party; while Germany is consistently shifting in line with well orchestrated Green policy pressure. Australia has clearly joined this trend.

In each of these countries there are two consistent aspects of social life: affluence and the Internet. Both run in contradistinction to each other. Economic well being has not been equitably delivered across advanced economies and the frustrations among the citizenry have been identified by emergent political parties seeking to run insurgent campaigns. There’s no shortage of emotional energy. The most effective way for small, under resourced parties to claim space in the political landscape of the estabishment is to utilize low cost campaigning tools like the Internet, the availability of which is a function of the affluence of the community. In this mix of affluence and complaint the Internet becomes the determining source for mobilizing discontent. If the the Tea Party is the standard, it is a politics of permanent campaigns.

Incumbent political parties – the parties of liberal democracy – are dinosaurs in this environment and they will only become less adept at addressing policy concerns, not better. They will be stymied by institutional systems that demand process and protocol, while the Internet parties will be politically nimble and socially engaged.

Political fragmentation serves more than one purpose, both which may be negative. It offers relief for voters seeking solutions at the ballot box and it keeps the major parties in power, to the immediate detriment of smaller progressive parties. In both cases the trend in political fragmentation is unlikely to produce positive outcomes for progressives. Rather the status quo will be maintained in a series of pathetic pragmatic compromises. The Australian minority Labor Government will be closely watched to see which direction it heads – at this stage that is unlikely to be towards the Greens.

The biggest question will be what happens in the US with The Tea Party. The best case for The Tea Party would be to succeed in November and create a grand alliance with the Republican Party whose older “social order” heads will not want a bar of them. At that point fragmentation in the US will arrive fully formed while the majoriatarian parties scramble for survival. Unfortunately for them, the middle ground of their Tweedledum-Tweedledee world views will have faded along with so many social democratic hopes everywhere. Fragmentation and its analogue, extremism of every sort, will surely follow.

MARCUS BREEN teaches in the Department of Communication Studies at Northeastern University, Boston. He can be reached at m.breen@neu.edu

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