How political parties work and why we have them

Australian law proscribes a number of conditions which must be met in order to form a political party. To begin with, the party must have a written constitution. It must also aim to achieve the election of members to the House of Representatives or Senate. And, it must have either 500 members whose names appear on the electoral roll, or have at least one member who is a current member of the Federal Parliament.

The consequences for misleading the Australian Electoral Commission, even inadvertently, in registering a political party can be severe – as Pauline Hanson learnt when she was sentenced to three years jail in 2003 for an electoral offence that she was later acquitted of.

Australian politics is known as a two-party system. This is because, as a result of the system of voting used to elect MPs to the House of Representatives (see Election fever), it is almost inevitable that either the Coalition (comprising the Liberal, Country Liberal and National parties), or the Labor Party will win a majority of seats and therefore be eligible to form government.

Nevertheless, smaller parties and parliamentarians who are not linked to any political party – known as ‘independents’ – are also represented in the Federal Parliament. There are three independents in the House of Representatives, and three minor parties – the Australian Democrats, the Australian Greens and the Family First Party – are represented in the Senate.

By joining a political party, a person shows that they are committed to a certain set of general ideas and principles about how the country should be governed. This doesn’t mean that party members agree with every single policy put forward by their party! In fact, it is common for MPs and Senators to disagree with specific aspects of their party’s policies, or even strongly differ in opinion from their colleagues on a certain issue. However, such disagreements are usually handled internally, within the party, and it is rare for an MP of Senator to publicly ‘break ranks’, or vote differently to their party colleagues in the parliament.

There are arguments both for and against the extent to which our democratic system relies on political parties. It could be said that strong party discipline prevents a more vibrant democracy where a diverse range of views and positions are advocated. It also creates a system where individuals are routinely required to vote in a way which compromises their own views. On the other hand, without the formal disciple of political parties, which expect their members to vote along ‘party lines’, our parliament would be made up of a large collection of individuals with different perspectives and intentions. Forming any kind of government in such conditions would be impossible and efforts to pass new laws would be fraught with difficulty.