NSW election 2023
John Howard is right to describe the NSW election result as a “conventional change of government”. An old and disfigured government was tossed out and the other side given a go. It’s common when a government’s been in power for a decade or more. But don’t let this convince you nothing’s changed about the way we vote.
What’s happening is that the longstanding two-party system of government is breaking down before our eyes. Years of bad behaviour by the Coalition and Labor are leading more people to vote for minor parties and independents.
NSW Premier Chris Minns celebrates with his wife Anna after Labor’s victory on Saturday, but it looks like his party will fall short of majority government.Credit:Janie Barrett
This means it’s become rare for any government, state or federal, to be elected with a huge majority. Majorities now tend to be narrow, and minority governments are common, particularly at state level.
The big two are always telling us a “hung parliament” would be a terrible thing, causing “chaos and confusion”. Not true. They say this because it would be a terrible thing for them, requiring them to do deals with people they hate, to get the numbers to govern.
The “crossbenchers” usually drive a hard bargain. NSW’s four-year, fixed-date elections were forced on Liberal premier Nick Greiner in 1991 by three independents. Julia Gillard’s short-lived carbon tax was forced on her by the Greens, when she fell short of a majority in 2010.
So weaker governments are bad for the major parties, but good for democracy and voters, who get more to choose from.
Senator David Pocock with teal independent MPs (from left) Monique Ryan, Kylea Tink, Kate Chaney, Zoe Daniels and Sophie Scamps.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
Why is any of this the business of an economics writer? Because the nature of competition between a few big players in a market – “oligopoly” – is a subject economists study. And two-party government has a lot in common with a market dominated by two huge companies – a duopoly.
But first, a closer look at the latest election. The “landslide” to Labor is looking a fair bit less than it looked on Saturday night. Chris Minns hasn’t yet secured a majority, and if he does, it will be narrow. Why? Because so many people are voting for minor parties and independents. At this stage in the counting, 28 per cent of voters spurned the big two. This compares with almost 32 per cent at the federal election last May, where the big swing away from the Liberals gave Labor just a narrow majority.
In NSW, the Greens look to have retained their three seats in the lower house, with independents looking sure of eight seats, and probably more. One of the new independents was backed by teal money.
An American economist named Harold Hotelling is famous for talking about a beach with two ice-cream sellers. From the swimmers’ perspective, the best place for them would be one at the quarter-mark and the other at the three-quarter mark. This would minimise the distance anyone had to walk to get a cone.
Illustration by Simon LetchCredit:
But Hotelling figured that the two would end up back-to-back at the centre of the beach. Why? Because that was the way each could ensure the other got no more than half the “market share”.
The social psychologist Hugh Mackay says that the key to competition is to focus on the customer, not your competitor. That’s just what oligopolists and our political duopolists don’t do.
If there’s one thing most people don’t understand about politics it’s the way each big party obsesses about what the other side’s doing, and how it will react to what they do.
It was this that caused Anthony Albanese to go to last year’s election promising to do nothing that could offend anyone much. Promise to make needed but controversial changes and the other side launches a scare campaign. It’s only when politicians tell us how bad the other side’s policies would be that we’re tempted to believe them.
Anthony Albanese went to last year’s federal election not promising much.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
The two sides are always trying to “wedge” each other by announcing a bad but popular policy and hoping the other side will be silly enough to oppose it.
Trouble is, they rarely fall for it. They sidestep the wedge by supporting the policy. Which means both sides end up agreeing to do bad things. This is why Albanese agreed to the AUKUS pact sight unseen and, earlier, to stick with the stage three tax cut that’s biased against Labor voters.
This is where the minor parties come in, particularly those sharing the balance of power in the Senate. They can use their power to stop, or at least tone down, the bad policies the government of the day foolishly locked itself into.
Consider this. Last week Climate Change Minister Chris Bowen loudly vowed not to negotiate with the Greens over his “safeguard mechanism”. But by Monday, wiser heads had prevailed, and a deal was done, making the mechanism much more effective.
The big two each offer voters a policy package-deal not very different to the other one’s. Whichever package you pick will include policies you don’t like. But the minor party and independent “new entrants” to the political market give consumers a wider choice by forcing the big guys to “unbundle” their packages.
Sounds more like democracy’s supposed to be.
Ross Gittins unpacks the economy in an exclusive subscriber-only newsletter every Tuesday evening. Sign up to receive it here.
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