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Australian Political Parties

The political parties are more clubs than civic institutions. They have a particular culture which contributes to the disengagement, not only from Asian Australian populations [8.4 percent of the population], but entire very large groups of Australians of different education and economic backgrounds.

Three political parties dominate the center of the Australian political spectrum. The Liberal Party (LP), nominally representing urban business interests, and its smaller coalition partner, The Nationals [former Country Party], nominally representing rural interests, are the more conservative parties. The Australian Labor Party (ALP) nominally represents workers, trade unions, and left-of-center groups. While the ALP, founded by labor unions, traditionally had been moderately socialist in its policies and approaches to social issues, today it is best described as a social democratic party.

All political groups are tied by tradition to welfare programs. Over the last decade, Australia has increased welfare payments to families while imposing obligations on those receiving unemployment benefits and disability pensions. There is strong bipartisan sentiment on many international issues, including Australia's commitment to its alliance with the United States.

The two-party system that has dominated most of the twentieth century emerged in the decade after Federation. The old Free Trade and Protectionist parties had lost the issue that divided them with the establishment of the Federal Parliament and its protectionist programs, and gradually the division that emerged was between Labor and non-Labor conservative parties. The conservative Liberal Reform Party and the first Progressive Party (1901-07) of the first decade of the twentieth century was followed in turn by the National Party (1917-32) which evolved with the split of the Labor governments over conscription, their leaders and some other members joining with the former conservative opposition.

It was replaced by the United Australia Party in the 1930s and finally (in the 1940s) by the modern Liberal Party. The conservative party, under its various names, was allied almost from the beginning with the second Progressive Party which had emerged in 1915 and which, by 1925, had evolved into the Country (now National) Party. Similarly, at various times after the 1917 spilt the Labor Party again fractured from time to time, the most notable periods being during and after the 1930-32 Lang Government in NSW and in the 1950s-70s when the anti-communist Democratic Labor Party (DLP) emerged.

The retirement of Liberal Party Prime Minister Robert Menzies in 1966 changed the political scene. His successors, Harold Holt (whose sudden death by drowning shocked the nation in 1967), John Gorton and William McMahon, faced increasing discontent and a reviving Labor Party under the leadership of Gough Whitlam. Whitlam won the 1972 election, instituting a program of reform which produced both radical change and reaction. The process of centralisation and relegation of State powers to Federal control also accelerated. After Whitlam's controversial dismissal in 1975 the new Federal Liberal-National Party government led by Malcolm Fraser only marginally reversed this trend. In 1983. Bob Hawke's Labor Government won power and despite policies 'consensus' and 'new Federalism' and economic deregulation, tensions and funding concerns between state and Commonwealth government continued.

This period also saw and increased pubic cynicism about politics and government, partly driven by the mass media and mainly sourced beyond state politics. President Nixon's resignation, Vietnam and the American alliance, Prime Minister Holt's death, the Whitlam controversies and dismissal, reaction to Bjelke-Petersen's premiership in Queensland, and general social disillusionment with social and environmental problems all contributed to the attitudinal change. In addition, in NSW, media and rumour mills were increasingly focussed on stories of organised crime and police and political corruption, and problems with criminal justice and prisons.

Popular cynicism about politics and politicians continues to be a feature of Australian attitudes despite the continued success of the democratic system. Reaction was highlighted by the rise of anti-immigration parties, changes in voting patterns, and the increase in Independents in lower houses. In upper houses the increase in minor parties also suggested a more discriminating use of the ballot by voters as well as some disenchantment with the major political parties. On the other hand, concern that significant numbers of citizens, especially youth, may be tending to withdraw from participation, and that this could undermine the institutions of democracy themselves, led in late 1990s to Civics and Citizenship Education programs being implemented throughout Australia to improve understanding of civic institutions and encourage informed, active, participative citizenship.

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