On Tuesday and Friday nights one of my possible routes home takes me past a sports field where people dressed in medieval armour belt each other with swords. It’s not something that has ever really appealed to me, and I’ve never bothered to go and watch, but it always makes me smile to see so many people (because the numbers are often rather large) being out and active and doing something that gives them pleasure and harms neither other people nor the planet.
I have friends who are very much into similar activities, and I gather from them that the Melbourne medieval scene contains a number of such groups. By far the largest is the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) who fight with wooden weapons. However, there are a number of smaller organisations that prefer more authentic weapons such that they are collectively referred to as the “metal groups”, of which the only one whose name I can remember is the New Varangian Guard.
In hearing about the politics of the medievalist scene it has always struck me that there is a replication of a pattern one can see in many other places. The most obvious of these is amongst Christian churches (at least if one removes the complicating factor of the Eastern Orthodox Churches). Here the Catholic Church is the equivalent of the SCA, while Lutherans, Calvinists, Methodists, Presbyterian and at least arguably Anglicans are like the metal groups – they all agree they have far more in common with each other than with the largest grouping, and sometimes discuss the merits of reunification, but generally maintain their own identities.
A similar pattern could be seen amongst Marxist organisations in Australia, at least until the Communist Party – who played the SCA/Catholic role compared to the numerous Trotskyite partylets – dissolved themselves. We saw replicas at the 1998 Constitutional Convention amongst those supporting both the Monarch and the Republic.
Of course most Christians don’t really make a choice as to whether they believe in transubstantiation and apostolic succession, they inherit their side without much questioning from their parents. Nevertheless, the common format is probably not all that surprising. When one group has a dominant position it is to be expected that those who prize free thought over orthodoxy to the extent that they break away will contain the sort of people who will be inclined to break from the new orthodoxy and establish multiple smaller groups. Meanwhile there will usually be enough people who prefer the enveloping warmth and tradition of the largest group to keep it as large, if not larger than all the break aways combined.
I intend no value judgements in saying this as to the merits of the different groups in the above paragraph.
The reason this interests me is that I suspect we are increasingly seeing something similar on the right of Australian politics. Here the Liberal Party (along with the Nationals) are analogous to the Catholic Church, the SCA and the Communist Party. And yes I did enjoy writing that sentence for the horror it must have caused the ghost of Robert Menzies, amongst others.
Standing in for the metal groups, protestants and Trotskyites we have the Christian Democrats, Family First, One Nation, Katter’s Australia Party, Clive Palmer, the Shooters, The Shooters and Fishers etc etc. (I’d exempt the DLP from this, as their origins are so different, but pretty much every other party of the right belongs in the mix).
No doubt some of the activists in these parties see a valuable role for a small ginger group and have no ambitions beyond a couple of spots in the Senate. However, I think most have larger goals, and anticipate that they will one day sweep both the voters and members of most of these other parties to create something that can rival, if not replace, the Coalition. Certainly Clive Palmer believes this, with his ambition to be Prime Minister, and one imagines John Bjelkepeterson’s decision to join him reflects a hope that something along these lines may happen.
I think that hope is forlorn. I would hardly be Robinson Crusoe in that, but most people reaching that conclusion would probably think it because they see the Liberal/Nationals as far too strong to be brought down by these puny forces. As I have argued before (and intend to defend in more depth soon), I think the Coalition are much weaker and more vulnerable in the medium term than most people do. I think what will prevent any of these parties becoming a substantial and long-lasting force is the centrifugal nature of their membership. If you draw your members from people who have changed party allegiance once there is a pretty high chance many of them will change again. Given how many of the people in these groups were at one time aligned with One Nation, after having had some loyalty to the coalition and possibly before shifting again that chance is further increased.
The career of Aidan McLindon is perhaps the supreme illustration of this. Elected as an LNP state MP he resigned from the party to become and Independent before founding the Queensland Party. He then joined Katter’s mob, running for them as an incumbant and becoming the party’s national director. A month ago he resigned from KAP and a couple of days ago announced he would be organising the campaign of Family First in Victoria. The idea that any glue on Earth can be found to bind people like this together into a single political force borders on the absurd.
In a preferential system the existence of multiple small parties is not necessarily fatal. Indeed under some circumstances it can be a strength. However, while it may assist in electing a senator, it is hard to see how a coalition of numerous such micro parties could ever convince the Australian public to put it anywhere near government.
As long as the Liberals remain a largely united and cohesive force that doesn’t matter. But if their own problems end up seeing them more like the Communist Party of Australia than the Catholic Church or the SCA this will create some very interesting questions about what will fill the vacuum.