An Idiot’s Guide to Australia’s Major Political Parties

Words by: Freya Hall

I know what you’re thinking: “Politics is complicated and boring… especially Australian politics” – and I’m not here to convince you otherwise.

My aim is merely to provide you with sufficient knowledge to allow you to convincingly feign your way through conversations at work luncheons, impress (or repel) your new-age, culturally informed Tinder date, and maybe, if you’re lucky, pass that ‘Intro to Pols’ unit you’re doing.

So here you have it: the low down on the good, the bad, and the ugly of Australian politics – you decide which is which.



What is the Australian Labor Party?

The Australian Labor Party, also known as the ALP or Labor, began as a political affiliate of the trade union movement advocating for improved working and living conditions for the blue-collar, ‘working class’ population.

The ALP had its first members elected to Federal Parliament in 1901, and remains Australia’s oldest and largest political party.

Where does the ALP fall on the political spectrum?

Traditionally speaking the ALP is considered to be a ‘left-wing’, social democratic party that promotes ‘big government’ and social justice.

Therefore, ALP affiliates tend to agree that governmental intervention is justified where it can improve societal outcomes. According to this belief, government can and should be used to ensure that all members of society receive a basic income; affordable, quality housing, and access to education and health services, for example.

Although the ALP National Platform still claims that the party is ‘socialist’, it is perhaps more accurate to refer to the current manifestation of the party as ‘centre-left’. This is because over recent decades the party has increasingly adopted a larger number of centralist, capitalist, and conservative policies.

For example, during the 1980s and 1990s Prime Ministers Hawke and Keating embraced elements of economic rationalism (a concept diametrically opposed to socialism) by privatising Qantas, floating the dollar, and deregulating the finance industry.

However, the core, socialist principles of the ALP haven’t completely dissipated from the party ethos. For example, Bill Shorten, the current ALP Leader of the Opposition, recently introduced a bill to establish same-sex marriage rights in Federal Parliament. Although this political statement was well overdue it reflected the ALP’s traditional focus on social justice and equality before the law.

Another example was the abolition of WorkChoices by former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. This action reiterated the ALP’s traditional concern with upholding workers’ rights and a cautiousness of concentrating too much power in the hands of employers.

Why is Labor spelled incorrectly? 

If my high school politics teacher taught me anything, it was to NEVER spell the word ‘Labor’ in ‘Labor Party’ with a ‘u’. This is an unforgivable faux pas and no one in the political community will dare look you in the eye again.

Not only will misspelling Labor bring shame to your family but everyone will know your dirty little secret: you really don’t give a shit about politics.

So why is it spelled this way? Basically, it was felt that the values and beliefs of the early Australian labour movement were more aligned with the American, rather than British, labour movements and so the American spelling was adopted. Kapeesh?


What is the Liberal Party?

The Liberal Party was formed by Robert Menzies in 1944 and has spent more time in Federal Government than any other Australian political party. However, the Liberal Party rarely obtains enough votes to win an election in their own right and traditionally has relied upon forming a coalition government in order to govern.

What is ‘the Coalition’?

I have found that many people refer to the Liberal Party when they actually mean the Coalition, and vice versa. If you really want to make enemies, here is a hot tip: correct people when they make this mistake.

‘The Coalition’, in the Australian context, refers to a formal alliance that exists between broadly centre-right political parties. The partners in this alliance include the Liberal Party, the National Party, the Country Liberal Party, and the Liberal National Party. However, the extent to which these parties are in alliance differs at State, Territory and Federal levels.

Notably, at the Federal level, the Liberal Party leader usually serves as Prime Minister, and the National Party leader as Deputy Prime Minister – as is currently the case with Tony Abbott and Warren Truss.

Where does the Liberal Party fall on the political spectrum?

Generally speaking, the Liberal Party is a ‘centre-right’ political party that pursues conservative economic and social policies. In particular, the Liberal Party is concerned with promoting free enterprise and individual liberties.

Economic liberalism aims to reward people according to their effort and creativity. Therefore, the Liberal Party does not support higher rates of tax for higher earners because it views this process as penalising individuals and companies for being successful.

Liberals contend that market competition will result in the best outcomes for consumers because it purportedly facilitates access to the best quality products for the lowest prices. Many Liberals also contend, somewhat controversially, that this economic model also promotes social welfare because benefits ‘trickle down’ to the more disadvantaged in the community through job creation, for example.

By comparison, from a socialist or ‘left-wing’ point of view, practices such as these entrench wealth gaps by ensuring ‘the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer’.

The Liberal Party is also renowned for being ‘conservative’, which in this context means that the party promotes the retention of traditional social institutions. However, the extent to which social conservatism has influenced Liberal policies has waxed and waned over time.

For example, during the Fraser years many of the ‘left-wing’ social policies of the Whitlam government were continued and extended: immigration was expanded and multiculturalism was actively encouraged.

However, conservative sentiments ferociously resurfaced with the election of a walking Arch Liberal caricature: the current Prime Minister, Tony Abbott. Without delving into the excruciating detail of all of his Prince Phillip worthy gaffs, it is sufficient to note that he is widely regarded as being ‘stuck in the 1950s’, especially when it comes to his opinions on marriage equality, sexism, and the monarchy.

Why is it called the ‘Liberal Party’ if their policies aren’t ‘liberal’?

I know it is confusing but the Liberal Party is not liberal… well not in the everyday sense of the word at least.

By definition ‘a liberal’ is someone who is free from prejudice, bigotry, and who is willing to respect or accept behaviours or opinions different from his or her own. Now, I don’t want to sound biased, but the Liberal Party does not have the best track record when it comes to being accepting or open minded.

So how did the party get its name then? The name ‘Liberal Party’ was chosen in 1944 deliberately for its associations with the progressive nineteenth century free enterprise movement.

Therefore, ‘Liberal’ in this context refers primarily to economic liberalism, which advocates the personal freedom of the individual, and therefore that private actors should be able to interact in open economic competition without governmental sanctions.



What is the Australian Greens?

The Australian Greens, commonly referred to as ‘the Greens’, is an Australian political party that was formally launched at a Federal level in 1992, although state-based Greens parties had existed for decades prior to this.

Are the Greens a ‘major’ political party?

Traditionally, the Greens have held the majority of their seats in the ‘upper houses’ of parliament – at Federal level this is known as the Senate. When the Greens hold the ‘balance of power’ in the Senate, they can be very influential.

Minor parties usually hold the balance of power when the Government does not hold a majority of seats in the upper house. This means that the Government will have to compromise or liaise with the minor party seat holders in order to have their bills passed through the house and become legislation.

Notably, following the 2010 Federal election, the Greens won a seat in the Federal House of Representatives. Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard only retained power by signing confidence and supply agreements with the Greens member, as well as three other independent members.

Given that the Greens Party have begun to win an increasing number of seats in both the lower and upper houses of Federal and State parliaments, I thought that it was apt I include them in this article.

Where do the Greens fall on the political spectrum?

The Greens are generally considered to be a more ‘left- wing’ party than the ALP, and place great emphasis on achieving ecological sustainability, grassroots’ participatory democracy, social justice, and peace and non-violence.

Some of the Greens policies that support these aims include: an opposition to live animal export and the dredging of the Great Barrier Reef, a support of marriage equality, and a desire to introduce legislation to protect whistle-blowers and stronger freedom of information laws.




What is the National Party of Australia?

The National Party of Australia, more commonly referred to as ‘the Nationals’ and previously known as ‘The Country Party’, is an Australian political party that traditionally represents rural voters.

Are the Nationals a ‘major’ party?

Although the Nationals are technically a ‘minor party’ whose vote is in decline, they have been included in this analysis due to their sustained popularity in rural constituencies and their position within the Coalition Government (see above).

Where do the Nationals fall on the political spectrum?

The Nationals are a self-proclaimed ‘conservative’ party’ that sit on the right of the political spectrum. If I may be so bold as to make a sweeping generalisation, the Nationals are very similar in ideology to the Liberals, except that the Nationals place a far greater focus on agriculture.

The objects of the National Party, as espoused within the current version of their constitution, include:

  • To promote a society based on Christian ethics and loyalty to the Crown;
  • To promote the defence and security of the Nation and support for its allies;
  • To promote the maintenance of democracy, liberty, incentive, individual enterprise and the pursuit of excellence;
  • To ensure a restriction on the size of government and levels of taxation to the minimum required to achieve efficient administration with the least possible intrusion into the lives of individuals, industry and commerce.

There, done! Don’t you feel cooler already?

No! What about the Palmer United Party, what about the Australian Sex Party, what about…Pauline Hanson!!!!??? Believe me, I hear you.

I may consider writing a follow-up article that will explore some of Australia’s more niche, obscure, and even downright frightening political parties… that is if I don’t become too jaded in the meantime.

Until then, you’re on your own.