In a Westminster parliamentary democracy, such as Australia, organised political parties are seen as fulfilling a number of important functions.
- Parties draw together people who have similar political philosophies and ideas. Whilst these people may not agree on all matters (hence the existence of factions and “tendencies”), parties are a means by which people of broadly similar interests can meet, organise and campaign.
- Parties are the chief means by which political power is exercised in Australia. All Federal, State and Territory governments are composed of people who belong to political parties. Electors usually vote for parties, rather than for individual candidates.
- Parties select candidates to contest elections for public office. This process is known as pre-selection. The choice offered to voters is thus the choice offered by parties. This is especially important in safe seats where one party consistently wins. Since the parties provide the candidates for election, it follows that parties also provide the nation’s political leaders.
- In the parliamentary arena, political parties provide the government and opposition. The party or parties which wins a majority of seats in the lower house, the House of Representatives, forms the government. The party or parties which win the second largest number of seats becomes the Opposition. Much of the political debate is defined in government versus opposition terms.
- In government and opposition, political parties provide organisational support. The party machine, also known as the extra-parliamentary wing of the party, is responsible for organising and financing election campaigns, developing policies and recruiting members. The organisational support of political parties is vital to the stability and viability of a party’s parliamentary members.
- Parties articulate philosophies and develop policies. All parties have methods of debating issues and formulating policies to be presented to the electorate during election campaigns. In government or opposition, parties utilise these policy-making processes to determine their attitude to legislation and issues of the day.
- Parties are an avenue for community groups to influence the decision-making process. Many pressure groups have close links with political parties, such as trade unions with the ALP, business groups with the Liberal Party, or farming organisations with the National Party. Contact and access to the organisational and parliamentary wings is considered vital by groups aiming to influence the development or implementation of public policy.
- Parties are one of the main avenues for political debate and discussion in the community. Since most members of parliament are members of political parties, it follows that parliamentary debate, questioning and scrutiny is focused around their interests and preferences.
- Parties are ultimately responsible for the structure of the machinery of government. The organisation of the Public Service and statutory authorities lies in the hands of the government of the day. In practice, parties can make appointments to the public sector from the ranks of their members and supporters.
Note: An interesting feature of Australian political life since the late 1990s has been the decline in support for the major political parties. At the 1998 Federal Election, 20.3% of electors cast their first preference for someone other than Labor, Liberal or National Party candidates. Recent years have also seen the rise of new political parties, such as Pauline Hanson’s One Nation and the Australian Greens.
Nevertheless, the functions of political parties remain unchanged. The expectations of voters, reflected in more volatile voting habits, reinforces the important role political parties have to play in the Australian democratic system.