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History of political parties in Australia

As one of the world's oldest continuous democracies, Australia has a long tradition of forming and supporting political parties. While today Australia has two major and several minor political parties, many other parties have played a role in the history of the federal Parliament.

Early years

In 1901, the first Australian Government was formed by the Protectionist Party. They believed Australia needed tariffs (taxes) on goods imported into the country, to protect and develop Australian industry and provide jobs.

In the first decade after federation, the major parties in the federal Parliament were the Protectionist Party, the Free Trade Party and the Australian Labor Party (until 1912, spelt as 'Labour'). In contrast to the Protectionist Party, the Free Trade Party believed Australia needed to get rid of tariffs which restricted free trade. They argued free trade would give everyone the chance to share in the nation's wealth.

The Australian Labor Party

The Australian Labor Party (ALP) is the oldest Australian political party and one of the first labour parties in the world. It was founded before federation and grew out of the trade union movement.  During the second half of the 19th century in colonial Australia, trade unions had formed to represent workers and protect their rights. By the 1890s, Australia faced an economic depression. Trade union leaders decided they needed a political party to have candidates elected to colonial parliaments and advance their ideas.

The ALP began in Queensland as the Workers' Political Association and in NSW as the Labor Electoral League. Barcaldine in Queensland is usually regarded as the birthplace of the party. It was the focus of the 1891 shearers' strikes, in which shearers demonstrated against what they saw as threats to their pay and working conditions.

By 1893, the ALP had members in all colonial parliaments, except Tasmania and Western Australia. It formed its first government in Queensland in 1899. Following federation, the ALP won seats in the March 1901 federal election for the first Australian Parliament. At the 1910 federal election, it became the first party in Australia to win a majority in either house of the Australian Parliament.

ALP election poster circa 1928 +

ALP election poster circa 1928

National Library of Australia,

Chris Watson was Australia's first ALP Prime Minister, serving for less than four months in 1904 as leader of a minority government. Bob Hawke is the ALP's longest-serving Prime Minister, holding the position from 1983 to 1991.

In an address to the New South Wales ALP State Conference in 1949, Ben Chifley, who was Australia's 16th Prime Minister, described the aims of the ALP: 'I try to think of the Labour movement, not as putting an extra sixpence into somebody's pocket, or making somebody Prime Minister or Premier, but as a movement bringing something better to the people, better standards of living, greater happiness to the mass of the people. We have a great objective – the light on the hill – which we aim to reach by working for the betterment of mankind not only here but anywhere we may give a helping hand.'

Today's ALP National Platform, or statement of ideals, says 'In the 21st century, we still strive to create a fair, prosperous Australia where everyone has opportunity and nobody is left out or left behind'. The ALP believes where needed, the government should step in and take action to create such a society. This action might include providing social services or passing laws.

The Nationals

The Nationals, originally called the Australian Country Party, is Australia's second-oldest political party. Founded in 1920, The Nationals grew out of farmers' organisations and formed to support the farmers of the new nation. Since its beginnings, the party has argued that if regional Australia is prosperous then the nation itself will prosper. However, it sees itself as not simply a 'farmer's party' but one which looks after the interests of all rural and regional Australians. According to the party, it has always fought to give people in regional areas the same access to services – such as health, education, transport and telecommunications – as people in cities.

Nationals for a safe future +

Courtesy of The Nationals

From its earliest days, The Nationals believed the best way to get their ideas into law was to partner with a similar political party, while keeping their own identity. In 1923, The Nationals joined with the Nationalist Party (which later became the United Australia Party and then the Liberal Party) to form a coalition. 

This partnership has lasted, with some short breaks, to the current day. Despite its status as a minor, or small, party, The Nationals has had a say in government decisions affecting the nation. When the Coalition has been in government, the Prime Minister has traditionally been drawn from the Liberal Party and the Deputy Prime Minister from The Nationals, with several Nationals being appointed as ministers.

The Liberal Party of Australia

Photo of Robert Menzies +

Robert Menzies, founder of the Liberal Party of Australia, at (Old) Parliament House, Canberra

Photographer Max Dupain; State Library of New South Wales, Mitchell Library, PXD 720 / 17

The Liberal Party of Australia was formed in 1944, following a meeting of people representing several political organisations opposed to the ALP. The meeting was called by Robert Menzies, who was then the Leader of the Opposition and the head of the United Australia Party.

Those at the meeting had a common goal—to develop a new political party to focus on individual freedom and personal choice. The party would also champion the cause of middle-class Australians who Menzies referred to as the 'forgotten people', such as office workers, shopkeepers, small business owners and farmers. The word 'liberal' was used in the title, as a link to progressive 19th century ideas on equality and free enterprise, which means giving private businesses the freedom to operate with minimal government regulation or control. The plan was to build a political party that opposed too much government control of the economy and society.

Menzies later wrote '[T]he basic philosophy of Australian Liberalism is that the prime duty of government is to encourage enterprise, to provide a climate favourable to its growth, to remember that it is the individual whose energies produce progress, and that all social benefits derive from his efforts.'

Today, the party continues to support free enterprise on the basis it creates both a prosperous economy and opportunities for the individual. According to the party's statement of beliefs, 'businesses and individuals – not government – are the true creators of wealth and employment'. To this end, the party works 'towards a lean government that minimises interference in our daily lives' and encourages 'wealth so that all may enjoy the highest possible standards of living, health, education and social justice'.

In 1949, the Liberal Party joined in a coalition with The Nationals (then known as the Australian Country Party) and first formed government. Federally, this partnership is known as the Coalition and has spent more time in office than any other political party or team.

Robert Menzies was the first Liberal Prime Minister. He also holds the record as Australia's longest-serving Prime Minister, holding the position from 1939 to 1941 (as the head of the United Australia Party) and from 1949 to 1966 (as the head of the Liberal Party).

Minor parties

The Australian Greens

Australian Greens election poster +

Australian Greens election poster 

Courtesy of the Australian Greens

The Australian Greens grew out of various environmental movements, including the United Tasmania Group (formed in 1972, it  was possibly the world's first Greens party) and the 1983 protest against the attempt to dam Tasmania's Franklin River. In the following years, Greens parties developed in several Australian states. In 1992, these parties decided to unite to form the Australian Greens, with the first member voted into the House of Representatives at a federal election in 2010.

Although they started as a party with an environment agenda, the Australian Greens have developed ideas about all aspects of Australian society and the way we should be governed. On its website, the party says it speaks 'on behalf of others who wouldn't otherwise get much of a say inside parliament: children, refugees, students, individuals and families living in poverty'. The Greens say they want to ensure future generations of Australians have clean air, water and soil, and champion 'integrity, decency and fairness' in all aspects of society.

Other minor parties

Representatives from other minor parties have been voted in and out of Parliament. These include the Australian Democrats, Nick Xenophon Team, Pauline Hanson's One Nation, Family First, Democratic Labour Party, Katter's Australian Party, Palmer United Party, Liberal Democrats and the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party. As these parties have had a smaller base of support among voters, they have not always maintained the unbroken presence in the federal Parliament other political parties have.