To any casual British onlooker following the Australian election recently, one of the strange things they might have noticed is that the battle was often described as Labour versus something called "The Coalition", with Liberal leader Tony Abbot often described as its leader. Given that Labour (or as the Australians inexplicably spell it, Labor - a misspelling solely reserved for the political party) were in government before the election, it surely seemed strange to mention a coalition? Wasn't the Australian system very similar to the UK, except with the Conservatives called the Liberals?
The fact is that in Australia, an electoral system that allows for ranked preferences means that the two pre-eminent centre-right political parties (the United Australia Party and the Country Party originally, and their successors the Liberal Party of Australia and the Nationals) have been in near-permanent political alliance since the Second World War. In short, the Nationals tend to stand in rural seats where the ALP are less attractive, and the ALP stand in the urban and suburban seats that largely have never heard of the Nationals. The ability to rank preferences means that the parties are free to stand candidates against each other - and remarkably, campaigning against each other has rarely done serious damage to the Coalition.
With the present speculation that the Conservatives might offer certain Liberal Democrats a non-compete, or the government contesting the election on some sort of joint coalition ticket, the Australian model looks intriguing. If the AV referendum produces a positive result (which for the moment this blog hopes it does not), could our coalition adopt a similar approach to the Liberal/National alliance? It certainly has its attractions - the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats would be free to promote an exchange of second preferences and defend the governments record whilst also being able to compete with - and campaign against - each other. A coalition electoral arrangement without the divisive need for a carve-up of the constituencies.
This arrangement holds extra attractions for those unionists who like me are integrationist but also sadly realistic. This is because an extra facet of the Coalition in Australia offers a potential solution to the 'party of the whole nation' crisis of the Conservatives. For the Coalition is not formed of two parties but - technically speaking - of five. In addition to the Liberals and the National Party of Australia there are the merged parties (the Liberal National Party of Queensland and the Country Liberal Party in the Northern Territory) and the National Party of Western Australia - a party that shares a brand with the national National Party but maintains a separate structure and identity in accordance with the particularist tendencies of that state (Western Australia actually voted Yes in a widely-ignored secession referendum in the 1930's.
This arrangement demonstrates that a unionist centre-right Coalition in the UK could more comfortably include having separate parties in Northern Ireland and even Scotland than the current setup because they could more naturally remain part of an overall electoral alliance - whereas under FPTP such an alliance would be highly uncommon and thus much more of a defining feature and talking point. Such an arrangement could even allow more than one regional party to compete for it - allowing a liberal UUP to swap preferences with a pro-coalition Alliance, to draw an example whose realism is obviously not to be taken too seriously bu serves well as an illustration.
Could there be an opportunity for unionism - not to mention liberal conservatism and orange-liberalism - in an electoral system that allowed for and even encouraged the formation of such an alliance? In my view, it could allow for a more dynamic political centre-right than this country has seen in recent decades, as well as offering an opportunity for more internal debate, competition and dialogue without the inevitable accusations of splits and divisions that arise when such things occur within a first-past-the-post political party. But I'm no expert - there could be some key aspect of the Australian system I'm missing, or any number of grievous errors this humble politcal dilettante has overlooked. Still, it is certainly food for thought.