Author: Ren Springlea (they/them)
Note: This article reflects my views and my experiences outside of work. This article does not reflect the views of my employer (Animal Ask). Animal Ask is not affiliated with any political party, including the ones discussed in this article.
Acknowledgements: Thank you very much to Michael Dello-Iacovo and Louise Pfeiffer for proofreading this article and providing helpful suggestions. I'm also grateful to the AJP National Board of Directors for useful suggestions and permission to publish this content.
Summary of key points
- Minor political parties are one way to advocate for policy change. This is an alternative to traditional interest group lobbying, and it may be underexplored in effective altruism.
- Minor political parties can have policy influence well beyond their level of formal electoral success.
- Adapting this strategy to new settings is feasible (particularly when considering all levels of government) but would require a sound understanding of the political context.
In animal advocacy and other cause areas, a typical approach to legislative advocacy is to start an organisation and then lobby government officials. The goal of this article is to shine light on another, complementary strategy: starting, or working with, minor political parties (also called niche parties). I offer some key points from the academic literature, and I illustrate these points using the example of a recent election campaign in which I participated in Australia.
I suspect that this avenue for political advocacy might be underexplored in the effective animal advocacy community. While most effective altruists live in the US and the UK , the most successful animal parties are in Australia and continental Europe. As such, this article is mostly written based on my own experience in Australia and academic literature from Europe, where minor political parties for animals have been most successful.
There have been some discussions on party politics in the effective altruism community, many of which have focused on major parties (e.g. [2–6] plus a post from today). I seek to add to this conversation by emphasising the avenue of minor parties that focus on a narrow cause area. This article centres on animal advocacy, although this strategy may also be applicable to other cause areas. I also limit my discussion to democratic countries. Since I intend to simply suggest and reflect on this strategy, this article is less rigorous than my typical research.
Interest groups vs minor political parties
When advocating for animals, is the best strategy to operate as a traditional interest group and work with elected officials? Or is it better to start (or join) a minor political party and try to secure policies from within the political system?
As a baseline, consider traditional interest groups. As far as I'm aware, this is the main strategy used by the effective animal advocacy community to pursue legislative change. To give two examples, Crustacean Compassion and Aquatic Life Institute have each recently pursued campaigns that involved lobbying government officials on behalf of animals. The probability of success of lobbying is notoriously difficult to measure . But everyone agrees that lobbying can be effective for securing policies , and this is supported by experimental studies in this area [e.g. 9,10].
In comparison, consider political parties formed to advocate for animals ('animal parties'). The electoral success of animal parties is generally low, and it will remain low for the foreseeable future. This is because the number of seats that a political party can win is limited by the public support for that party - their electoral success is tied to public opinion. Harris  argues that it's a good idea for animal advocacy to find ways to bypass public opinion. This is the biggest weakness of animal parties.
However, animal parties can exercise power well beyond their formal electoral success. Animal parties can achieve this by generating and leveraging political capital to secure policy concessions, and influencing the agenda of policy discussions.
Minor parties, animals, and academic research
I'll start with a brief description of animal parties and the academic literature on using minor parties to achieve policy change.
Geographically, most animal parties are found in Australia and Europe. Abbey  identifies animal parties in Australia, Belgium, Canada, Cyprus, Denmark, England, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the US, and Turkey. These parties have won elected representation in at least Australia, the Netherlands, Portugal, and the European Parliament [12,13].
Update 11/11/2022: There's now a Wikipedia article where you can see a list and map of animal parties around the world.
Although I won't give a detailed summary here, there is a small academic literature on animal parties, exploring topics such as these parties' histories, policy platforms, demographics, and levels of success [12–15]. Michael Dello-Iacovo also pointed out to me that New Zealand has a nascent animal party.
Turning to academic research more broadly, Farrer  has studied the question of when to form an interest group versus a political party. Farrer proposes a theoretical model and tests it using empirical data from the environmental movement. Farrer's model begins with the assumption that advocates are policy-motivated and are simply searching for the best way to pursue their policies. In contrast, mainstream politicians are motivated to win and keep office. Thus, under Farrer's model, advocates choose the strategy that sends the strongest electoral threat to politicians. This threat can be sent by forming a party or by forming an interest group (or by some other strategy, such as direct action). The best option depends on institutional conditions, as institutions govern both how costly it is for advocates to pick a particular strategy and how costly it is for mainstream politicians to respond to that strategy.
Farrer makes two points that are particularly illuminating. Firstly, the formation of interest groups and the formation of political parties are substitutable strategies. In other words, these are both potential pathways to the goal of policy influence. Secondly, the best strategy depends on the context, including the type of political system.
An illustration: Lessons from the Animal Justice Party in the 2022 South Australian election
Now, I'll discuss how animal parties can exercise power even with low levels of electoral success. To illustrate this discussion, I'll draw on my experiences with a recent, real-world campaign.
I was heavily involved in the campaign for the Animal Justice Party (AJP) in the 2022 state election in South Australia. The AJP is a minor political party whose main focus is animal advocacy, although the party also has policies on environmental and human issues. Across all Australian states and territories, the AJP has elected three MPs at the state level and two councillors at the local level.
In this campaign, the AJP was seeking to expand this roster by winning representation in South Australia for the first time. The campaign was run by 11 committee members and 12 candidates, with support from several hundred volunteers on election day. My role in the committee involved leading the campaign's strategy and providing research support. I also ran as a candidate in one electorate. The AJP spent around $100,000 AUD ($75,000 USD) on the election.
For context, South Australia has a Parliament consisting of two houses. The major parties are Liberal (centre-right, who were defeated) and Labor (centre-left, who won government). There are numerous minor parties, including the AJP. The lower house (House of Assembly) has 47 seats, and each seat corresponds to one single-member geographic electorate using preferential voting. In practice, lower house seats are almost always won by one of the two major parties or very popular independent candidates. The upper house (Legislative Council) has 22 seats, and 11 of these were up for election. The upper house uses proportional representation (with optional preferential voting) with the entire state as a single electorate, so these seats are won by both major and minor parties. Voting is compulsory for all eligible adult citizens.
The AJP had two goals. The first goal was to win a seat in the upper house (not successful). The second goal was to win policy concessions on behalf of animals (successful).
It's hard to win a seat
The AJP's primary goal was to win a seat in the upper house to add to the party's other seats across the country. This was the focus of the campaign. In the 22-seat upper house, controlling even one seat can represent a disproportionately high amount of political power. The government usually needs to collaborate with MPs from minor parties to pass legislation, and MPs from the upper house often form committees that can influence particular issues.
A primary vote of 8.3% (i.e. 8.3% of voters' first-preference votes) in the upper house would have guaranteed the AJP a seat. Nevertheless, since the upper house uses preferential voting, a primary vote of around 4.5% or above could have placed the party in the running to win a seat. As a historical reference, the AJP's highest vote in the many elections using proportional representation across Australia was 7.93%.
The AJP fell very far short of this goal - the party only won 1.5% of the upper house primary vote, which is even less than in the previous South Australian election. This is despite the fact that the AJP spent far more than in that previous election, and our campaign and advertising (in my opinion) was much stronger.
We have speculated why the AJP's vote was so low. The election occurred in the context of rapidly growing COVID-19 case numbers; local problems with the hospital system; flooding in other parts of Australia; and the war in Ukraine. Crudely expressed, the political mood might not have had that much room for animals this election. Francione has argued that human interests universally take interest over animal interests . Indeed, voting habits are certainly influenced by fear, anxiety, and polarisation . Similarly, there has been some tentative research into the relationship between human social conditions and animal welfare [e.g. 19,20]. In a time and place where people feel threatened, it might be that votes for animals are harder to come by.
In any case, the very low vote clearly illustrates the key weakness of minor political parties. If success is tied to public opinion, it will be difficult to win elections when the public has other priorities.
You can win policy concessions just by running
The AJP's second goal was to secure policy concessions from major parties. This took advantage of the fact that the AJP mostly cared about the upper house (in which they could conceivably win a seat), while the major parties mostly cared about the lower house (which a party must control to form government). The election uses preferential voting, in which voters rank each candidate contesting a particular lower-house seat. The use of preferential voting in the lower house is essential to the AJP's strategy - if it's not clear to you how preferential voting works, you can watch a quick explanation here.
Each party is allowed to produce 'how-to-vote' (HTV) cards, which they hand out to their voters on election day. These are small flyers advising voters on how a party would recommend that voters rank the candidates in a seat (see photo below).
An example of a How-to-Vote card for the Animal Justice Party in one electorate. These optional cards advise voters how to vote, with candidates ranked based on the preferences on the party. This benefits the other parties, so it generates political capital for the AJP.
The HTV cards represent political capital. The AJP can place one major party ahead of another on its HTV cards, and many of the AJP's voters would follow that recommendation. Voters are not required to follow the recommendations on the HTV cards, but they often do. In marginal lower-house seats, this can sometimes be the deciding factor between the two major parties in determining the winner of that seat. The major parties want to secure enough lower-house seats to form government. So, the major parties offer the minor parties policy concessions in exchange for being placed in particular positions on the HTV cards. Major parties generally only make this exchange if the minor party also has party volunteers handing out HTV cards at polling booths on election day. The AJP had several hundred volunteers doing so this election, without whom the AJP would not have been able to secure this deal.
There were 10 lower-house seats that were considered marginal. The AJP contested all 10 of these seats. Since the AJP was then allowed to produce HTV cards corresponding to these 10 seats, this generated political capital. The AJP leveraged this political capital in discussions with the major parties. The AJP offered each party a higher place on the HTV in exchange for some high-priority animal policies. The AJP struck a deal with the Labor party - which is the party that also won the election and formed government.
Note that the AJP does consider many factors when creating their HTV cards. Importantly, the party also gives weight to which parties and candidates would do the best job of representing in Parliament the interests of animals, people, and the planet. Nevertheless, the AJP's strategy of prioritising based on policy deals is an important avenue for generating political capital.
As a result, the AJP secured a series of animal policies over the next four years from the (new) government. The key policies are:
- Amending South Australia's Animal Welfare Act
- A commitment to increasing the transparency of reporting and monitoring in the state's slaughterhouses
- Investment of $500,000 AUD ($375,000 USD) into research and capacity for manufacturing plant-based proteins in South Australia
We selected these, from a large list of candidate policies, based on our analysis of the policies' expected impact. The agreement also includes a series of further policy changes, but we think many of these would have happened without the AJP's intervention (e.g. additional funding for the RSPCA, a ban on puppy farming, a review of duck hunting, transparency for animal experimentation, and others). It would be great if somebody could remind me in March 2026 to check how many of these policies were implemented.
This means that political parties can have influence well beyond their formal electoral vote. I think this might even be the most powerful pathway to change from minor political parties.
You can influence the public agenda
Beyond the main goals, it is possible to exercise power on behalf of animals simply by influencing the agenda of public discussions. This does seem to have happened during the AJP campaign. There were many public events and forums where candidates from multiple parties were invited to speak. At one such event in a particular electorate, the AJP candidate was present along with the candidates for Labor and for the Greens (the state's third strongest party, with an environmentalist and left-wing focus). At this event, the Labor candidate's discussion focused heavily on puppy breeding and environmental issues, despite these being only minor components of Labor's election platform.
This suggests that the mere presence of the AJP encouraged other candidates to discuss animal issues (and likewise for the Greens and environmental issues). Although the effects of this phenomenon are difficult to measure, it nevertheless does constitute true influence.
There is support for this idea in the academic literature. For example, researchers have found that parties often participate in 'issue competition', in which they try to bring particular issues to public attention . As another point of view, researchers hold that there are several 'faces' of power . The first face of power is to do with who wins and loses on particular issues - this might involve electoral success and policy concessions, as discussed above. The second face is to do with who can control the agenda on which those issues appear or do not appear [24–26].
Understanding the context is critical
The AJP's wins, both in the South Australian campaign and in elections interstate, are possible because of context. The system of proportional representation with preferential voting means that it's feasible to win seats in Parliament in the first place. This is particularly true in other Australian states, where the larger Parliaments mean that the quota for winning a seat is lower, and thus even more achievable. Some Australian states also use group voting tickets, which can allow minor political parties to win seats in Parliament from relatively few votes. Similarly, the system of HTV cards allows the AJP to readily generate political capital to exchange for policy concessions from the government.
The ways in which a particular local context can be used to generate and exercise political leverage - whether by winning seats, obtaining policy concessions, influencing the public agenda, or some other mechanism - should be the first consideration if you're thinking of applying the strategy of minor parties to new contexts. The methods used to generate political leverage don't need to be the same ones that we used. For example, if your elections use first-past-the-post voting, it could be more difficult for minor political parties to succeed. But perhaps there is some other unique facet of the voting system, or perhaps a different voting system at a different level of government, that could enable minor political parties to exercise influence.
Some final thoughts on applying this strategy
Clearly, to successfully secure policy victories through a minor political party, it's important to understand how to leverage the characteristics of your own political context. In South Australia, political leverage was generated through the use of How-to-Vote cards. Every country and state is different, so there will be different ways to either win elections or generate political capital through other means.
Many areas have multiple levels of politics. For example, Australia has federal, state, and local elections. The AJP contests all three types of elections, and the party adapts its strategy to the particular election at hand. I don't know how elections are run for every state or local government in the US or every country or local government in the UK. In any case, most democratic countries probably have some ways that minor parties can exercise political influence beyond their formal electoral success.
Local (council) elections may be particularly underexplored in animal advocacy. In many countries, local governments control numerous aspects of animals' lives - they regulate farms, govern some activities and markets on public land, and control the requirements on dog and cat breeders, among many other powers. In Australian local government elections, there are often many councillors (e.g. a half-dozen) being elected at once in a particular local area. So, to win these elections, a strong campaign is certainly helpful, but it is also helpful that there are many available seats relative to the number of candidates.
Another comparison between typical interest groups and minor parties is that the finances and staffing works differently. For many organisations in the effective altruism community, finances generally come from grants or public donations, and the staff are paid. In the AJP, finances come mostly from public donations (although the government does fund political parties to some extent), and the party is run by volunteers (with the exception of some paid positions in other states, where the party has electoral representation). This means that running a minor political party might not subtract from the talent and grants available to other organisations, although it might do so for public donations.
Lastly, in the AJP election discussed in this article, I was fortunate that the other people leading the campaign were familiar with effective altruist reasoning. If these things weren't true, it might have been more difficult to prioritise policies based on impact. Likewise, in the election team were some very skilled negotiators, whose skills were critical to securing agreements with other parties.
Minor political parties can be viewed as one tool available to advocates seeking to achieve policy change, along with interest group lobbying, direct action, and others. Minor political parties can exercise policy influence beyond their formal electoral success. The campaign by the Animal Justice Party in the 2022 South Australian election had some success securing policy change for animals. This avenue might be underexplored in the effective altruism community, although applying it in practice requires a sound understanding of the political context.
Edit June 2022: Some photos
Here are some photos of a couple of our candidates (Matt Pastro and Steve Campbell) on the campaign trail. I thought this might help to add a human face to things!
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I do believe there has been some discussion of this strategy in the effective altruism community. As one example, the Honourable Emma Hurst MLC, who is a Member of Parliament for the Animal Justice Party, has spoken about politics and effective altruism at multiple events.
New Zealand's party is called New Zealand Animal Justice Party, and it appears to be very nascent. Interestingly, a party called Animals First was also active in New Zealand in 1996 and 1999, but it deregistered in 2000.
Farrer has also published a book on this topic (Organizing for Policy Influence: Comparing Parties, Interest Groups, and Direct Action). I wanted to buy it for this article, but I found it too expensive to justify.
This is considering all elections across Australia using proportional representation, which includes Federal elections in the upper house (Senate), and many elections at the state level (which mostly have bicameral Parliaments with one house being elected using proportional representation). The vote of 7.93% was achieved by the candidate Chris Parker in one proportionally represented electorate in the 2019 New South Wales state election.
For this reason, some animal advocacy organisations are exploring fear-based messaging that is relevant to the world's current challenges. An example of this is highlighting the link between factory farms and pandemic risk.