GREG BAILEY. The Australian Electorate and the ‘Sensible Centre.’

Jun 3, 2019

Now that the grieving over the electoral loss of progressive political forces is beginning to be transformed into sustained soul searching about the characteristics of the Australian electorate and the tactic used by the ALP, it is time to ask whether the ALP could have won given the forces rallied against them. In truth the election was close, but the effect of unrealistic expectations has led to anguished questioning of whether a party with comprehensive progressive policies for an increasingly fractured future will ever be successful in Australia and whether the ‘sensible centre’ is the only option.

Bob Brown’s anti-Adani expedition, the ALP’s failure to offer alternative job prospects in central Queensland, and its incapacity to offer a coherent, simple narrative for the justifiable changes it was offering, have all been touted as reasons for the election loss. What informs each of these apparent failures are two fundamental problems which all future public policy with have to deal with: mitigation of the effects of anthropogenic climate change and equity in access to economic resources, both problems building up to crisis level over the last three decades. Solutions to both are interrelated, but for the majority of the population, explanations for what must be done to provide these solutions are just too demanding for their comprehension.

Even if clearly articulated explanations about alternative job creations to traditional mining had been developed for the electorate in the Hunter Valley, Central Queensland and Northern Tasmania, there would have been no guarantee these explanations would have been communicated in any kind of consistent or fair manner. Nothing needs to be said about the responsibility of the Murdoch press in pushing against any progressive message, but with the distraction provided by the commercial media and social media it is virtually impossible to communicate complex policies in a six-week election campaign. It is true that the ALP had been announcing policies for the last eight months or so, policies consistently criticized by the mainstream media.

Desire for clear communication, of course, rests on the assumption that the general electorate wants to hear policy positions–even when they are clearly stated practical suggestions about increased renewable energy or raising the dole–that need to be assessed critically. And this dovetails exactly with everything that has been written about this election loss in the media: that it is the electorate itself and the potential divisions into which it is seemingly divided, based on income, education and access to capital, that determines an individual’s reaction to political discourse.  It is the elephant in the room journalists constantly evade, that the Australian electorate is generally conservative and resistant to change, as it does not understand the need for change, even in an environment where technological change has been occurring at breakneck speed for at least three decades.

Whilst the ALP might have attempted to lay down some axiomatic conditions for change in their policies dealing with revenue raising and climate change mitigation, the LNP only sought to massage the sustained conservatism and insularity driving the mood of some many voters–supporters of either the ALP and the LNP–to reject any possibility of specific foreshadowed change. And many commentators and bloggers constantly reiterate the mantra that successful Australian political parties must cultivate the “sensible centre”. But in truth the institutionalization of neoliberal economic and cultural conditions by the Hawke Labor government and its pervasive expansion ever since has certainly not been a policy of the safe centre. Nor was it ever announced as a pre-election policy.

Its continuation has been accompanied by an implicit attempt to establish a new “safe centre” in Australian political culture, but one not really understood by the Australian voting public. And it is still concealed by the LNP’s and the ALP’s political rhetoric focusing on mateship, fairness and socio-economic mobility. The problem is the lack of understanding that general economic conditions operative over any given time are determined by large-scale institutional factors not often easy of explanation, factors that have a history not capable of being reduced to human-interest stories focusing on the short term.

The task lies before the ALP to change political rhetoric, but this will not be at all easy since the rhetoric–rather than critical argument–used by the LNP is so pervasive throughout the electronic and print media. That is, the mythic images so prominent in hyper-reality television, sports commentaries, and journalistic coverage of politics, all stressing competition, individuality and conflict, reflect some of the deep values in Anglo-Celtic Australian culture. In contrast, whilst many individuals bemoan the need for a greater sense of community, they have difficulty in connecting this with larger economic and institutional factors that shape the forces so destructive of communitarian values and cooperation.

There can be little doubt that those blue-collar workers who voted for the fringe right wing parties and the LNP in central Queensland would have expressed a strong concern for their local community as community and the need for individuals to help each other. But this stands in direct contrast to the values of the Palmers and the Adanis who want to exploit the riches they can manipulate from the Galilee Basin by financial engineering and political manipulation. Their own goal is entirely individualistic even if it is conveyed in the rhetoric of community benefit so beloved of many electors. And it is certainly not of the ‘sensible centre’, adherence to which will not resolve the problems so heavily pushing down on this country, if not the world.

Dr Greg Bailey is an Honorary Researcher, College of the Arts, Social Sciences and Commerce, Latrobe University.

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