MICHAEL KEATING. Australia’s Political Fault Lines.

Nov 13, 2019

This article takes issue with a recent article by John Menadue which argues that a largely unchallenged and powerful oligarchy is wielding untrammelled political power. Instead, a number of other reasons are proposed as to why our political parties have fragmented, and how that has made the achievement of necessary policy compromises more difficult. Nevertheless, there is a way forward for a progressive party.

According to John Menadue, (“Democracy or oligarchy”, Pearls & Irritations, 7 November 2019), “The real contest now is between those who want to renew our democracy for the many or allow an oligarchy to further entrench and abuse its power”.

Judging by the more than twenty comments posted in response, Menadue’s conclusion is endorsed by all. But do the Murdoch press, Clive Palmer and other oligarchs really have the “largely untrammelled power” that Menadue alleges, or are there other more substantial reasons for any loss of confidence in our democratic system of governance?

Certainly Menadue is right that “we are seeing the flight of voters from the major political parties and support for minor and populist parties. For example in 1967, 70 per cent of voters reported as always voting for the same party, in federal or state elections and for both houses, whereas in 2016 these rusted-on supporters were only 40 per cent of the electorate.

Menadue suggests that this fracturing of past political allegiances is because “the major parties are out of touch with their constituencies” and have been taken over by “a small group of party power brokers in thrall of the oligarchs”.

To my mind, however, the reasons for this loss of support for the two traditional major parties, and the proliferation of minor parties, are much more complex and varied than can be explained solely by a lack of democratic accountability and the influence of oligarchs.

Thus, when Australia only had two political parties contending for office, the only political divide that mattered was between labour and capital. Today, however, this traditional divide in attitudes to government is being over-lapped by a number of other fault lines between:

  • Educated and knowledge rich voters and those who are knowledge poor
  • Those who feel secure and embrace change and those who feel threatened by change
  • Those whose material demands are largely satisfied and want to pursue post-material quality-of-life issues, and those who see themselves as struggling to meet their material needs.

Another major change affecting our governance has been an apparent loss of trust in government. But again this loss of trust was observed at least twenty years ago, and did not happen overnight.

A major reason for this loss of trust, is that government is now being asked to deal with a much greater range of problems, including:

  • The adaptation to the new forces of technological change and globalisation, which have created new divides between winners and losers that are difficult to resolve
  • Many of the new agenda issues, such as the environment, sexual preference, and abortion, involve significant clashes of values, where a negotiated settlement is extremely difficult
  • Intractable problems, such as drugs, family violence, homelessness and child poverty, where the causes are complex and/or outside the state’s control.

It is this incapacity of governments to meet the different and typically incompatible expectations of different groups of citizens over a wide range of issues which are inherently insoluble that is the main reason why governments are so often perceived as failing to keep their promises. And, as Mansbridge put it, writing back in 1997, it is this failure to meet different incompatible expectations that is most responsible for the decline in trust in government.

Equally, in these circumstances it is not surprising that our political parties have fragmented, with individuals finding that they can better pursue their particular policy interests in narrower groups that are more focussed on the one or two issues that most concern them personally.

For example, I would argue that this why the “Greens” have emerged as a political party which appeals to people whose material aspirations are secure and who are now more concerned about quality of life issues. While more recently, as our economies have stagnated, there has been a surge in populism – either in the form of new political parties or by taking over existing parties (such as the Republicans by Trump in the US, the Tories in Britain under Johnson, and to some extent the Liberals under Morrison in Australia).

Populism appeals most to relatively uneducated people who fear change and the risk of losing their job, or having it downgraded, and with that their status in their community. The easy response is to blame someone else, and hence populist parties and those that pander to populism embrace nativism and are hostile to change and especially social change, which they feel they can effectively resist.

People who are attracted by populism also typically have a mistrust of elites, whose policy advice they see as bearing at least some responsibility for their present insecurity and loss of status (even when they are not gratuitously being called “deplorables”). Thus populist distrust extends to all experts and not just to governments, and this helps explain the populist denial of climate change and policies to reduce its impact.

Instead, populism attracts people who are seeking reassurance, and who are clinging to traditional values.

I suggest that is an important reason why Scott Morrison (on his own) won the last election. For the former Labor voters whom Morrison managed to attract, his very public opposition to migration and his embrace of identity politics, his public demonstration of his adherence to traditional values, and his lack of policies was a virtue. In short, what Morrison offered these traditional Labor voters was much more reassurance.

None of Morrison’s effective campaign depended upon intervention by oligarchs. At most, a couple (and only a couple) of oligarchs may have helped Morrison to get his message across, but he didn’t really need them.

In sum, while I can support John Menadue’s proposals to make government and the political parties more accountable and independent, I doubt they will change political outcomes nearly as much as he seems to hope when he says that “The major party that is credible on democratic reform will reap a large electoral dividend”.

The reality is that Morrison’s government has reduced accountability more than ever, especially by withholding information, and he won. Morrison’s populist constituency is not interested in this sort of information, whereas those who are interested are already largely voting for the ALP or the Greens and independents.

Nor will the insecure voters who effectively determined the last election result care about how the election campaign was financed. What these much more numerous swinging voters want is reassurance that the government represents their interests and values.

In that context, as others have observed, Labor faces a challenge in juggling its highly educated “progressive” supporters with its more traditional working-class base. But as I have argued, in my article, “Economic Growth, Redistribution and Climate Change” (Pearls & Irritations, 11 November 2019), I think this can be done.

Albanese is right to focus Labor’s future agenda on growth and jobs, but action to improve wages and income equality, and to limit climate change are not incompatible with a growth agenda. Instead, they are essential to it, as I believe will be much more evident by the time of the next election.

Michael Keating is a former Head of the Departments of Prime Minister & Cabinet, Finance, and Employment & Industrial Relations. He is presently a Visiting Fellow at the Australian National University.

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