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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15 thoughts on “MICHAEL KEATING. Australia’s Political Fault Lines.

  1. Where are demographics in all this?

    Is it possible the biggest cause of Labor’s shrinking first reference vote (now 33%) is the rise of the self employed tradie class that used to be trade unionists. Where I live most driveways have a work vehicle plastered with the service offered, a second vehicle for Mum and a boat on a trailer. Political? Only after watching kids’ sport, planning the next holiday and wondering where Latrell Mitchell will play next season. And then only maybe.

    It’s also fairly true that no one is seriously exploited these days and the big factories that locked up masses of Labor votes have largely gone. New migrants tend to be more conservative than the waves of English that came in the 50s and 60s. The need for Labor and its union allies has shifted away.

    Then there’s the aged. New aged accomodations and villas for empty nesters downsizing are everywhere catering for the needs of an ageing population. Older folk tend to be more conservative as they look to their security and they don’t relish change. They also have concerns for the prospects for their children just as their children are concerned for the well being of their parents.

    These are just some of the shifts that are happening. These groups are not particularly political. Whatever Palmer or Murdoch or Sky after dark might think is most likely to wash over them. They mostly think the Qantas guy and the BHP guy is nuts pushing trendy values. They want to get on with their lives without disruption but they do expect decent schools, hospitals and roads.

    So, it’s possible to overthink all this analysis. Maybe Emerson and Wetherill are correct in their assessment of Labor’s campaign. What is for sure is that 9 out of 10 folk out in the real world forgot the election by the end of May and won’t worry about the next one for two years at least – or when someone starts proposing policies that mess with their lives.

    What if the reality is that the only people interested in the forensic analysis and the navel gazing is that thin slice of the community that is hooked on ABC current affairs and the opinion pages of our newspapers (or websites)? What if that is a diminishing cohort as the majority have switched off – if they were ever switched on beyond a few months prior to an election.

    What if Howard was right when he identified aspiration as a driving force. What if “I win because somebody else loses” doesn’t actually appeal out there?

  2. Wow!

    The first clash of Australia’s real Titans I’ve yet witnessed! Exciting. Incredibly motivating.

    Menadue: “That Oligarchs Rule Our Roost”.
    Keating: (my appellation): “The Enlightened v The Dispossessed”.

    Keating cites: “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.”

    Keating emphasises the lack of trust voters exhibit – his bottom line:
    “Instead, populism attracts people who are seeking reassurance, and who are clinging to traditional values.”

    Surely – is it not the case? – that a ‘coming together’ then relies on the ‘enlightened’ being able to credibly reassure the ‘threatened’?

    Take the case of Central Queensland coal miners.

    We, the enlightened, know very well that their present jobs are unsustainable.

    Yet who amongst us – particularly officials of the CMMFEU, AWU and relevant Queensland Labor Party apparatchiks – have been brave enough to declare the reality that most coal miners already apprehend: that their jobs are very finite and, if they wish to retain their present job stability, they will have to agree to retraining and re-education. So that they can enjoy first priority in being re-employed in a context of sustainable energy.

    In other words, I am taking up the cudgel which Keating invites. And, in so doing, I am helping effectively negate the power of the oligarchs.

  3. In 1964 Robert Zimmerman wrote and sang a prophetic song titled The Times They Are A Changing.
    Meanwhile nearly sixty years later the pace of change in nearly every aspect of human culture is changing at an exponential rate. All of it is being driven by new micro-electronic technologies.
    Every new technology inevitably causes all kinds of differences and unintended both positive and negative in almost every aspect of human culture.
    The book (The Shallows) and the writings of Nicholas Carr provide ample explanations as to what is happening.
    Meanwhile of course none of the old-time religious explanations are in any sense believable too.

  4. A good exploration of the subject. Following the sentence: “this traditional divide in attitudes to government is being over-lapped by a number of other fault lines between:” the three categories given should be conflated as they are really all referring to the same sets of people: those with a solid education and those without. It is the latter who cling to traditional truths and seek to conserve what they have, irrespective of the dangers in doing so, and anchor themselves in an insular world in order not to confront change.

  5. But Morrison wasn’t “opposed” to migration at all. He was pursuing record levels of net migration, via Frydenberg’s budget. He was fibbing. It’s his default setting.

    Shorten not only waved this through, he tried to push migration higher still, via parent visas. It backfired big-time, just as “straddling” on Adani backfired. These were two major unforced errors, for which he should fully take the rap.

  6. The characterisation of the voters put forward by Michael and the range of intractable problems and the incommensurable values identified are astute. And they are common across most democracies. But the real question is whether liberal is still the political system suited to the new times.

    Where democracy leads to such fragmentation that it becomes dysfunctional through repeated minority governments or less than effective coalitions-Spain, Italy, Ireland, Denmark, Netherlands, Canada, Portugal, Romania, Czech Republic, Slovenia, and recently Australia and the UK, among others-finding political solutions to the big problems becomes near impossible.

    This is not just the result of populism of the ignorant but the expected diversity and variation natural to any large group of people.To an alien the inability of these governments to comprehend and prioritise action on global warming and on poverty and inequality would be conclusive proof of the systems failure.

    Where majoritarian governments appear, as in Poland and in India, what are clearly intolerant and ideologically driven governments impose their solutions and values on the minority.

    Where the processes and costs of elections have been captured by oligarchs and professional politicians, see the US and Russia, kleptocracy and corruption is rife.
    What needs to be seriously questioned is the inevitability and universality of liberal representative democracy. Churchill’s famous dictum might have had force when the options were clearly Stalinism or representative democracy. Less so now. China has demonstrated that economic growth and democracy are not as joined at the hip as was once believed.

    There doesn’t seem to be an alternative to representative democracy at present and radical reforms to the system might help. However, its hard to see those in power acting against their own self interest. The opposite is happening in many parts of the world where democracy is retreating–Venezuela, Egypt, Nicaragua etc.

    Finding a just, equitable, and fair way to govern could be the big challenge of the future.

    1. Coalition Governments, which have been the norm in most European democracies for decades, more often than not does lead to a more consensus driven approach to policies, very different to the make or break horse trading we seem to favour in Oz, and even more so in Britain.

      There are many reasons the Nordic countries in particular have moved so far ahead of most of the rest of the world on social issues, and one of them is a far less divisive political discourse.

      1. Kim – please stop yearning for political politeness.

        We’re robust. we call it as it bloody well is.

        All of us are well equipped to weather the (more outrageous) slings and arrows of fortune. We’re tough. We’re resilient. We can – and we want to – take it on the chin.

        That’s the way we are.

  7. You make very good points about the People’s need but to disregard the power of the oligarchs in this mix is dangerous. It’s like there is already a ‘fire’ burning – and oligarchs (specifically Murdoch press for me) know that fueling in just the right way will make it explode just the way they want it. And given they have so much power in NSW and Queensland it not possible to disregard their major influence.
    And you comment “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.” is very strange. If these voters want reassurance that the government represents their interest why wouldn’t they want to know who’s paying off the Government for favours. It’s been shown that those that lobby Government with big $ influence government – so support for the little guy in this system does not exist.

  8. I completely reject your view of populism. In fact I resent the term as it has been cobbled into something which suggests dumb voters who are either unable or unwilling to understand current events. Would you call the gay rights lobby who enabled a focus on same sex marriage as populist? Or climate change activism as appealing to those people unable to understand the complexities of climate change? How about the anti Adani group? Populism is derived from the word popular, so in a literary sense means that a majority could be termed as popular or in your language a populist group. This means that the Australians who voted the current mob into power are populists. The term is meaningless and without any academic rigour. You need to change your language. Your arrogant posture is a key reason why the ALP lost the last election, despite how they dressed it up in their reviews. It is a reason the LNP are in policy paralysis right now, because their policies are non populist. It’s a stupid term.

    The problem with using loose terms to describe political parties that are so broad is they don’t convey a true meaning of the values of those groups. Utilising vague descriptors is either an attempt to denigrate people or groups or is just a lazy attempt to score a point. It is neither intelligent nor is it of any value in the discussion. It may have been entertaining in the undergraduate debating team , but in the real world it demonstrates a contempt for the multiple views or groups and individuals. It is shallow and without any substance.

  9. I think that any party which went to the next election – here or overseas – with a campaign promise that went “We will make you poorer, less secure, worse educated, more often imprisoned, and frequently on fire. And we will make sure that your enemies have this doubled. No, tripled. Every day.” would sweep to a substantial majority. It worked, only slightly disguised, for Scomo, Trump, Johnson, and Bolsanaro. The open admission would be more powerful still.

  10. Thanks Michael,
    my stance on this may not come as a surprise to readers of this publication (or of my book). I do not disagree with John Menadue’s assertions on the power of the oligarchs, nor do I discount your analysis, quite the contrary. But none of this is new, it has been happening for decades; I would argue it is a problem deeply embedded in how our democratic ideals have been implemented over the last couple of centuries, allowing the political elite (once men of means, now men, and some women, who have made politics their career) to usurp control of the democratic process, actively supported by the corpocracy and passively endorsed by the populace. Unless we recognise this as the fundamental problem we cannot address it.

    The only way to change it is for the people to engage in the democratic process and to stop electing party delegates and start electing true representatives with limited tenure and on fixed terms. That, and removing donations of all forms from the process are the key elements required to start profoundly change how our democracy works.

    Anything else is just tinkering around the edges. Thinking that a magically renewed and progressive (Labor) Party will suddenly save us is disregarding most of the lessons learned throughout the history of democracy and discounting the power of money.

    And yes, it is Utopian, but that is how all progress begins…

    1. Well said Kim. As in other Western countries there is a quiet revolution occurring here in Australia among concerned citizens young and old. New political parties will emerge that will challenge the established parties and the old order will gradually disintegrate. People power maybe seen as naive and utopian but it’s the only way to bring peace and stability out of chaos and destruction. Grassroots movements are growing across the world and they want change. They are being led and followed by mothers, grandmothers, sisters and aunts. They are the most potent force for sanity and survival that we have left on this earth.

  11. You are hot to trot, Michael. We are hearing a lot from you. That is good. The voices of experience and expertise need to speak up. A promising feature of today’s politics is the absence of ego-tripping high-fliers in the leadership. Albo and Scomo are Joe Bloggs and Fred Nurk, a couple of ordinary blokes who have walked off the street to be elevated by circumstance into influential jobs.

    This is a refreshing change that makes both men attractive to voters and should increase the chances of finding common ground and common sense. You have answered the question of what needs to be done in your posts of 30 October and 11 November.

    I have printed out copies and will give them to Anthony Albanese when we meet over a beer with Labor colleagues in Perth tonight.

  12. There’s a lot to unpick in this.

    Is politics really more difficult now? The electorate has always had more and less educated people for instance. Perhaps the difficulty is the symptom of the degeneration of the parties and their representativeness.

    I’m sceptical of the influence of media (both mass and social). Though this applies most to what people are personally acquainted with (which, with the decline of mass membership parties, in untrue of politics). If Palmer moved Labor or Greens voters it was a tremendous cost per vote. I don’t know of any instance where a short-term press campaign has registered in the polls.

    Growth. It depends doesn’t it? Whether it comes from coal or the production of remarkable dance works that tour overseas.

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