The negative reaction to Peter Costello’s last budget has surprised the media who lauded it as a great electorate-pleasing “tax give-away”. The media has fallen for its own story, and has missed the way politics has been changing as a few hard truths filter through to voters. The “I want” politics that propelled John Howard into government and kept him there is at last making way for “we need” politics, but this is not necessarily good news for Labor.
Despite the portrayal of our two-party system as being reasonably well balanced and genuinely representative, this is no longer the case. In fact, neither major party has relevant policies on the important emerging issues.
Economic conditions over the past decade or so have favoured the Liberals because they allowed the swinging voters to concentrate on their own immediate self-interest. A culture of individualistic gratification permeated Australia as job growth and a booming real estate market presented the prospect of ongoing wealth generation for minimal effort. This “for me” economy, heedless of social or environmental cost, suited the believers in neo-liberal (economic rationalist) ideas down to the ground. Howard prospered, and it strengthened such ideology within ALP as well.
Labor used to be focussed on social equity, specifically the interests of working and lower-middle class Australia. Because of this it favoured big government to ensure reasonable standards of education, health and social welfare, and to maintain basic infrastructure. It was also - despite the sexism and racism that permeated working class culture - progressive on women’s, Indigenous and ethnic issues, and it was mostly OK on the environment. This progressive character was largely because many educated people supported Labor on principle, and gained from their interventionist governmental approach.
For a century or so, the focus on nation building, and thus social cohesion, resulted in a political consensus that gave Australia one of the highest living standards in the world. That all changed with globalisation and the neo-liberal ideology that accompanied it: money and neo-liberal ideas from overseas washed away the nationalist orientation. These ideas derided big government, promoted privatisation and proposed so-called “market solutions” for everything from the value of the dollar to industrial relations. It certainly generated wealth, but also greater social inequality; and it pretty much wrecked Australia’s world class education and health systems. It also utterly changed national politics.
Labor and the Liberals still have their hard core supporters, those who have abiding structural interests - for Labor it’s the remnant working class and industrial relations, while for the Liberals it’s business and taxation. Thus, globalisation has undoubtedly favoured the Liberals because low tax and minimal labour protection are two core corporate-finance market goals.
But our two-party preferential system makes the swinging vote decisive. When they do not have definite structural interests, voters tend to vote for their own immediate self interest (“I want” politics). In the embrace of a mass media that cultivates ignorance, they do not pay attention to much outside Australia, and certainly not to long-term trends, like global warming. At least not until such things become impossible to ignore.
Under Howard, in cosy collaboration with the media, the Coalition has effectively erected a notional firewall between middle Australia, which swing politically, and the rest of the world. This is why Howard’s disinclination to accept any responsibility for world affairs works. On issues like global warming, energy, international relations and the global economy, the Howard Government simply toes the American line, and trusts that the swinging voters will be too distracted to care.
However, the electorate is beginning to realise that the world is changing.
Increasingly voters understand that global warming is happening, oil depletion is becoming an issue, pandemic disease is a real threat. Furthermore, with the US under discredited leadership, the world is awash with nuclear material; the US-China rivalry grows; and even the Cold War threatens to return as Putin gets feisty. Meanwhile, the global economy becomes ever more unbalanced as Asia picks up the tab for American prodigality and the oil problem bites.
The electorate is also realising that at home social and environmental needs must be balanced with economic growth. They can see that failing health, education and infrastructure systems are real problems that impact on everyone. And more fundamentally, that personal wealth, even for those who can manage it, is not the answer to everything.
Unfortunately for Labor, it has shifted so close to the neo-liberal line that it has little to offer as an alternative. Labor should have used the past decade to renovate both policy and party, but instead it has allowed the worst elements to embed themselves. There are still good people in the ALP, but mostly is has become corrupt, mechanical and ideologically bankrupt. It says everything that its dull, conservative leader is threatened by the dull apparatchik of an obsolescent, right-wing trade union, suddenly in the spotlight thanks to a media frenzy.
There is a vacuum forming to the left of centrist Labor as the Democrats look set to bow out. But the old left-right does not really apply any more anyway, because it was based in the class conflict of mass industrialisation. The emerging big issues - the environment, new energy needs, globalisation, the information revolution and all the socio-economic changes that go with them - defy simple left-right analysis.
So can the Greens, as the only other party of any note, benefit? Definitely, but only if they get serious. The environment-related issues suit their purposes, and as these issues move to the centre of political debate, so will the Greens. Whether the Greens can combine the environmental concern with a broader socio-economic program is a moot question. So far their image is still fuzzy, their “story” unclear, and there is a lot of hard work to be done to turn the Greens into a viable political alternative.
Right now, with Howard leaving (sooner or later) an otherwise weak Liberal Party, Labor in permanent crisis and the Greens making a move, politics in Australia is as volatile as it has been for half a century.