The big winners in this election are the Greens and informal voters. The informal vote rose by more than the Liberal vote; and between a fifth and a quarter of first preferences (counting informals) did not go to the major parties. Clearly the message from many voters to the major parties is “a pox on both your houses”.
The reasons for this alienation runs much deeper than deposed leaders, poor communication, shallow spin, backroom boys, misleading and mendacious claims and stilted performances. These are all symptomatic, but the real problems are the ossification, lack of principle and systemic corruption of both major parties.
Labor and Liberal have maintained a stranglehold on our political process not through merit but simply through leveraging their prominence to crowd out alternatives. As a result they have become complacent and have progressively lost contact with the electorate. However, their paths to disconnection have been rather different. One has become doctrinaire while the other has jettisoned all beliefs.
The Liberal Party has moved far to the right over the past three decades. Their former leader Malcolm Fraser resigned his membership in disgust, and he is reviled within the current party as a wet leftist. Few seem to recall that Fraser was to the right of Menzies. The grand old man of the Liberal Party would also be reviled as a leftist, were he to reincarnate.
This shift to the right was global, the product of a campaign begun decades earlier to promote a neoliberal world view, which manifested in Australia as economic rationalism. The neoliberal program of free markets, free trade and minimal government is a false doctrine based on a laughably unrealistic economic theory and no real-world evidence. It succeeded not because of any intrinsic merit but because it suited the wealthy, who include the commercial media owners who promoted it to the masses.
The neoliberal era, dating from the Reagan and Thatcher regimes, extracted great wealth from people and the environment, but the greater part of the wealth went to the already wealthy. In the United States median real income has hardly changed in 20 years. Ordinary people have also become more stressed and more fearful, and they know deep down that the materialist treadmill will not give them a fulfilling life. Neoliberalism has shifted our efforts away from real production and into extraction and financial manipulation, so our economy has been hollowed out. It has brought on the global financial crisis, which is far from over, and global environmental crises.
The Liberal Party has become progressively more doctrinaire. It is remarkable that John Howard was rarely named for the extremist he was; an economic fundamentalist and subverter of democratic institutions. However, the commercial media moved with him, so instead the ABC was labelled leftist. These days a leftist seems to be anyone who is moderately informed and who has more compassion than Genghis Khan. Tony Abbott’s sloganeering and erratic aggressiveness could only appeal to a diminished party embracing very narrow and regressive views, including climate denialism.
Meanwhile, Labor’s response to the neoliberal challenge was to abandon its founding purpose of looking after the interests of ordinary people. The big shift was instigated in the mid-80s by Paul Keating who, with Bob Hawke’s acquiescence, simply adopted the neoliberal agenda of deregulation, privatisation and competition. As deposed leader Bill Hayden tartly observed, a drover’s dog could have won the 1983 election for Labor, so the change was not essential to Labor’s survival. Rather, it resulted from a failure of courage following the concerted right-wing assaults on the Whitlam Government. Labor’s right wing simply seized power and set off in pursuit of the Liberals on the far right.
This strategy worked so long as Labor was in power, but once ousted they had no purpose other than to regain power. The Party’s cowardice and vacuity of principle were painfully displayed in 2001 when Kim Beazley meekly endorsed John Howard’s actions blocking the Tampa and interring legitimate asylum seekers in remote concentration camps for years on end. Reportedly up to half the Labor membership subsequently resigned in disgust.
Lacking any vision or principle, Labor has been vulnerable to wedging and scare campaigns. It has been thoroughly captured by wealthy interests and now governs on the big issues like global warming, peak oil and the distribution of community wealth, for the wealthy rather than for ordinary people. The Liberals always favoured private enterprise, but their program is now little more than spruiking for big business. They maintain their power over ordinary people through fear - fear aroused around moral issues, fear of imagined threats like boat people and fear of the real but overblown threat of terrorism. Australian democracy has become hollow and systemically corrupt.
Voters may or may not perceive much of this recent history, but increasingly they are responding to the spin, lies, petty insults, wooden mantras, superficiality and lack of vision by rejecting them. Voters are also expressing their unease with our overall direction of relentless materialism, declining economic security, and looming environmental crises.
The future of both major parties is threatened. Unfortunately part of their response has been to drift towards authoritarianism and further weakening of our democratic institutions. It is to be hoped that they begin to respond to the message from voters, and that voters remain resolute in holding out for the kind of parties we deserve, and must have if our democracy is to survive.