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The sine wave in politics

By Don Aitkin - posted Monday, 23 November 2020

A few weeks ago I was chatting with my grandson Jesse about his next assignment in politics which centred on the right/left divide, and I put to him the issue of the slow move of bodies politic from one side to the other, a sort of sine wave, a gentle smooth regular movement like an ocean swell. You could see it happen over time, and you could see why. Since then I've been puzzling about the slow move, and think I was short-changing my grandson. In the USA Biden has about 75 million votes and Trump about 71 million. That's nothing like a sweeping victory, and doesn't add weight to the notion of a sine wave. So let me try to puzzle it out, using Australian data, rather than American.

I start with some potted history, which I should have thought about much earlier. Until everyone has the vote, you can't have a sine wave. Or if you can, it's of a different kind. First there were kings and nobles and knights and peasants. While the kings had the power, and were supported by the knights, there was nothing much the peasants could do. They weren't asked to vote, and when voting arrived, it was for those with property who were so entitled. Voting for everyone came about in slow moves. In New South Wales, voting for men arrived in the 19thcentury, and for women at the end of that century.

Politics is always about who gets what, when, how, to take the title of a famous politics book of the distant past by Harold D. Lasswell. Even when there were just kings and nobles, the king wanted more revenue to fight wars, and the nobles objected to finding the money, while the peasants really objected to more levies, since the nobles passed on the king's demands to those peasants who worked for them. So there was a live political situation, which erupted from time to time in rebellions, and on one historic occasion into an agreement that we call the Magna Carta, the Great Charter, which set out restrictions of the power of the kings to do things in return for which they gained some rights to tax.


As England grew larger and more prosperous the business of financing a civil service as well as an army and a navy required even more money. By now there existed a lively and prosperous mercantile class, making and selling things. If they were to be taxed they would need a say in things too. So voting was extended to the wealthier of them, and as time passed the property limits were extended downwards. In any case there were many makers and traders, as England was increasingly the wealthiest of the European nations. What did the mercantile class want? Free trade, no restrictions on imports or exports, low taxes or rules, and all that went with them, like child labour, canal and railway building, and other infrastructure projects that would fatten their pockets.

Eventually, males gained the vote, in part because there was a growing fear that if they were not inside the tent they would be outside it, and pissing in. A more genteel take on that remark was that if they had a share in the growing prosperity of the nation they would fight to protect it, and their voice needed to be heard. European leaders like Bismarck of Germany were the first to argue this way, offering old-age pensions and unemployment relief. The British PM, the Marquess of Salisbury, took up this way forward. British women had longer to wait for their own vote. To go back to the beginning, it was not until all adults had the vote that it was meaningful to talk of a shift in the electorate from left to right and then back to left in some kind of regular way, so we are really talking about the 20thcentury and our own, not about the 19thcentury or earlier.

What did it mean? In the 'beginning', from 1901 onwards, people voted for the way of life they thought would benefit them most. In our case you were either for protection or you were for free trade. In NSW, with abundant land and income from land sales, most were for free trade. In Victoria, where land was relatively scarce and the bulging population drawn by the gold rushes needed something to do, making things for that population became the ruling dogma, and it was protectionist from the beginning. You can see its effects now more than a century later, such as the private funding of high schools and hospitals compared with the public funding of those institutions in NSW.

But before very long the free trade and protectionist tags were not enough to deal with the growing variety of political issues, and new political parties emerged to fill the gap. The Labor and Country Parties, both formed at the end of the 19thcentury, showed the way, and by 1910 the main non-Labor party, first and still called the Liberal Party (after a couple of intermediate name changes) was formed to oppose the ALP. In coalition with the Country (now National) Party, or as a single entity, it has been the right-wing alternative. From 1910 to the present you can sensibly talk about a movement to and from the left, but to do so requires even more history.

The first half of the 20thcentury included two great wars and a major depression, following an earlier one in the 1890s. These events were hugely important in uniting people under new ideological banners - 'socialism', 'freedom', which allowed the formation of quite specific policy proposals. If you voted for one party's candidate you were in effect voting for a specific way forward in policy terms. People found that useful. In 1910, for example, only Liberal and Labor candidates won seats in the federal election of that year, and shared 95 per cent of the vote. It was never so structured again, but from 1910 to the present the two major party groups have won a clear majority of the votes at every federal election, and there have been few truly independent MPs. Yes, there have been a few minor and splinter parties, but they have not lasted.

So the First World War brought on a split within the Labor Party, as did the Depression. The Second World War saw the reformation of the Liberal Party, a greater unity within the electorate, and indeed a move to the left. Labor was never more successful than in the1940s. Labor split again in the 1950s over 'communism', but for quite a time the Liberal/Country Party coalition was putting into practice a lot of Labor policies formed in the 1940. As Australia grew wealthier and more populous cries of 'freedom' and 'individualism' could be heard, and the sine wave moved to the right again. Why shouldn't people spend their money on private health or private education? Who said so, and what was their reason? People voted to support the new right-wing mantras, and the political parties caught the drift. The Hawke/Keating budgets of the mid 1980s were a far cry from the Labor socialism of the 1920s.


Where are we now? A mixture, I think. We are divided, with a substantial proportion to the left, wanting the money tree to keep giving forth, while the provident, prudent conservatives are worried about where this will all end up. Inasmuch as it reveals itself in election result, the left is ahead.

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Hugh Flavus, Knight was published in 2020.

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