Conservative parties seem to no longer be the party of small government. While anger over Iraq was the number one topic in the recent US Congressional elections, Centrist Democrats also maintained a concerted attack on President Bush’s massive deficit spending and general fiscal irresponsibility.
Polling suggests that voters who identify as “libertarians” (about 10-15 per cent of the electorate - generally Republican voters) deserted the GOP (Grand Old Party) in droves. In a more concrete if broader measure, independent voters (those who have not registered as Democrat or Republican) went more than two to one to the Democrats.
“Libertarians” are a fairly clearly defined voting group in America, generally seen as those who abhor any kind of government intervention, particularly in the economy, but also in society. In practice that translates to a group who have a broadly isolationist foreign policy (none of our business), are against welfare spending, and are in support of personal freedom when it comes to things like abortion and gay marriage and pretty much anything else consenting adults choose to do in the privacy of their own homes.
Traditionally these views have fitted reasonably well with the moderate wing of the Republican Party, but now that there is virtually no moderate wing of the Republican Party, they have no political home.
While the Republicans maintained lip service to low taxes and low spending, most libertarians were happy to put up with the social conservatism of the Republican right: however, the massive cost of the Iraq misadventure, Bush’s relatively profligate spending on health, education and social security (for a Republican) and the massive deficits that have followed have brought many of them to realise they are getting nothing for their vote.
One academic at the Cato Institute (the leading libertarian think tank, of which Rupert Murdoch has been a board member) has called for a new alliance between liberals (in the American sense) and libertarians, “liberaltarians”, in which the Democrats swear off big government social programs for good, and the libertarians ditch the big spending, socially intolerant Republicans for good.
Not many Democrats seem to have fallen over themselves to accept the offer. The libertarian vote still clearly has no home, but it was a key factor in the Democrat landslide of last year.
So what does all this have to do with Australia? While there are probably very few hard core libertarians of the American style in Australia, there is a significant libertarian leaning urban electorate that has come in to play in affluent, but now marginal, seats such as Wentworth and Bennelong in Sydney, Moreton in Brisbane and Boothby in Adelaide.
Although the Howard-Costello Government has never strayed into deficit spending and has indeed maintained strong surpluses, similar rumblings have started here, with conservative commentators becoming increasingly strident in their opposition to the government’s record tax take and “middle class welfare”, in particular family payments.
Opposition Finance spokesman Lindsay Tanner’s attack on “millionaires receiving welfare cheques”, while it may have been aimed at a working class audience, has in fact received considerable sympathy from those very millionaires, who would rather just keep their own money in the first place. Populist moves such as the killing off of the Snowy Hydro float and the obfuscation over Medibank Private have also disturbed many in the business community.
On the social policy side the picture has been bleak for some time. The government’s continued staunch - in principle if not in action - support of the Iraq war and the continued, and active, presence of deeply socially conservative minister Tony Abbott in the sensitive Health portfolio, as well as the prevailing mood indicated by Howard’s moral equivocation on the death penalty and failure to do anything about David Hicks all add to the malaise.
There is clearly dissatisfaction among what many socially conservative thinkers would no doubt call the “urban elites” or “latte sippers”, however all of these things clearly do not add up to anywhere near as much anger as Bush and the Republicans copped last November.
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