Labor’s Penny Wong is not one of the most excitable politicians on show today, but she said something the other day that suggested that an Abbott Government would do something dreadful, like tax birthday presents, or abolish Santa Claus — I don’t really remember. And I thought to myself that we still had several months of this to endure. The Coalition is being more restrained, partly because it is on top and likely to stay there, and partly because the less it says the better. Labor has forgotten about what it is best to do if you’re in a hole.
In truth, election campaigns are likely to magnify the apparent differences between the parties, because we have to make a choice, and making a choice is easier if we can discern obvious differences between the products, service or groups. But our two major political parties sit there together in the middle of the spectrum, both trying to occupy the middle ground. I used to teach about all this, and employed the ice-cream seller analogy created in 1930 by the American economist Harold Hotelling. An ice-cream seller comes to a beach bounded at each end and covered randomly with people. He chooses to go to the middle, where he has best access to everyone. A second ice-cream seller arrives, looks at the scene, and goes virtually back-to-back with the first, for the same reason. Where does a third go? He might well move to one side or the other of the first two, arguing that he will be the first one on his side of the beach, and the other two can compete for the other side. And so on.
You can see this principle in action when you want to buy a car — there are whole districts devoted to car-selling. Country towns used to have pubs on the four corners of intersections. Sydney’s television, publishing and advertising all found their home across the harbour from the CBD. And so on. In politics I think the principle is obvious, at least for the two main parties. As it happens, I think they have both moved to the right over the last fifty years or so, but together.
Whatever the Liberals say, there is very little that is socialistic about Labor. It is very much about private property, and making sure that its supporters have it too. It never was about nationalising the means of product, distribution and exchange, and least of all today. Its last sally in that direction was Chifley’s attempt to nationalise the banks in the late 1940s. Does it like to regulate? Indeed it does, but so do the Liberals when in power, and the Howard Government, despite all the cries to get rid of red tape and free industry and all the rest of it, passed law after law and regulation after regulation that had the opposite effect.
I think we are over-regulated, but we Australians fear freedom from government. After all, white settlement began as a penal colony, with a Governor able to make regulations at his pleasure. And we’ve never got over it. Let businesses do what they do best! That’s the cry. But we worry about nasty businesses, like drugs, and prostitution, and rip-off merchants of all kinds. We need to be protected from them. Both sides of politics are happy to cater to that desire. We want an easy life, and politicians of all kinds recognise that they can promise one. They can’t deliver it, but that’s another story. They are sellers of another kind of ice-cream.
What are the real differences? There aren’t many. Every now and then the Liberals have someone who once belonged to a trade union. But trade unions now only serve 18 per cent of the workforce. Once Labor had lots of Catholics, and the Liberals one or two. That’s no longer the case. The Liberals are led by a Catholic, and a practising one as well, while Labor is led by someone of no religious persuasion. Neither side knows what to do about boat people. The Labor Government has failed spectacularly to slow the flow, and an Abbott Government will be no more successful. My guess is that most Australians are sympathetic, but they don’t want what is plainly a form of uncontrolled immigration. They don’t know what to do either. The Liberals will end the carbon tax, but Labor is dismantling its ‘climate change’ policies anyway.
Foreign aid? Foreign policy? Defence? Neither side has a sustained and thoughtful approach to any of these important policy areas, because we are still too small a player to be able to make firm decisions on our own. Taxation? The Liberals like less of it, but neither side ever wants to increase taxation. The Liberals are more likely to get a budget into surplus than Labor, because philosophically they disapprove of government spending — except when they are in power, and they can see the advantages of spending here and there in order to stay in power.
Basically, our choice is between two teams of professional politicians. The one in power has been there too long, doesn’t ever look competent, and is given to internal warring. The one that is out doesn’t inspire real confidence, but those in are worse. That’s my current take on it. Am I disenchanted? Yes.