What drives Australian politics?

In yesterday’s essay I argued that the old notion that somehow Labor was at the heart of things — it had the ideas, the people and the will — was no longer valid. Oh, you can hear people say it, as Kevin Rudd did in his over-long concession speech last Saturday. But somehow it doesn’t ring true any more. We are wealthier, better educated, better travelled and more individualistic than was the case fifty years ago, let alone one hundred years ago.

Labor grew out of a combination of misery and hope, articulated through powerful trade unions whose resources and often people fuelled the parliamentary Labor Party. Those days have long gone, and Labor has to search for a new set of ideas that make sense today. I don’t think that universalistic, global ideas will work well over the next decade. We are much less confident about the power of ideas than was true when I was young. JFK, LBJ, Harold Wilson, Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber, Pierre Trudeau and Gough Whitlam — leading politicians of the same period, the 1960s — claimed that all problems could be solved given knowledge, power and money. (They represented power, if you wondered.) There have been so many failures, of all kinds, in the last fifty years, and people are now somewhat sceptical about the next great idea, and of the notion that all problems can be solved.

I said yesterday that the Liberal Party was easily portrayed as the party of big business, interested only in preserving the status quo and helping its mates. One problem with that picture is that there are many big businesses, and much of the time they are fighting one another; governments spend some of their energy holding the ring, and trying to keep the fight clean. You can see that at the moment with the fuss about petrol vouchers.

It would be more sensible, I think, to see the Liberal Party as being the Australian version of conservatism, a party reluctant to change the framework of society in case it disturbs the good aspects of our way of life, but interested above all in order and predictability. It is in favour of private ownership, particularly because it gives those who have possessions a stake in the society and therefore an interest in assisting and guarding it. Conservatives are not opposed to the working class, or to social welfare — it was Mrs Thatcher who turned Council-house tenants into property owners, and Bismarck and the Marquess of Salisbury in the late 19th century who brought in the beginnings of the welfare state in Germany and Britain. Liberals will always be in favour of a strong defence force.

If I am right, there is never much need for the Liberal Party to radically rethink its ideas. All it has to adapt always to a new sense of where the society is, and try to preserve that status quo. It was conservatives, on the whole, who accepted that women should get the vote, on the ground that women were innately conservative and would balance the radicalism of their men. That hasn’t proved to be powerfully true.

To the urging of those who want something, and want it Now, Liberals will argue for ‘slow and steady wins the race’.  They also have their own symbols and their own heroes. They prize economic growth about almost everything, and argue that a rising tide floats all boats. To those who complain that some people are obscenely rich they will ask why riches are a problem. No one with a billion or so can possibly spend all that money on themselves, or even hoard it. It will pass into general circulation, making jobs for others, and possibilities for further wealth.

Labor prizes altruism, the Liberals self-interest and responsibility. Labor values equality, the Liberals freedom. Both think that safety nets are important, but the Liberal safety net does not go down as far as Labor’s, because Liberals expect people to look after themselves before asking for assistance from others. Labor would happily tax the rich to pay for the needs of the poor, while the Liberals are much less eager to tax, and especially to introduce new taxes, on the ground that taxes are disincentives. In musical terms, Labor provide the romantics, while the Liberals stay classical.

Where do we the people fit into all of this? Well, we are all mixtures of both outlooks, for the most part, romantic and classical on different days, altruistic but responsible for ourselves, in favour of economic growth, private property, social welfare, decent pensions, abundant education and low taxes — or at least, low taxation rates for ourselves. And the two major parties represent these contradictory aspects of our personalities. We respond to imaginative people who are articulate, like Kevin Rudd, but we also get bored with them. We respond to dogged, hard-working unpretentious leaders too, like John Howard, and we get bored with them, as well.

Above all, few of us are real citizens in a serious democracy, taking a keen interest in political issues, reading, debating, following up ideas. No, life is too full for that. We have professionals to do that work for us, and they are called politicians. And we ask a lot of them. Many of us follow one side just as we follow our favourite football team.  We don’t like it when they lose, and find excuses.

I think we are in for quite a few years of steady, rather boring politics before we get another charismatic leader, probably from the left, who asks us to join in his, or perhaps her, crusade for a better Australia. And eventually we will agree. We the electorate are the force that drives Australian politics. We like it when politics is boring, because we don’t have to think about it, and we like it when it is exciting, because we’re sick of being bored. We’re not an easy lot to run, really.


Join the discussion 5 Comments

  • Peter Lang says:


    I agree with a lot of what you say in this post but not all of it. You seem to support this Labor idea that business, especially big business, is bad. I strongly disagree. Sure they compete. That is what makes our standard of living improve faster. I believe the people who reach the top of the biggest companies are of the highest integrity, unlike the union leaders who make up the bulk of Labor party ministers and members. the heads of the large companies would never have risen so high if they didn’t have the highest integrity. They look a peer in the face and shake hands on a deal and give their word. They don’t break that *yes I know there are exceptions). Furthermore, they have a very good understanding of what governments need to do to make the economy better. They an invaluable understand of international markets – better in many ways than academics and Treasury boffins.

    Don, if you (and other readers) haven’t already watched the interview with Henry Ergas [1], I’d strongly recommend. I learnt an enormous amount from it. It’s well worth watching right through to the end. To me this interview provides an revealing peak into what the Liberals inherently understand much better than Labor members and supporters. It’s why the country will be far better under conservative governments than most Labor governments – the Hawke Government was an unusually exception to that rule for its first two to three terms.

    [1] http://topher.com.au/50-to-1-video-project/#prettyPhoto/9/

    • Don Aitkin says:


      I said that big business was easily portrayed as the reason for the Liberals, not that I portrayed things this way. Yes, I’ve seen henry’s video,and my post tomorrow is on the ’50to1 project’.

  • sabena says:

    It is true that the ALP is no longer a dynamo in politics-but not necessarily for the reasons you state.
    The first thing to recognise is that in politics there are the improvers who are never content with the way things are and conservatives who are generally content with their lot in life and are interested in ensuring that life goes on as it has in the past- in a word stability.
    The Liberal Party in Britain comprised the first group in the 19th century and the group moved to Labour for 2 reasons-first that there was room for improvement of the quality of life of the working class and secondly and more cynically that the votes from classic liberals were no longer sufficient in number to retain power( incidentally this group is not democratic because of its do good nature and is condescending).
    All that changed because of economic and more importantly technological change.The jobs where unions were strong have declined-and the new technologies are inconsistent for the most part with union activity.
    So the ALP now seeks its role in matters such as climate change.The problem here is that the foundations of intervention are not compelling as in the case of poverty and social deprivation and can be undermined by inconvenient matters(eg the mounting evidence that the world is not warming).That means coming up with new matters for intervention to maintain the former dynamic which are not readily apparent to the electorate.

    • Peter Kemmis says:

      The differences between the two parties is complex, and I find your views and those of Don provide interesting and valid perspectives. I see another distinction, albeit highly generalised. The Labor Party I’ve known since the 1972 election has been a party convinced of the need for change:
      ** in the 1970s, social welfare and social change were paramount (e.g. Medibank, no cost university entrance, family law);
      ** in the 1980s and 1990s, macro-economic reform (free trade vs protection, currency float, banking reform);
      ** 2007-2013, a curious mix (and in my view, and extra-ordinarily unhappy one).

      Simplistically, I see the Labor Party as having sought change through a top-down approach, at the macro level. In contrast, I see the Liberal/National Party relying for improvement through self-correcting change and development at the micro-level. Consider an example of development – the NBN: the Labor Party sought to implement a sweeping architecture across the whole country; The LNP will probably use that backbone structure, but rely on user demand and private enterprise to install connections.

      I find it harder to think of recent good contrasts in the approach to social change: perhaps we could consider the Finklestein Review and the subsequent deferred legislation, and before that, “the right to be not offended – a la Andrew Bolt”. Labor was convinced of a need to bolster anti-discrimination, and again followed a top-down approach. The LNP view was rather that the existing defamation and anti-discrimination laws were sufficient, given there was no concern evident in the wider community. Labor was again at risk of being driven by conviction, rather than by community consensus.

      So I see a real difference in approach, and I think the present times call for a micro approach. Different times may again require a macro approach.

  • don aitkin says:

    for sabena and Peter Kemmis: trying to do all this in 2000 words is really tricky, and there are elements in both your posts with which I agree. One thing I’ve said in earlier posts but did not say in either of these is that as people get wealthier and more confident and more interested in planning their own futures, they don’t see government really as the way forward — and they can see government as an impediment. There is something of that sentiment in the election result, I think, and it is something that Labor need to think seriously about.

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