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that the old notion that somehow Labor was at the heart of things — it had the ideas, the people and the will — was no longer valid.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.