A week ago I wrote a piece about Clive Palmer’s bid to form a new political party, and already I’ve read somewhere that his party (yet to exist in any real sense) could win a Queensland Senate seat. Who are the people out there who want a new political party? I know there is dissatisfaction with the current array, but some of that is less about what the parties stand for than it is about a common feeling of helplessness over the citizen’s capacity to do anything about political outcomes. It was a feeling well expressed in the run-up to the NSW elections in 2008, when many voters told pollsters and journalists that there was no real choice: the Labor government was dreadful and the Opposition was incompetent. What was a voter to do?
Some of that feeling also comes from the fact that Australian governments are not able to deal decisively with many problems. No Australian government can stop people setting out in unsafe boats in an attempt to reach our shores. We do not control our exchange rate. We have no capacity to affect what happens in other countries. We don’t control climate. So in the big issues, our governments cope as best they can, like those of other countries. The same is true even for the great and powerful, like the USA, Russia and China. They are not omnicompetent either.
But our political leaders like to speak as though they are or will be competent in everything, and that if elected they will solve our problems. While this is an understandable position for leaders to adopt, Mr Abbott, for example, talks too much about ‘the boats’. If he becomes the Prime Minister, he will have all the difficulties in dealing with boat people that Ms Gillard has now. If our dollar stays high, manufacturing will continue to decline, whatever the Government thinks, for it doesn’t control the investment and hiring decisions that business have to make every day. And so with many other issues. Some of them are not solvable now, and some may not be solvable ever, like poverty.
And a measure of the strength of the irritated feeling, in another country, can be seen in the astonishing success of the United Kingdom Independence Party in the recent local government elections in the UK. David Cameron, the Conservative PM, has described the new party as ‘fruitcakes and closet racists’, but it won better than one vote in four in the elections — from almost nothing. If you know anything about British politics, you’ll know that the UKIP wants the UK to leave the EU, and the Conservatives have promised a referendum on that question by 2017, if they win the next elections. The UKIP is uninterested in a referendum. It wants out. Now.
One-issue parties have a short life, and they quickly find that they have to have at least a position on almost everything. It is interesting to see what else the UKIP might think about the world, because in some respects it seems not unlike Mr Palmer’s proposed party. So here is its current policy shopping list, which makes interesting reading.
Apart from getting out of Europe, the UKIP wants an end to immigration, and a flat income tax of maybe 25 to 30 per cent, for everyone. Education? More selective schools, and vouchers that parents can spend on whatever school they like. Defence? More spending on that, with a nuclear missile system, at least in prospect. Climate Change: sceptical, and no subsidies for wind farms. Gay marriage? No. Law and Order? More prison places, and zero tolerance for crime. Tax cuts and and equivalent cuts to public expenditure. On other social issues, the UKIP has been vocal in its opposition to what it sees as ‘political correctness’ in public life. It says that multiculturalism has divided British society. It would legislate to allow smoking in pubs, in designated rooms, and hold local referendums on repealing the hunting ban.
Does it sound familiar? There are Australian counterparts to virtually all of these policy positions. I don’t suggest that Clive Palmer’s party can pick up 25 per cent of the vote in September, but one of our difficulties in Australia is that so much of political comment is by and for the better-educated section of society which lives in the better suburbs in the cities. Yes, I’m one of them. The local rejection of Julia Gillard’s foray into Sydney’s western suburbs some time ago, and the sign that Labor will lose many of those seats in September is some kind of indication that there is strong dissatisfaction out there — more, perhaps, than in the better-off parts of our society.
And those with that feeling might be searching for something or somebody who, above all, just simplifies the political choices that affect people. Perhaps they are wrong to want simplification, and perhaps we should be explaining to everybody that the world is in fact enormously complex. But I sense that there is, in our country as well as in the UK, an urge to ‘cut through the crap’ and simplify life. I have some sympathy with the urge myself, for I think that we are in fact over-regulated, and that all that our governments seem to do is add further regulation.
But the slash-and-burn approach always has unexpected and unwelcome outcomes, however appealing it can seem at election time. And it is also, let us remember, often the way dictators come to power.