Are political labels useless?

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Monday, 27 September 2010 20:01 by Ad astra
Learned dissertations on politics use classical terminology to identify particular political positions. Terms like ‘conservative’, ‘liberal’, small ‘l’ liberal, ‘economic liberalism’, ‘economic conservatism’, ‘political liberalism’, ‘social liberalism’, ‘social conservatism’, ‘socialism’, social democracy’, ‘liberal democracy’, or more colloquially, ‘wets’ and ‘dries’ are but some of the terms that are used to describe people’s positions and attitudes, and to point to their preferred policies.

There has been talk since the 2010 election about the orientation of the main political parties. Labor, long seen as centre-left, is now seen by the Coalition as lurching violently to the left after its post-election ‘alliance’ with the Greens, who are portrayed as extreme left. But on refugee policy it is seen as moving to the right. There is also talk in Coalition circles about whether it has lurched too far to the conservative right. Will Hodgman, Liberal leader in Tasmania certainly thinks so, as does Malcolm Fraser.

But how much do these labels help us in understanding what individual politicians think and feel, what parties believe, what they ‘stand for’? In my view not much, serving as they do to confuse more often than clarify.

It was as I read Tony Abbott’s book Battlelines that the confusion such labels evoke became starkly apparent. In an attempt to describe what the Liberal Party was and stood for, he went back to R G Menzies’ 1985 assertion: “What the Liberal Party needed to do...was to rededicate itself to ‘patriotism...the family...the small unit in agriculture, industry and commerce...political obligation...intellectual rigour’.” After the party’s loss to Gough Whitlam, Menzies lamented that "the party of everything" had become "the party of nothing". This lament highlights the dilemma defeated parties face, and points to the need for introspection, refining of principles, review of policies and redefining the party’s very essence. Values and direction have to be rediscovered and renewed.

Clearly Abbott was soul searching when he wrote his book. He cautions that “Romanticizing the achievements of the previous government [the Howard Government] and demanding that the electorate repent of its mistake is a recipe for a very long stint in opposition.” Ironically, that stands in stark contrast to Abbott’s actual behaviour since the 2007 election when he has repeatedly lamented the rejection of ‘such a good government’ by a ‘sleep-walking electorate’. He goes on to quote George Brandis as saying the party had ‘moved too far to the right’, and ‘should return to the small ‘l’ liberal tradition’ of Robert Menzies or Alfred Deakin. I wonder what Abbott thinks after the recent election?

Highlighting the difficulty in articulating the principles and the philosophies that party members have in common, Abbott bemoans the fact that such an exercise often evokes a row and a flurry of motherhood statements. He concedes political liberalism cannot be reduced to a simple prescription and that John Stuart Mill, the great philosopher of liberalism, had different political positions at different times.

Menzies created the term ‘Liberal’ to mean a ‘progressive party, willing to make experiments, in no sense reactionary, but believing in the individual, his rights and his enterprise’. He stressed the ‘creative genius of the individual’ but that the individual needed to be ‘assisted and sometimes controlled by the government in the general social interest’. He believed in and encouraged ‘free private enterprise’ but not ‘irresponsible enterprise’. He spoke of the ‘real freedoms to worship, to think, to speak, to choose, to be ambitious, to acquire skill, to seek reward...for these are of the essence, of the nature of man’.

After thirty pages in which Abbott valiantly attempts to explain conservative values, he goes onto list descriptive terms additional to those mentioned at the beginning of this piece: ‘left wing’, ‘right wing’, ‘interventionist’, ‘deregulatory’, ‘capitalist’, ‘socialist’, ‘centralist’ and ‘federalist’, but emphasises that these terms “...don’t matter much compared with whether they might plausibly solve a problem in ways that would be in the national interest”, and that “the ‘ideological’ tag...rarely strikes a chord with voters”. I agree with Abbott.

Abbott rebuts Robert Manne’s contention that the Coalition’s policies were the conscious application of neo-liberal or neo-conservative ideology to economic and national-security problems. Abbott insists that: “not a single Howard cabinet member ever had any ‘neo-ism’ in mind when actually making a decision”.

For his part, Kevin Rudd did not seek to follow the ideological path, but rather took the pragmatic approach to issues, much as has the Liberal Party as described by Abbott. Julia Gillard is believed by many to be more ideologically driven, but has yet to reveal how she formulates her approach to political matters. The Australian Greens is said to be the most ideologically driven party.

This piece argues that the traditional ideological terms so often used are of little help to voters trying to understand the orientation and political positions of the politicians that they are required to select for office. Different people often attach very different meanings to the same term. The 2010 election illustrated how poorly the electorate grasped the essential differences in ideology, policy and approach of the major parties. Many insisted that the campaign was ‘policy-free’.

This piece contends that voters, expecting to know what candidates stand for, deserve to have better ways of assessing them than simply the name of their party or the superficial ideological tags so often attached to that party. Now is the time to reflect on how we can do it better when next we go to the polls.

Why not describe political orientations and positions with brief descriptors, as did Menzies – a ‘What I believe in’ manifesto?

Here’s a first attempt to create such a conceptual checklist. It is of necessity incomplete, as a complete list would be as encyclopedic as the issues facing political parties. You are invited to add items that you would like to see on a checklist that you would wish candidates in your electorate to answer before you cast your vote. I will add them in seriatim.

The first set is somewhat ‘motherhood’ in nature, such that one would expect most politicians to answer in the affirmative. The second list is more testing, requiring as it does the candidate to select from countervailing alternatives. Imagine a check box associated with each choice. If you find the lists tedious, just skim them to get the idea presented here.

I believe in:

Values and beliefs

Freedom for all to worship, to think, to express views

Freedom of choice of religion, work, political affiliation and associates

Freedom from oppression

Equity, equality of opportunity and fairness for all

Love of country and patriotism

Respect for the original inhabitants of this country

Respect for our ancestors and the origins of our nation

Recognition of, and respect for the sovereign and her representatives

Respect for Australian military traditions and feats in times of conflict

Preservation of traditional Australian values: mate-ship, a fair go, mutual respect 

Respect for the rule of law, the nation’s legal system and justice for all

Respect for the nation’s political system, the democratic process and the rights and responsibilities of elected governments 

Opportunities for all to engage freely in political discourse

Preparedness to innovate and experiment in public policy

Care for the natural environment

Family values

The family as the basic unit of society

An emphasis on family values and family well-being

Acceptance of the several variants of ‘family’: traditional two parent, single parent, gay and lesbian relationships
Fostering family saving, self-sufficiency, self reliance and prudence in the use of resources

Freedoms and opportunities

Freedom to acquire knowledge, skills, a satisfying occupation and appropriate rewards, and to be ambitious

Educational opportunities for all to the extent of their capacity

Freedom to be enterprising and innovative in business

Creating opportunities for advancement

Small business as a crucial element of commercial and industrial endeavour

Small agricultural endeavour

A fair and equitable industrial relations system
Health and social support

Equitable, accessible, affordable, comprehensive and dignified health care from birth through old age at a cost the individual and society can afford

Accessible and affordable facilities for the prevention of illness and management of physical, mental and social illness

Support for the disabled and their carers appropriate to their needs 

Respect for life and how it ends

Social support for those unable sufficiently to support themselves

Support for those unable to find work

Support for the homeless, and public housing for them
Proper living and employment conditions for indigenous people
Health care for indigenous people that closes the health gap
Training programmes for those seeking employment

Occupational health and safety arrangements that protects all workers

Economy, trade, markets, regulation and resources

An open economy that engages in global markets and free trade
Freedom for individuals and businesses to engage in free enterprise
Tax systems that encourage commercial activity, but reap fair returns from productive industries
A sound, well-regulated and capitalized commercial banking system that supports commerce and industry
A central Reserve Bank that keeps inflation under control with interest rate adjustments
A system of support for industries that become threatened, especially the farm sector during times of drought, flood and tempest
Encouragement for manufacturing within the bounds of economic commonsense
Government support for all forms of productive economic activity
Improving productivity, sustainable growth and participation in the workforce
Fast broadband that enables the most efficient conduct of commerce, education, health and communications
Population growth that is consistent with sustainability and economic growth
Prudent use of resources consistent with environmental sustainability
Action on climate change that curtails its adverse effects

National security

Protection of the territorial integrity of Australia

A strong defence capability

Willingness to provide for regional security

Willingness to contribute to global security

The above are mostly motherhood statements to which I expect most politicians would answer positively.

A more revealing test would be a set of largely mutually exclusive alternative propositions from which politicians could select. Again, imagine a check box with each item.

I believe in the selected option:

The Australian way of life

The existing way of life should be maintained as it has served us well

We should attempt to continually improve our way of life

A traditional family of a married man and wife with children is the preferred mode of family life

Other family arrangements (childless couples, single parents, surrogate parents, homosexual couples) should be encouraged

Same sex marriage should be permitted

Choice of contraception is a right for all sexually active people

Women have the right to decide on the continuance of a pregnancy

Abortion should be outlawed

Late term abortion should be outlawed
Euthanasia should be available with suitable safeguards


Education is the lifeblood of the nation

All who are capable are entitled to as much education as would benefit them

Education should be reserved for those capable of benefiting from it

Education should be free throughout

Education should be free through secondary education but tertiary education should be paid for by the consumer

Scholarships should be readily available to talented people

The HECS scheme is sound and should be retained

The HECS scheme is punitive and should be abolished

Private schools should not receive government subsidies

Private schools are entitled to subsidies as parents who pay taxes are entitled to some benefit

Health and welfare

Governments have an obligation to prove excellence in health care at minimal cost

Consumers of health care should pay an equitable amount for care

Individuals are obliged to take care of their health and avoid overburdening the health care system

Governments have the right to penalize those who disregard their health

Higher excise should be levied on tobacco, alcohol and junk food

More emphasis should be given to community care to take the pressure off hospitals

More emphasis should be given to aged and palliative care facilities
More emphasis should be given to mental health care, especially for the young

Hospital beds should be reduced and more community and aged beds built

More hospital beds are needed to relieve emergency department congestion

Markets, regulation and international trade

Unfettered free markets with minimal government regulation or control are preferred

Free markets but with firm government regulation are desirable

Free markets strongly controlled by government regulation are essential

Globalization, global markets and free trade are now the norm

A neo-liberal approach to markets is best

A Hayekian approach to markets is best

A Keynesian approach to markets is best

Tariff protection is needed to protect local industry

Government support is essential for local manufacturing
Companies mining our irreplaceable minerals should pay a fairer share of their profits in tax
Mining companies are already paying enough tax
Higher taxes on mining would cripple the industry and send it offshore
Fast broadband is essential for business, education and health care
The broadband we have is satisfactory and does not need vastly higher speeds

GFC, stimulus, debt and deficit, interest rates

The Government should not have instituted a stimulus programme during the GFC

The incurring of the debt resulting from the stimulus programme is fully justified

It is more important to avoid debt than it is to avoid recession and unemployment

Once the recession was receding all stimulus should have been stopped

The stimulus should be continued until obligations have been met 

The stimulus should be continued until the threat of recession is over

Interest rate rises are a direct result of the Government stimulus

Interest rate rises are a result of improvement in the economy

National security, border control, asylum seekers

Australia should be prepared to contribute defence personnel to war zones where Australia’s national interest is threatened

Australia must maintain its territorial integrity again all comers

It is more important to prevent unauthorized arrivals than to accept genuine asylum seekers arriving in small boats

Small boat arrivals should be turned away

Asylum seekers arriving by small boats should be accepted willingly as our humanitarian responsibility

Asylum seekers should be processed offshore

Asylum seekers should be allowed onto Australian soil for processing

Temporary protection visas should be reintroduced

The Pacific Solution should be reinstated

Climate change

Global warming is a myth

Global warming is a reality and a threat to the planet and humankind

Global warming is the greatest moral and economic threat of our time

If global warming is occurring, urgent steps should be taken to counter it

An emissions trading scheme that puts a price on carbon would be the most effective ameliorating mechanism

A carbon tax would be the most effective ameliorating mechanism

A ‘direct action plan’ that involved no tax would be the best approach

The environment

Care for the environment is more important than economic considerations

It is more important to retain jobs and support business than to attend to environmental concerns

Polluting industries should be phased out rapidly

Renewable energy generation must soon replace coal generation

Australia should generate all of its energy requirements from renewable sources

There are as many jobs in ‘renewables’ industries as would be lost in discontinued polluting industries 

Nuclear-powered generation should be introduced here as soon as feasible

Use of motor transport and the building of freeways should be scaled down
Fast rail is to be preferred over roads

Mills such as the proposed Gunn’s Mill in Tasmania should not be built.

Population issues

Australia should allow population to grow at the previous rate without restriction

A desirable population for Australia by 5050 would be the projected 36 million

Australia should restrict its population through birth control

Australia should restrict its population through restricted immigration

Immigration should be limited to those who are needed to cover skills shortages

Immigration has been the lifeblood of Australia’s prosperity and should be continued at the same rate

A study should be made of this country’s carrying capacity now and until century end so that population growth and distribution can be regulated to match needs and capacity

The list could go on and on, and is already somewhat unwieldy. It is offered here simply as an example of the many issues that politicians must manage, and as a way we might approach assessing the relative worth of the attitudes and policy positions of our political parties and local candidates, in a way not possible simply through their party names or the place they are said to occupy on the conceptual political spectrum we talk about so much, but may understand in very different ways.

If you feel an important area has been omitted, please describe it and the options that accompany it, and I will add it to the list.

Finally let’s have your views about the relative merits of the established terminology we have used since time immemorial and the approach suggested above for selecting parties and politicians.

In my view political labels are not just useless; they are confusing and misleading.

What do you think?