How do voters decide on where to cast their vote? For some it is automatic, even unthinking. They have voted this way before, maybe always. They are the rusted-on voters.
For many though, it's a question of “What’s in it for me?” “What will I gain if I vote this way and what will I lose?” The party matters less than the gains that each pledges, and the losses each threatens.
There is another group. Its members weighs up the pros and cons of each party’s platform and selects the ones that align best with their individual values, beliefs and ideology. These are the thoughtful; they probably comprise many of the so-called ‘undecideds’, who in a recent Essential poll
sat at 16%, with another 31% saying: ‘I am leaning in one direction, but it could change.’ In other words, 47% could still vote either way on September 14. These are the ones who decide who wins – the swinging voters. How do they decide?
If one can judge from comments in the Fifth Estate, many of this group has well-established views about society in a democracy and how it ought to operate. They have their policy preferences and their biases. They have attitudes towards the leaders, and know what they like and dislike about them.
This piece attempts to tease out what it is that separates the major parties ideologically, how this is reflected in policy, and how this influences voting behaviour.
The Liberals, the Nationals, the Greens and Labor all have party platforms available on the Internet that depict their values, ideologies, policies and plans. They make informative reading. You can look at them here: Liberal Party
: (24 pages). National Party of Australia
: (57 pages). The Greens
: (43 policies). Labor Party
: (268 pages).
There has been a tendency for the uninformed to mouth what I believe to be an inanity: ‘They are all the same anyway’, implying ‘What does it matter for whom we vote’, followed by the unrealistic proposition: ‘If the party we vote for is no good, we can throw it out!’ This is not only ridiculous; it is a cop-out, a lame excuse for not thinking, for not looking for the things that separate the parties. There are plenty, yet a glance through the party platforms shows striking similarities. They all embrace laudable objectives that on superficial inspection seem quite similar, which may explain why some believe the parties really are ‘all the same’.
And of course there are also similarities among politicians: the ruthlessness, the ambition, the primeval urge to claw to the top, the factionalism, the disingenuousness, the spin and the use of the glib slogan, as well as common decency and a desire to make this country a better place. But there are deep and enduring differences in philosophy, ideology, attitudes and values that starkly separate politicians and parties.
I thought it would be an interesting exercise to examine the party platforms by using a rather crude process to identify their major attributes – searching for key words and phrases in their platforms.
My first observation is that all party platforms and policies enshrine commendable objectives such as a robust economy and strong employment. All support good education and health care systems. They all insist that they want a fair society, opportunities for all, and support for the disadvantaged and the disabled. It is only when these policies are applied that the stark differences become apparent, and they are stark.
Let’s look at some areas to tease out these differences, beginning with the economy. The economy
It is this aspect of governance that show up the differences most noticeably. Bill Clinton is often quoted as saying: “It’s the economy, stupid”, and it is. But I suspect he was referring to the need for a strong and growing economy. All parties in this country would agree with him, but the angle I wish to emphasize here is not that objective, but how different parties believe it can and should be achieved.
The Liberals place great value on ‘the right to be independent, to own property and to achieve’
and the ‘creation of wealth and competitive enterprise’
. The Nationals do too, but seem to give the economy less emphasis.
The Greens believe that ’a prosperous and sustainable economy relies upon a healthy natural environment’
and that ’the pursuit of continuous material-based economic growth is incompatible with the planet’s finite resources.’
The Labor Party emphasizes the need for a strong and growing economy with employment opportunities for all who can work.
Note the subtle differences. The Coalition values enterprise, competition and independence with less emphasis on employment; labour is seen as a vehicle that enables enterprises to prosper. The Greens’ support of the economy is subject to its compatibility with a healthy environment. Labor sees the economy as providing jobs and prosperity for all.
These differences create the tension that exists, and has existed for centuries, between enterprise and labour. This is described in a piece on Turn Left 2013
, that was written by Flora Tristan way back in 1843. Titled Workers’ Union,
it describes the awful struggle that women had in that era achieving decent working conditions. Then, there was grotesque exploitation of labour by management – low wages, poor working conditions, child labour, and no benefits. Of course working conditions are much, much better now, but the tension continues.
Business and industry insists there must be more ‘flexibility’ in working conditions, which is code for workers working when management wants them to, poorer working conditions and entitlements, and lower wages and benefits. The struggle goes on to this day. For example, those in tourism and the catering industry are insisting they cannot turn a decent profit if they have to pay penalty rates at weekends, which they insist are just working days that should attract ordinary wages.
Unions battle for better working conditions, sometimes overegging their claims; management tries to whittle them back to improve competitiveness and profit. It is where political parties position themselves on the ‘management – labour’ spectrum that exposes their values and attitudes.
You will all recall how the public reacted to the punitive aspects of John Howard’s WorkChoices
, legislated when he controlled both houses. He acknowledges he went too far, as do many of his ministers, so much so that Tony Abbott is scared witless about changing industrial relations in a way that suggests a return to WorkChoices
, which long ago he declared was dead and buried, and for good measure, cremated as well. Very dead! It was electoral poison then and was a major factor in the Coalition’s 2007 electoral loss, and it is still poison. It is a metaphor for the political danger of taking extreme positions. Similarly, unions who adopt extreme positions in the other direction, also take dangerous political risks.
So here is the battlefield. Business and industry takes entrepreneurial risks, invest money and resources, and seek a healthy return and consistent profits. Enterprise generally seeks to engage its workforce for the least outlay. Those representing the workforce seek to ensure good wages and conditions, and security for workers.
If you imagine the tension has dissipated, think about the contemporary ‘457 visa’ row. Unions, workers, and the Government insist that some employers are abusing the system with overseas workers being brought in when local labour is available, leading to Australians missing out on jobs, and a lowering of wages in the affected sectors. Instances have been quoted, sufficient for Government to legislate a tightening up of the 457 visa system. The Coalition reacted by denying the problem, linking it to ‘the Government’s failed border protection policy’.
This is not the place to argue the pros and cons of the 457 system, but simply to highlight the reaction to the plan to revise it. Business groups screamed blue murder, insisting the scheme was vital in some sectors (no one is denying that) and that abuses were minimal. It seemed reluctant to accept that there ought to be more emphasis on training locals in preference to importing foreigners. It labelled the Government’s moves as xenophobic, Pauline Hanson style. Returning from overseas, Peter Anderson, CEO of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, although conceding that there had been problems with 457 visas, nevertheless lambasted the Government’s moves on the basis of a headline in Singapore’s The Straits Times
, insisting that the crackdown on the 457 visa scheme was getting bad publicity in Asia, and expressing the fear that it might damage Australia's reputation and create a backlash against Australian workers and companies in Australia.
This is yet another example of the tension between those in business and industry and their workforce.
There are those who take the extreme view that enterprise ought to be given the breaks because entrepreneurs are the ‘wealth creators’ who provide jobs for the workers. They take this view on the basis that the wealth they create trickles down to those at the bottom of the pile. That this is often little more than crumbs falling from the rich man’s table is illustrated in a graph from John Quiggin’s book Zombie Economics - How dead ideas still walk among us
. In a paragraph headed Death – the rich get richer and the poor go nowhere
, Quiggin uses a telling graph of household income in the US over a 36 year period, from 1967 to 2003
. Do take a look. It shows that while those in the top 5% increased their income by over 60% in that period, those in the bottom 10% did not increase it at all, and even those on the 50th percentile, the half way mark, increased by less than 10%. It was only those on the 80th percentile or above that showed a substantial increase. The top half boomed; the bottom half stagnated. Not much trickle down there.
The theory of ‘trickle-down economics’ has been thoroughly debunked, yet it is still the base on which the Republicans in the US and their extreme partners, The Tea Party, build their case for not increasing taxes on the rich or taking away their tax breaks, preferring expenditure cuts that would adversely affect the poor and the disadvantaged. This was at the root of the dispute termed ‘the fiscal cliff’, which continues to this day. The conservative parties here, and the Coalition governments around this country, embrace the same doctrine and the ideology on which it is based. It might not be as extreme here, but it is nonetheless a driving force behind Coalition economic policy. Listen to Joe Hockey, Andrew Robb, Mathias Cormann, Barnaby Joyce and Cory Bernardi and your will hear the same dogma. Don’t bother listening to what Tony Abbott says; he says what ever suits his audience of the moment.
Yet another example of the tension between business and its workforce is the push by governments to achieve a budget surplus. All parties seek this outcome, but conservative parties believe budgeting for a surplus is an imperative even if the social consequences are dire. Labor pushed for a surplus for the current financial year in the belief that it was prudent economic policy to return to surplus after a period of stimulus. And it was. As it turned out, falling revenue meant that to achieve a surplus severe expenditure cuts would be needed that would slow the economy and increase unemployment. The Government chose to abandon its quest for a budget surplus and instead to support economic growth and growth in jobs, knowing it would be ridiculed by the Coalition for not achieving its aim, and breaking yet another ‘promise’.
On the other hand, Coalition governments in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria, which continue to pursue budget surpluses, have demonstrated whom it is that suffers – those in education, health, other services, and of course the public service. Savage cuts in these areas in Queensland reduced Campbell Newman’s net popularity from +23 to -13, a 46% drop in six months. In Victoria, Ted Bailleau, who resisted wage increases to nurses, paramedics and teachers, and who savagely cut TAFE funding, found he had lost the confidence of his party room and resigned. His successor, Denis Napthine seems to understand that he has to be less fanatical in achieving a surplus.
Conservative governments also eschew debt, insisting that governments must live within their means, notwithstanding the fact that almost one in two Australian households have a home mortgage
that takes many, many years to pay off, and three out of four have credit card debt. It’s apparently OK for households to go into debt when circumstances demand, but not governments. You will recall the resistance of the Coalition to the second and larger tranche of Government’s stimulus package during the GFC. Presumably the Coalition would have preferred to keep the debt down rather than keeping people in work and safeguarding small and large business. Labor preferred the opposite, and in doing so protected our economy from recession, steering it to be the best in the world today, with the lowest debt to GDP ratio in the developed world.
Although we have touched almost exclusively on the economy, these examples vividly illustrate the stark difference between progressive (Labor) parties and conservative (Coalition) parties.
Because this piece is already long enough, comparison of the parties and the contrasts they throw up in other areas of governance needs to be left for another time. This piece asserts that indeed ‘it is the economy, stupid’. It most influences voter thinking, but in a subtle way.
Although Australia has the most prosperous and vibrant economy in the developed world with parameters that finance ministers the world over envy, this will not be sufficient for many voters. They have come to expect such economic strength, and give the Government little credit for having brought it about. Therefore the driving force behind thoughtful voters’ decisions at election time is likely to be the extent to which each party matches the values they hold dear.
The two major parties exhibit almost diametrically opposed values. Progressive parties value jobs and economic growth more than running budget surpluses and retiring debt. Conservative parties detest debt and insist on running surpluses to pay it off, more than they value full employment and economic growth. The behaviour of contemporary Federal and State governments provides the supporting evidence this assertion requires.
Progressive parties place great store in social justice. By their actions, conservative parties appear to place more emphasis on commercial success. Labor values fairness and opportunity for all, seeks to achieve an equitable balance between incomes and wealth across the population, and supports the disadvantaged. In contrast, the Coalition decries what it describes as ‘a sense of entitlement’ that it says afflicts much of the electorate, ironically having created much of it in the first place. It takes a neo-liberal free market approach. It prefers to support the entrepreneurs, the wealth creators: business and industry, and casts as villains those who support working conditions: Labor, and of course the unions, whose officials it describes as thugs. The contrast between the parties is striking.
This comparison, this contrast, ought to influence thinking voters, who ought to vote according to their values. I wonder if they will, come September 14?
What do you think? If you decide to ‘Disseminate this post’ it will be sent to the following parliamentarians: Tony Abbott, Eric Abetz, Anthony Albanese, Adam Bandt, Cory Bernardi, Julie Bishop, David Bradbury, George Brandis, Mathias Cormann, Craig Emerson, Julia Gillard, Joe Hockey, Barnaby Joyce, Christine Milne, Robert Oakeshott, Christopher Pyne, Andrew Robb, Arthur Sinodinos, Wayne Swan and Penny Wong.