IPA Today

NSW Election is Another Contest About Nothing

Written by
23 March 2023
Originally appeared in The Australian Financial Review

Saturday’s contest in NSW is further proof the traditional left/right political divide is now irrelevant as politicians form part of a managerial elite whose task it is to eliminate political difference not accentuate it

These pages over several weeks have documented how the Liberal and Labor policies for Saturday’s NSW state election are virtually indistinguishable. It’s hard to disagree with Graham Young’s assessment a few days ago: it’s “a bleak choice between flat white and a latte”.

There are a few points to make about what’s happened. The first is that Saturday is just the latest in a long line of state and federal elections in recent years at which the parties have not given voters much of a choice.

The 2019 federal election was somewhat of an exception with Bill Shorten’s big-spending, big-taxing promises up against Scott Morrison’s slightly smaller big-spending commitments.

But broadly speaking, the rule holds, subject to the West Australian and Victorian Liberals attempting to distinguish themselves by offering policies actually more left wing than their opponents.

The last federal election at which there was anything approach a significant cultural or philosophical difference between the parties was 2013.

The cause and seeming growing prevalence of this “flat white versus latte” phenomenon is much debated.

Compulsory voting that forces the parties to move toward the “centre”, and then a “centre” shifting left as a consequence of the “leftward drift” of the electorate are common explanations why the policies of Liberal and Labor parties seem to converge towards a single position on the centre-left.

Another possible reason for what’s occurring is that it’s a result of the preferences of politicians themselves, and it has little to do with the wishes of the majority of the population. Accordingly, the traditional left-right political divide is now irrelevant as politicians and aspiring politicians believe themselves to be part of a managerial elite whose task it is to eliminate political difference not accentuate it. Certainly, some MPs might lean slightly more left or right but most politicians, regardless of the party they belong to, believe their role is to apply reason and reasonableness to the job of government.

In summary that’s the argument of a very significant new book Values, Voice and Virtue: The New British Politics by Matthew Goodwin, a politics professor in the UK. He’s Thomas Piketty for the centre-right, but more original and 10 years younger. Nearly everything Goodwin says about British politics applies to Australia. Dominic Perrottet could be Rishi Sunak and Chris Minns Keir Starmer. Or vice versa.

As Goodwin explained in a recent interview with Brendan O’Neill, “When ordinary voters look at institutions, not only do they see people not like them, but they also see these people talking about people like them in overwhelmingly negative and derogatory ways…

“The political class has been taken over by university graduates, typically from elite institutions. And the largest single group in the Commons today is political careerists, who have only ever worked in politics. This has led some academics to talk about the rise of ‘diploma democracy’, instead of representative democracy. Essentially, a liberal, graduate political class has taken over the institutions of politics and of the state.”

In this country, the derogatory talk has also begun. Witness the description applied by one of Australia’s leading barristers to those who would contemplate voting “No” in the Voice referendum.

The British journalist Allister Heath recently neatly described the difference between ordinary voters and their rulers. “The divide in British politics – and in the rest of the developed world – has, if anything, widened. The first camp believes in the top-down rule of experts, social engineers, lawyers, economists and philosopher-king, empowered to construct, enforce and impose a ‘better’, ‘more rational’ world; the second camp believes that power flows upwards, that we should listen to and respect the values, voices and opinions of ordinary people of all ethnicities and creeds who play by the rules, work hard, love their country and seek to improve their families’ lives.”

Perhaps the scariest thing about the NSW state election is that other than at the margin, it might not matter who wins. Whether politics can continue like this is an open question. As Goodwin has said, “This is not sustainable. There will be a correction. There has to be a correction. The question is, who will lead it and when will it arrive?”

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John Roskam

John Roskam is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs

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