When Big Parties Look The Same, Voters Turn Elsewhere

Written by:
8 June 2022
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Australia issued its verdict at the polls last month. It may not be the desired outcome for all, but it’s an outcome we must respect. This was the most unconventional federal election in recent memory in more respects than one realises.

For years the moderates in the Liberal Party ran the narrative that conservatives needed to tone down and embrace progressive ideals to remain electorally relev­ant in a rapidly evolving Australia. One would have thought this would earn them friends across the divide. Yet it remains greatly ironic that last month these moderate Liberals became the first casualties at the hands of those who supposedly shared their moderate and progressive ideals.

Liberals shifting to the left don’t win the party friends on the left. It simply tells the left if a set of Coalition MPs is advocating for what the left sees as its policy, then it may as well go all out and advocate for an even more fundamentalist position on the same policy.

Take climate and energy policy. As far as the teal independents were concerned, the voters who genuinely cared for climate action would have a choice between the Liberals, who were seen as reluctant on climate action (because of their opposition to the emissions trading scheme, the carbon tax and the national energy guarantee), and the teal independents, who were seen as the real deal when it came to ensuring Australia reached its global emissions reduction targets.

Until recently winning elections, and forming government, has been about major parties offering voters alternative policies. In 1901, when we became a federation, protectionism versus free trade was at the centre of our first federal election.

Fast forward to the 1917 federal election, we see the same thing happening right in the middle of World War I. Military conscription was the No.1 issue, and voters were provided two alternatives. There was the Nationalist Party led by Billy Hughes that was pro-conscription and the Labor Party led by Frank Tudor that was anti-conscription.

As we journey through most elections, we find similar policy alternatives on the big issues. And the one thing almost all elections had in common was that they were about everyday bread-and-butter issues that mattered to most working-class Australians.

Some observers oversimplify left-right politics in English-speaking Western nations as left = poor and right = rich, except this formula couldn’t be further from reality. I would argue both the left and the right traditionally have targeted aspirational working-class people, each in their own ways.

The Australian Labor Party grew out of the trade union movement, which was an outgrowth of two waves of the industrial revolution across the century before that had created conditions at mine sites and factories that drove the need to fight for fairer working conditions and wages. That’s working class, not elitist.

Despite this, critics of Labor try to portray it as elitists who prioritise the interests of union bosses and their socialist allies in big government, wanting a slice of everyone else’s pie.

The Liberal Party too grew out of its earlier predecessors, the Nationalist Party based on socially conservative values and the United Australia Party that fought for economic freedoms.

This meant that aspirational working-class Australians who were employed in the trades, ran their own businesses and wanted to maximise their ability to hire freely and pay lower taxes could have a voice in parliament.

That, too, is working class, not elitist. Again, we find critics of the Liberal Party who try to portray it as elitists who prioritise the interests of corporations and billionaires.

In their heyday, both Labor and Liberals have done their fair share to represent regular Australians while concurrently accusing each other of being elitist.

Yet the electoral landscape has now shifted.

As recent Institute of Public Affairs research shows, the Coalition now represents at least 16 out of the 20 poorest electorates in Australia while 15 out of 20 of the wealthiest electorates are held by Labor, the Greens or the teal independents.

In part, this is the result of both parties deviating from that established practice of offering voters alternative policies on big issues at federal elections. Both Labor and Liberal had similar policies this year, especially on the issue of climate and energy where both committed to the policy of net-zero emissions by 2050. Their policy differences were barely visible inside the political bubble, let alone on the outside with swing voters.

The campaign ended up being awfully personal and negative. The Liberals attacked Anthony Albanese’s character and personality by painting him as incompetent and inexperienced. Labor attacked Scott Morrison’s character and personality by painting him as heartless and anti-women.

If that’s the standard to which the two major parties must descend, it explains why there would be a swing against both with a substantial part of the policy-centric vote ending up with minor parties and independents.

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