Another week, another “all-time low” in Australian political debate. Things, we are told, are worse than they’ve ever been before. It has become a matter of conventional wisdom that the policies of both the Labor and Liberal parties are so similar that they are the political equivalent of petrol stations selling the same products at virtually identical prices (except the 2-for-1 Freddos). This notion of party convergence has become so widely repeated in popular commentary that it is accepted with little scrutiny. Oddly, the charge of convergence is often accompanied by claims of obstructionist behaviour by the opposition. How our political parties can be both converging and actively opposing each other at the same time is a question that remains conveniently unanswered.
There seems to be no shortage of rehabilitated political has-beens eager to reinforce this received wisdom during their Monday night visits to #qandaland, bemoaning the current state of political debate with a laugh-engendering bon mot. Whether it’s Malcolm Fraser or Graham Richardson; John Hewson or Lindsay Tanner, everything was better back in their respective days. If these characters are to be believed, their eras were part of a golden age of enlightened political debate where ideas and ideology triumphed over simplicity and mediocrity. This terrible state of affairs is so terrible that you, dear reader, need no convincing that we are part of the worst period in history. Ever. Unfortunately for these political revisionists, a walk through political history can be a harsh mistress.
While voters still broadly identify the Liberal Party as a notionally centre-right party and the Labor Party as centre-left, there is an undeniable overlap between the two. A notable policy issue that has caused consternation in #qandaland, asylum seekers, has seen both the Labor and Liberal parties attempting to out-flank one another on the right. Similarly, economic liberalism has been embraced by both of the major parties, with Kevin07 advertising himself as an “economic conservative”, or “John Howard-lite” during those interminable 2007 election ads. Furthermore, then-opposition leader John Howard complained during the Hawke years that the Labor Government was stealing all of his ideas for economic reform. So it seems there might be a grain of truth to this notion of convergence, at least in a couple of policy areas, but is any of this particularly new?
Political commentators complained about party convergence as long ago as the alleged “golden years” of the Whitlam Government. Even during the grand old era of Menzies, one historian argued at the time that “it was difficult to discern much practical difference between [the parties’] policies”. So much for hitting an all new low. The extent of party convergence can hardly be judged on a couple of isolated policy areas, as significant as they may be. Mandatory detention for asylum seekers was a policy of the Keating Government passed with bipartisan support in 1992. Similarly, both parties have shared a commitment to market liberalisation since at least 1975, arguably earlier. Convergence, to the extent that it may be occurring, can therefore hardly be judged to be a recent phenomenon.
The fact is that Australian politics has rarely been the battle of ideas #qandaland bemoaners claim it was. Canberra never has been and probably never will be the birthplace of a great political and philosophical movement. The best Canberrans can hope for is another successful Floriade, or even another enjoyable international art exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia. Oh, and the carillon. Carillons are awesome. But I digress; rather than ideological battles, politics in Australia is marked by a high level of pragmatism from both of the major parties.
While Labor leaders endlessly talk up “traditional Labor values” and Liberal leaders drone on about financial responsibility, neither party feels the need to be entirely bound to these vague “values” once in office. Whether it’s Labor, the notional party of the worker unilaterally slashing tariffs, or the “fiscally responsible” Liberal Party spending the most on welfare in a generation, pragmatism is the dominant political game. This is not to say, however, that Australian politics is pure electoral opportunism or pragmatism. Whatever #qandaland may believe, the major parties do hold distinct credos and apply these when developing policies.
For example, the market reforms of the Hawke and Keating years were accompanied by social policies that were undoubtedly reflective of Labor “values”: the Accord with the trade unions; improving Medicare; creating a comprehensive social safety net with unemployment benefits, pharmaceutical benefits and new aged care schemes. According to Keating adviser and speechwriter Don Watson, these social programmes were as much articles of faith for the Labor Government as the economic reforms. As a counterfactual, it’s difficult to imagine a 1980s Liberal government led by Andrew Peacock or pre-Workchoices John Howard signing a wage restraint accord with the unions; in fact Howard’s election in 1996 brought an abrupt end to wage fixing of any sort.
Contrary to #qanda audience belief, dogmatic ideology in Australian politics usually does not go down well in the electorate. Take Labor’s attempt in 1947 to nationalise the banks. Prime Minister Ben Chifley was rebuffed by the High Court and voters, leading Labor to 23 years in the opposition wilderness. Similarly, when the Howard Government, punch-drunk on a once-in-a-generation Senate majority, attempted to give employers unfettered power over their workers, voters responded accordingly, sacking both Howard and his Government. Oh, and just ask the doyen of #qandaland, Paul Keating, about how well “big picture” politics turned out for him. Popular in #qandaland, not so popular in Queensland. What’s more is that these examples represent clear difference in both policies and attitudes between the parties during different political eras.
There are plenty of reasons not to like the level of contemporary political debate. Slogans substituting for complex and detailed policy is hardly an ideal situation, but again, this is not endemic to contemporary politics. From the Liberal Party’s classic 1949 election poster featuring the catchy message, “Your Child is a person to you. Under Mr. Chifley’s socialism she’ll be JUST A NUMBER. VOTE LIBERAL FOR LIBERTY,” to the granddaddy of Australian sloganeering 1972’s “It’s Time”, the reduction of complex themes to sometimes only slightly less complex slogans is nothing new. Neither is the seeming “all-new low” in leader popularity. While only the most blindly committed partisan would suggest that either Julia Gillard or Tony Abbott are popular in the electorate, Paul Keating still holds the ignominious Newspoll record for the highest dissatisfaction rating at 75 per cent (3-5 September 1993). Interestingly, two golden era PMs, Hawke and Howard, rate equal third behind Gillard in the dissatisfaction stakes.
Although our current leaders are clearly less than stellar (if one believes the polls), the constant deference to leaders past only serves to create an echo chamber of cynicism and alienation from the processes and institutions of government. The revolving door of #qandaland has-beens bemoaning how bad things are and harkening back to a golden era that never existed is not particularly helpful. Surely it is better to improve political discourse from inside the party tent, rather than cutting the guy ropes and bringing it down from the outside.
There are a lot of reasons for #qandaland to be disappointed in the current climate of political debate, but let’s not get carried away. We don’t hit “all-new lows” every week and there are at least a handful of pollies and public figures out there who harbour a genuine desire to make things better. Our major political parties, while agreeing on a number of policy issues, are hardly converging, or at least no more than has occurred in the past. Electoral pragmatism is still the order of the day for our parties. After all, a party can hardly effect change if it lacks executive power. Just don’t tell the Greens.