Early this month, I contested the idea that this campaign was a boring race. It didn’t take long for that notion to be junked. But the perception that there’s no salient difference between the two parties has had a stronger lock on commentary. As Ben Eltham correctly argued at The Drum, it’s just as wrong.
However, that does leave open the question of whether we’re witnessing an ideological conjunction between Labor and Liberal.
To some degree, ideology is in the eye of the beholder.
For instance, some Greens supporters will agree with some libertarians that there’s little difference between the two major parties, though for ostensibly different reasons. For the Greens, they’re stuck in the same paradigm and for the libertarians, they’re both irredeemably statist.
Similarly, some Labor lefties will agree with small l liberals that immigration is a good thing, and the rhetoric about a ‘Sustainable Australia’ damaging. There are nuances here, but the same argument is being made by those who like the idea of cosmopolitanism for cultural and political reasons, and those who have an attachment to freedom of movement and think economic growth is best served by population growth.
Most of these folks are looking at the parties from a similar social and class location – professionally educated, often eschewing religious belief, and working in relatively comfortably paid jobs in the public or private sector, depending on political and cultural orientation.
If you’re working with the homeless, or the unemployed, or you are yourself homeless or unemployed, you’re likely to have quite a different take on what the social outcomes of a Labor or a Coalition government would be.
I remember reflecting, when I was a university student in 1993, that the election of a Hewson government would be in the self interest of people like me – the white male middle class. For me, with my politics, that was a reason to resist the pull.
But it’s easier to make political decisions based on self interest when your circumstances are reasonably comfortable or your prospects promising.
So, while we all like to think that we think for ourselves, a confluence of factors to do with our geographical location, our occupation, our gender, our education, and a host of other stuff is likely to give us a powerful predisposition to vote one way or another, or conceive of the purpose of politics one way or another.
That implies we should be wary of the condescending sneers at swinging voters in marginal seats whose vote is purportedly driven only by what the government can do for them personally.
What we can conclude is that the actual conduct of this election, and the campaigning style which has shaped its conduct, appeals to the lowest common denominator in terms of both recognising the real choices at stake and framing the issues.
That’s a great pity.
Where are the leaders in all this?
I have no doubt that Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott and Bob Brown are all actuated by genuine convictions, among other motivations.
And while a leitmotif of early commentary about Gillard’s leadership was that it was difficult to discern the nature of those convictions, that’s not the case.
The Prime Minister’s speech on July 15 to the National Press Club, ‘overshadowed’ by Laurie Oakes’ leak, actually repays careful reading. The transcript can be found here.
Gillard’s political beliefs are a form of social liberalism – perhaps more in the Deakinite Liberal tradition than might be thought – the emphasis on nation building, on the horizontal value of care and concern for others, and her strong belief in equality of opportunity are all hallmarks of this style of thought.
‘Market design’ and agnosticism as between the state and the private sector as vehicles for service delivery are themes which resonate strongly with New Labour practice in Britain. There’s a tendency in Gillard’s practice towards a species of social neo-liberalism.
Of course, ideological consistency is not something that exists outside the philosophy books, so we shouldn’t be surprised that the pull of perhaps misguided electoral pragmatism overpowers what are probably Gillard’s instincts on social policy such as same sex marriage.
But it would be quite wrong to say of Julia Gillard that she stands for nothing.
What’s more telling is that what she stands for is not really the same thing as traditional Labor social democracy – the emphasis is more on equalising opportunity than remedying inequality.
Tony Abbott, on the other hand, is less easy to place.
He seems to waver between statist instincts – more akin to those of the conservative advocates of the welfare state in continental Europe’s Christian Democracies than what we normally see in Australia – and a skepticism about the efficacy of state action which is more conservative than liberal.
There’s an internal tension in his thought between activism and the time-honoured conservative style of governance where keeping the ship of state afloat is much more important than what direction it’s pointed in.
There is also no doubt whatsoever that his instincts are socially conservative, and that’s demonstrable in this campaign through the sotto voce appeal to the ‘traditional family’.
But it’s more than possible for Abbott to be a conviction politician and not have a strong sense of how he would like to transform Australia – John Howard was at his least conservative when he succumbed to the vision of the largely former leftists among the culture warriors commentariat.
So, aside from real social and economic differences in outcome which can be anticipated from the result of this campaign, whichever way the choice goes, the ideological heritage and instincts of the two leaders will make a significant difference to the way the nation is governed over the next three years.
The big problem with this campaign is not an absence of differentiation, but the wrong sort of differentiation. In other words, the softly softly approach of electoral strategy has obscured what’s at stake, and will leave neither major party with a strong mandate to do what, in other circumstances, they might be inclined to do.
Cross-posted at The Drumroll.