Geoff Gallop is a former premier of Western Australia. Your minister cannot avoid dealing with the politics, so you should understand the ideas behind it, and the policy compromises they must make to secure alliances.
There is a left-right spectrum within the body politic. It relates to a number of issues, but most notably the priority or otherwise of economic matters, the type of society we aspire to and the attitude we have towards climate change and its implications for the nation and its role in global affairs. It provides the framework within which politics plays out within the community, the media and the parliament.
On the right the following ideas prevail:
— Australia first.
— Economy and jobs first.
— A fair go for those that have a go.
— Community rights (especially religious rights) not human rights.
— The evidence of belief rather than evidence for belief.
All of this is wrapped up into an “us” versus “them” scenario, a class struggle of sorts in which the common people prioritise jobs and security for themselves and their families as against high-collecting and intrusive governments and their allies in civil society, in particular but not confined to all sorts of experts, in particular environmentalists who promote local “sacrifice” for “global good”. It’s a case of “Australian values”, “lifters” versus “leaners”, and, indeed, the majority versus minorities.
On the left the following ideas prevail:
— Global responsibility.
— Sustainability built around the “triple bottom-line”.
— A fair go for all.
— Human rights and responsibilities.
— Let the evidence speak.
All of this is packaged around a “progressive” versus “conservative” scenario in which the former promote overseas aid and climate action, a larger social wage and more inclusivity generally, especially for indigenous people and migrants. Theirs is the case for the “inconvenient truths” of the natural and social sciences.
There are class implications related to the progressive point of view, for example when it comes to taxation and the social wage, but not so as to define their politics. There’s much irony in a situation where the right wholeheartedly embraces class (“the people” versus “the elites”) whilst the left bases itself on binaries like “the future versus the past”, “evidence versus prejudice” and “human rights versus social rights”.
In between the two extremes of the left/right spectrum we find “the centre” made up of those who lean to the right (centre-right) and those who lean to the left (centre-left). What’s been a key feature of Australian politics since the collapse of communism in 1989 has been the hollowing out of this centre – firstly with the emergence of a green left and more recently with the emergence of a populist right.
This political culture involving right, centre-right, centre-left and left is now reflected in the party system as One Nation (and other similarly populist tendencies), the Coalition, the ALP and the Greens. Around all of this as well are more swinging voters who don’t fit so easily into the spectrum but whose preparedness to disrupt can’t be under-emphasised.
When it comes to who is to form government, the two majors still dominate, at least in the formal sense. However, to get there — and to be able to deliver in a bi-cameral system — they need the support of others. That means preferences in an election and numbers in the Senate. Negotiation and alliance building can’t be avoided, even if never formalised as coalitions do in Europe.
Herein lies the dilemma faced by the major parties, hemmed in as they are between left and right. Does the Coalition go to the right to seek support or will this just lose them support amongst moderate, small “l” liberals? Does the ALP go to the left to seek support or will this just lose them support amongst traditional working class supporters for whom the economy has special significance? Is there a “third way” that allows them to bridge the divide.
In the recent election the Coalition embraced a strategy based upon “one step back, two steps forward”. This involved allowing its moderate base to haemorrhage and targeting votes from the Labor camp. This it did in the resource states of Queensland and Western Australia and in the outer suburbs of each of the major cities. Its messaging was crystal-clear and highly focused.
Labor on the other hand sought to embrace disillusioned Liberals and workers, the former through climate politics and the latter through the social wage. As we have seen the strategy for the former worked with inroads being made into inner-urban and more educated Australia, but not in respect of the latter where Liberal campaigns focused on the risks of change and “more jobs/less taxes”, leaving it to Labor to prosecute the case for social and environmental reform.
The key enabler for the Coalition in all of this was the class politics framework built up over many years by the populist right and pushed hard on both mainstream and new media. Elections are all about seats and votes and when the chips were down the Liberal strategy produced the goods. Labor’s so-called working-class base just wasn’t there – and nor did its union allies have the clout they once did to spread the message regarding the social wage.
Geoff Gallop was the 27th Premier of Western Australia, from 2001 to 2006 during a 20-year career in state parliament. He is currently Emeritus Professor, Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney, having served as Director of the Graduate School of Government until 2015.