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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE and HUMANITY ENHANCED.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Clarifying some points about the election

In response to Gordon Campbell's useful comment on the previous post, I should clarify some points.

I wasn't suggesting that large numbers of voters put the Coalition ahead of Labor directly because of the sort of issues I identified. I do believe that some voters did this, perhaps thinking they could make a protest or because a particular issue, such as internet censorship, was a deal-breaker for them. So yes, some votes were lost to the Coalition (again, mine wasn't one of them).

But that wasn't so much what I was getting at. I was more concerned about other effects, such as losing the electorate of Melbourne to the Greens when, as it turns out, every seat counts. Again, the Greens will have unprecedented power in the Senate when their members take their seats, which will make it difficult for either major party to govern in its own right. What's more, Labor would look a lot better placed for political negotiations, in the context of a hung parliament, if it looked dominant in the Senate.

Over the past few years, many people have become Greens voters when they are not naturals for the Greens (I am, as I said, a Hawke-Keating social democrat, and I've never been very impressed in the past by the Greens' economic credentials ... but of course the Greens are getting more sophisticated all the time, so Labor is less and less able to rely on this).

But the main effect I had in mind when I spoke of failing to capture imaginations, and so on, isn't that Labor had direct leakage of votes to other parties during the few weeks of the election period. It's that many natural Labor voters are now almost as hostile to Labor as they are to the Coalition. This started to happen quite some time ago, probably even in 2008.

As a result, much good will that Labor enjoyed back in 2007 (from people who were less cynical realistic than I was about Rudd) was gradually lost. The further result is that there was no real passion being expressed publicly for Labor except from the party faithful. There was just a feeling that Abbott might be worse. At least, that's all I was hearing.

Now, I fully understand that more progressive policies than Labor took to the election might have cost it votes in the Western suburbs of Sydney and other places where there seems to be a lot of cultural xenophobia. That explains the position on asylum seekers, but it doesn't explain why Labor would stick with an unpopular policy such as internet censorship. Why adopt a policy more conservative and less popular than the Coalition's?

As for asylum seekers, it's true that a compassionate approach might be unpopular in many key seats, but Labor had three years to explain itself to the electorate, starting with the fact that the overwhelming majority of the asylum seekers turn out to be genuine refugees with bleak prospects in the countries they fled from. There was a lot that could have been done to lead the electorate on this issue, rather than pandering to its worst side. With a surge of popular good will, such as Labor enjoyed three years ago, and the bully pulpit of government, you can do a lot.

And of course there's the issue of climate change. I agree that someone who cares passionately about this issue would not shift preferences to the Coalition. But someone who is more confused about it, but who was maybe prepared to accept this issue as being important in 2007, might not be prepared to do so in 2010 when Labor itself seemed to have lost all conviction. The mishandling of this issue could well have made many voters think that (i) it's not so important afterall (so why vote for Labor to the extent that the parties are differentiated on the issue?) and/or (ii) the Labor leadership is, in the worst sense, cynical (so why vote for them if they're just as bad in that respect as their opponents?). This seems to have done a lot of the electoral damage.

Of course it's difficult to be sure how all this panned out over the three years and then over the election period. But we have a case where cynical or anti-progressive policies did damage, contrary to the wisdom that you can never go wrong by appealing to conservative instincts. In the end, the Labor analysts will have to work out whether a style of government more friendly to Labor's natural allies would have been more effective in attracting supporters and votes on balance, all things considered, approaching a 2010 election. I acknowledge that.

But what this extraordinary election shows us is that selling out people like me - people who look for compassion and a respect for individual freedom - for cynical populist gains is not all positive in its consequences out in the electorate. There were negative effects that Labor strategists did not factor in, and if Julia Gillard and co. do manage to squeak back into office they should think about this very hard. If they don't squeak back, they have even more soul-searching to do, but it'll be too late in many ways.

4 comments:

Mike said...

In my electorate of Grayndler, a heretofore safe Labor seat held by minsiter Anthony Albanese, the swing away from Labor 19.6% was so big that with more than a 10% swing to the Greens, their raw vote was higher than that for the Liberals.

In this city electorate, the issues relating to the internet and gay marriage would undoubtedly have played a role in this.

http://www.abc.net.au/elections/federal/2010/guide/gray.htm

Gordon Campbell said...

Upon sober reflection, and playing devil's advocate with myself (and swayed by your arguments)…
The way the Labor party paid heed to social conservatives and xenophobes probably did lose them some swinging voters to Liberal. There are some ‘real’ liberals – supporters of both free markets and civil liberties – who would tend more to the Liberal party economically, but may turn to the Labor party if they see it as preferable in terms of human rights. Even among those swinging voters who aren’t particularly concerned about civil liberty issues themselves, the impression of weakness and insincerity over these issues would have had an influence.
I wonder if there are some polling data somewhere that can give us an indication of the balance of votes won and lost due to these policies.
And, as you point it, dealing with a Green controlled Senate is going to be important for whoever forms government.

Robert N Stephenson said...

We are naturally hoping the idependent and our greeny ARE SENSIBLLE PEOPLE. I just heard our Green King, and man, he's already started out asking for the moon -- can only go downhill after that

Anonymous said...

Labor deserved to lose the election. Tony Abbott may well prove to be a successful PM - time will tell. However to vote for the Greens is a vote for the destruction of Australia. To do so you have to be delusional or insane - not much in between. I hope Metamagician and the Hellfire Club see the light before it's too late