A deeply culturally and class divided electorate

Mark Buttigieg

The ALP needs to accept and deal with a fundamental political conundrum if it is to develop a real strategy for winning back government and keeping it.

Over the past ten years Australia has experienced increasing material prosperity and general economic well being. The fact that much of this success, if not all of it, is attributable to the Hawke-Keating economic reforms will scarcely change the fact that (no matter how many times we choose to recite it) the average person equates this economic success with the Howard government, no matter how deceitful it may be.

The political 'problem' for oppositions in gaining traction when the hip-pocket nerve is sedated is, of course, not an unusual one. However, given Australia's recent growth rates on top of our already high per capita income, coupled with falling unemployment rates, such a 'problem' is greatly magnified.

In that context, the last election loss for the ALP can be seen as further evidence in support of the long held dictum that when economic times are good it is governments which loose elections not oppositions that win them.

Further to the point, a look back at recent history shows that it is usually not all that easy for governments to loose. Witness the incumbent wins of the Menzies government after the 'credit squeeze' of 1961 and subsequent election win of 1963, and the Keating government's 17 per cent interest rates, followed by the 1991 'recession we had to have' and subsequent election win of 1993.

The flip-side to this is that the only times Labor has gained government post-World War Two has been against the back-drop of severe conservative government incompetence, long periods in opposition, and economic decline (1972) and severe recession (1983).

This phenomenon is becoming even more intractable because, as recessions become less severe and fewer and further between, most Australians feel even less compelled to vote Labor based on economic security issues.

In fact, what is happening, as has been pointed out recently by Lindsay Tanner, is that Labor is more likely to pick up swinging voters from seats where there are a high proportion of well educated and informed citizens who cast their vote based on social issues.

"What choice do people have if the alternative political product is not even for sale, much less being marketed properly?"

The problem with this of course is that these people are in the minority, and a lot of them are in safe Liberal seats not marginal ones. Unfortunate as it is, the majority of Australians appear reluctant to change their vote solely on issues that do not effect them materially.

For the average Australian, issues such as Iraq, mandatory detention, global warming, children overboard and AWB are things of interest for the political elite who read the Sydney Morning Herald and listen to and watch the ABC.

So long as economic prosperity continues, these issues have little or no influence in vote changing where it counts - among the traditional lower socio-economic voters who read the Daily Telegraph, listen to Allan Jones and watch Today Tonight.

The Labor Party needs to comprehend and deal with the fundamentals driving this phenomenon of the 'Kaths & Kims' gravitation to Howard outstripping the gravitation of the tertiary educated class to Labor. As countries like Australia become more and more developed and less exposed to economic insecurity, the disposable income of their citizenry increases which creates options.

Put simply, extra money buys one of two things - extra 'material well being' via purchases of holidays, cars, eating out, movies, sporting events, housing renovations, etc, or it can buy extra time, which in turn allows other more socially enlightening pursuits.

Unfortunately, the last 30 years has seen Australia choose the former. People have not used their newfound wealth and income to pursue self-improvement via education and culture.

Instead, the majority of citizens have taken the American option. They have not elected to become part of a well informed citizenry who have the analytical tools to make informed decisions on who governs them, unlike, for example, many citizens in countries in Europe. Voting may be compulsory in Australia, but thinking about your vote has definitely become voluntary!

This problem is not a new one for the left, of course. It raises the perennial problem of where real power resides - via the media's ability through ownership concentration to subtly manipulate the political agenda. We don't find it surprising therefore that the Howard government has just given carte blanche to monopolisation of the media.

The point is that traditionally the left has attempted to counteract this by concentrating on ways to check that monopoly power whilst neglecting too much the source of the problem - the people. Media concentration and content only survive to supply a conservative agenda - insofar as the people purchasing the product continue to demand it.

Of course, populist consumption of conservatism is further encouraged when political parties supposedly on the left do little to resist a conservative agenda.

What choice do people have if the alternative political product is not even for sale, much less being marketed properly? The dumbing down of the electorate marches on relentlessly.

If the majority of the population were able to see through the superficiality of the populist media, then the political impetus for the left would be twofold.

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