Australia was the first nation in the world to elect a national Labor government. It was also one of the first to introduce equal federal suffrage, allowing women to both vote and stand for election. Yet, since Federation we have voted conservative to non-conservative by almost 2-1.
Krishani Dhanji asks two journalists, a former politician and a political historian why.
ARE WE INHERENTLY CONSERVATIVE?
ABC Insiders host David Speers, says the idea that Australia is a conservative country comes from our focus on marginal seats.
“A lot of marginal seats tend to be more conservatively minded, particularly on the economy,” he says.
Speers says this is especially true when it comes to divisive issues such as climate change, where these regions will tend to favour the Coalition’s conservative policy. Western Sydney and Queensland in particular, which tipped the Coalition into victory, are some of the targeted areas.
“… running a message or a scare campaign that being too ambitious on climate change is going to drive up power prices and cost coal jobs, [is] clearly effective in… those parts of the country.”
Former ABC 7.30 host Kerry O’Brien, says a combination of circumstances dictates the success of conservatives. These include the deep divisions within the Labor Party from early splits in the 1930s and 50s, which can still be felt today.
But he says, there’s no real pattern to Australia’s voting habits in federal elections. “I don’t think there is a historical pattern that explains why we’ve had more conservative governments than not, and why people have been more inclined than not to vote conservatively.”
AUSTRALIANS ARE “ANTI-SOCIALIST”
Former House Speaker and Liberal MP Bronwyn Bishop, says Australians aren’t conservative, but rather “anti-socialist”.
“[They] reject the idea that the state knows better than the individual, and the very foundation of the Liberal Party by Menzies was that the individual was always paramount,” she says.
Ms Bishop has long campaigned on the philosophy of individual freedom and free enterprise, with limited state intervention.
She believes modern Labor leaders including Kevin Rudd, Paul Keating and Bob Hawke were successful because they campaigned on a platform of economic conservatism. Ms Bishop says Mr Rudd entered politics masquerading as “a younger version of John Howard, [using] all the right words going into the election”.
David Speers notes that while it’s “never been easy” for Labor to win from the opposition, they have typically been successful when they’ve “managed to [run] a campaign specifically on being economically conservative, and tailored their message to job creation.”
Kerry O’Brien believes many of the policies introduced by the Hawke/Keating government align closely with contemporary Liberal politics. Economic policy in the 1980s and 1990s under Labor was defined by financial deregulation, the float of the dollar, the sale of the Commonwealth Bank, and entry of foreign banks.
Their program of economic reform was one “that Liberal governments would have killed for, but didn’t have what it took to implement”.
And yet, the public consistently views the Coalition as better economic managers.
“The conservatives over a hundred years and more have obviously done a better job of convincing the electorate, more often, that they can be trusted on the economy,” says Speers.
“It was true generally that the proprietors of Australia’s newspapers for a very long time were more inclined to support the conservative side of politics.“
“I believe in the principles of free enterprise, which tells me the business of government is to do those things which the private sector cannot or will not do“
“The conservatives over a hundred years and more, have obviously done a better job of convincing the electorate, more often, that they can be trusted on the economy”
THE IMPORTANCE OF FRAMING
Communications theory tells us the importance of framing, how making certain issues salient can change public perception, and politics is no different.
David Speers says politics is about “winning the framing of the debate as much as the policy detail itself”. The Coalition has been far more effective than Labor at framing two key issues: economic management and national interest.
Economic management is a contentious issue, and Speers says the Coalition has been better at portraying the party as more equipped to guard the national purse. It’s also framed as the party of personal and business tax cuts, particularly for higher income brackets. But this policy was only introduced in the last three to four decades. Under Robert Menzies, the top tax bracket was at 67 per cent, and Speers notes the last nine budgets during the Liberal Prime Minister’s 16 years of government delivered great deficits.
Kerry O’Brien says high taxes throughout the early to mid 20th Century were accepted as the norm from both sides, as both had “ambitious spending programs”. Menzies even boasted of delivering a high deficit to maintain high levels of growth and keep unemployment rates low.
He says this changed under the Hawke/Keating government.
“The irony was that it was a Labor government that started to bring those taxes down. I think it was Keating that first brought down personal taxes to about 48 per cent.”
Since then, the Coalition has adopted the policy, and used it to appeal to voters. Both context and framing have caused this colossal shift in the 21st Century.
O’Brien believes this was due in part to John Howard’s ability to frame the 1990s recession as Labor’s fault. Following Keating’s bow out of politics, Labor leader Kim Beazley was “way too defensive about [the recession], instead of capitalising on the years of credible reforms that Labor had implemented.”
The bad management label he says, has subsequently stuck.
SERVING THE NATIONAL INTEREST
The Coalition is also more effective in framing itself as better able to serve in the national interest.
Professor Frank Bongiorno AM of ANU’s History Department, says that as Labor has been intrinsically tied to the trade unions since its inception, it’s been painted as a party of sectional interests, rather than being able to govern for the whole country. In comparison, he says the Coalition has historically been unconnected to any specific group.
“We’ve seen [the Liberal party] is the party of business, sometimes the party of the middle class but it’s been more ambiguous about its connections to any particular interest group.”
Professor Bongiorno contends that this makes the Coalition better able to frame itself as representing the whole country, rather than just part of it. But he says some of Labor’s most notable electoral successes have come during crises.
“[During the Second World War] Labor was very successful in presenting itself as embodying the national interest, and in the 1980s there was this powerful sense of economic crisis and again Labor was successful in presenting itself as able to grapple with that more successfully than its opponents in the national interest”.
He says Labor has instead done better in the states, where the question of serving the national interest is less prevalent. He also notes that the individual state and territory offices heavily control the party, meaning they have a firmer grip on policy direction.
“The states and state offices basically run the Labor Party, even now.”
“Trade unions and the branches of the trade unions that control funds that can [directed to] the Labor Party, are again at the state level,” he says.
David Speers again points to Queensland, where the Labor Party has been able to run a more successful campaign.
“If you look at elections in Queensland, Labor has done better at the state level, by framing itself under a more conservative model,” he says.
IMPACT OF THE MAINSTREAM MEDIA
Kerry O’Brien believes commercial media has played a key role in the success of the Coalition. He says the proprietors of newspapers especially, have often been more inclined to favour conservatives. Frank Bongiorno agrees, saying Labor has generally done more poorly with Australia’s commercial media.
“There’s a really strong tradition in Australia of the media baron; a particular individual being a significant player – Rupert Murdoch for example – or if you go further back, Kerry and Frank Packer or Warwick Fairfax. And not surprisingly, they tend to favour non-Labor,” says Bongiorno.
Kerry O’Brien says that Murdoch’s News Corp empire has certainly been influential during elections.
“[News Corp] very clearly pushes a particularly strong brand of right wing politics and it’s inarguable,” he says.
Almost ironically, it was Paul Keating who enabled Murdoch’s News Corp to expand by swallowing the Herald and Weekly Times in 1987.
Former Prime Ministers Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd have both spoken out about how the tabloid affected their terms in government. Mr Rudd has even launched a petition for the establishment of a Royal Commission to investigate News Corp’s dominance in the Australian media market.
But David Speers says that while the media does wield some electoral influence, its overall impact is “overstated”.
“There was a very heavy editorial line against the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd governments, from certainly the News Corp tabloids, and you only have to look at a string of their front pages to [see] that. Now, did that actually change voters in marginal swing seats? I think that’s harder to establish,” he says.
From the other side of the table, Bronwyn Bishop doesn’t believe there is a tendency for commercial mainstream media to favour conservatives. On the contrary, she thinks individual journalists are more likely to sway left.
“Individual journalists are more likely to be of the left than of the right, to use those terms. You’ve only got to see what they write and what they say,” she says.
“There is a great deal more mediocrity in the parliament, there is much less material from which to find current, let alone future leaders. And you are seeing that reflected in the paucity of leadership”
“There’s [been a] movement away of aspirational, good hard working Australians who are in trades, who are in managerial positions who would normally have voted Labor, who have moved away from Labor”
“In those marginal seats, particularly Queensland and Western Sydney, that’s where the Coalition have succeeded in framing the issue [climate change] as one about protecting jobs”
The late 90s and early 2000s saw a lot of Labor’s primary voter base, traditional blue collar and middle class workers with a more conservative social outlook, vote for the Coalition. They were known as “Howard’s Battlers” or “aspirational voters”, who have now morphed into the “quiet Australians”.
Kerry O’Brien says John Howard was particularly skilful in connecting to this demographic.
“The tradies for instance who started to establish themselves as small businessmen… these people who would have traditionally been Labor voters, suddenly they saw themselves as small businessmen, and if you’re a small business, ‘oh you must be Liberal’. Howard actively pursued those people,” he says.
Bronwyn Bishop agrees.
“… aspirational, good hard working Australians who are in trades, who are in managerial positions [and] who would normally have voted Labor, have moved away from Labor. And that is a very significant movement.”
David Speers says the Coalition’s tax breaks and incentives for higher earners were a great motivator for lower income or “aspirational’ voters.
“That’s the aspirational voter that John Howard successfully pursued; in signalling to them that if they were able to move into that higher tax bracket then they [would receive] all these tax breaks, all these goodies.”
He says it was also Labor’s more socially progressive policies that drove away some of that support. The party has to run a tight balance between appeasing its historic base, with other more progressive voters.
“That’s always [been] the struggle for Labor. How do you hold that working class voter base, while also appealing to the socially progressive inner city voters as well?”
He says the Coalition’s strong stance on national and economic security and social conservatism on issues including same sex marriage and Indigenous Affairs helped cement support from those ‘quiet Australians’.
It’s difficult to see what the future of politics will look like, but there are a few key indicators.
Kerry O’Brien believes we’re seeing a “decline of the two-party system”, through an increase in the “factionalisation” of parties.
“You’ve got what I call factional hacks picking other people who become factional hacks themselves, who are going to suit their own agenda.”
He says this has increased polarisation in politics, and made more Australians weary of the major parties. This could see an even greater number of independents and minority governments enter parliament.
Frank Bongiorno agrees, saying there’s been a marked increase in independent votes, as well as a shift away from the “stable” Liberal or Labor voter. He believes this comes from our evolving society in ethnicity, sexual, gender and regional identities.
“Since the 1970s a significant number of voters aren’t voting on traditional bread and butter issues but are very moved by issues of identity, and if that’s the case they’re much more likely to switch between parties, rather than the more stable class identities that underpinned political allegiance a couple of decades ago.”
— Krishani Dhanji