Monday, September 30, 2002


In an analysis in today’s Australian, Associate Professor of Sociology Katharine Betts dissects the last election result. She seems to be stating the blindingly obvious in many parts. It is not a big breakthrough to realise that support for the ALP plummets when confronted with issues on which their two biggest support bases are diametrically opposed. How can the ALP be the party of forest workers and environmentalists?

In the last election, issues of border control and national security took over what would normally have been a regular election fought out over economic issues. Australian elections tend to be fairly sedate affairs, with little to angry up the blood. Howard would probably have been elected, as the economy was in fairly good shape, and the Opposition was trying to present as few firm policies as humanly possible.

After August, things went pear-shaped quickly for the Labor Opposition. For the first time, the Federal Government had a legal opportunity to safely turn back a vessel carrying people attempting to make illegal landfall in Australia. The MV Tampa was, significantly, a flagged vessel, so the Government knew who the owners were and where they lived.

Many commentators have accused Prime Minister Howard of populism by refusing the Tampa permission to enter Australian waters. This ignores the fact that there was no polling available on this move. Howard made a decision in a matter of hours to turn the Tampa aside. The polls later bore out the support of the electorate for the policy, and the Opposition had already responded by loudly supporting the Government’s approach, albeit with a few minor changes. Nevertheless, the then Leader of the Opposition proudly boasted that the difference between the two sides over the issue of border integrity was “less that a cigarette paper”. It’s difficult to make a charge of rank populism stick when there was no data at the time on which to base a poll-driven decision, and there was no possibility of claiming a significantly different position from the Opposition.

Interestingly, no small number of the same people calling Howard a “populist” and “opportunist” then, are the same voices demanding that he base war decisions on opinion polling now.

Labor made several mistakes in response to Tampa. They failed to move quickly and decisively in support of the Government. On several instances, they appeared to be wavering on border security. Many of their supporters in the media gave the impression that a nudge-wink agreement was in place to relax security once the election was over. They were left with few firm policies already released, and their ability to get anything heard over the media noise of Tampa meant their strategy of presenting a small target for as long possible had backfired.

But the fundamental problem for Labor was that large parts of their support base were opposed to each other on border protection. In a close election, disunity is death. Labor spent many years courting the ethnic/multicultural vote, winning support from outer-urban immigrant communities and cosmopolitan inner city professionals and university graduates. After 13 years in office, the ALP set a pattern of distributing largesse to ethnic pressure groups, while presenting a good line of rhetoric to the educated middle classes. This was fine as long as they were in power, in a position to deliver.

Once in Opposition, power shifted away, and splits previously papered-over quickly became gaping holes. Established migrant lobby groups were trapped between the demands of their political patrons, the ALP, and the rising rebellion in their constituents, who viewed illegal immigrants as queue-jumpers who refused to take the road that the overwhelming majority of new arrivals to Australia had used. There was a great fear that migrant places taken by non-authorised arrivals would be taken from precious family reunion places.

Betts uses outdated class terminology to identify the split:
The working class is proud of the nation's institutions and its history. In contrast, social professionals are attracted to causes that are changing the nation, such as multiculturalism, immigration, Aboriginal self-determination and closer ties with Asia. They identify with kindred spirits overseas and see the fight against racism as a core value.
Many working-class voters believe these causes are not just changing their nation. They are eroding it. They also resent it when their feelings are misinterpreted as nothing but xenophobia.

Take careful note of that last sentence. When the leftist professionals began advocating policies that sounded increasingly like a recipe for open borders, migrants with actual experience of the results of these policies began to feel uneasy. When the professionals countered criticism of their position with accusations of xenophobia and racism, migrants living in suburbs less salubrious than their critics compared their reality with the leftist fantasy, and voted accordingly.

It would be asking too much for an Associate Professor of Sociology like Betts to make the leap that perhaps the Conservative side of politics was able to present a more coherent social and economic policy to the electorate, and that perhaps this was why a third-term victory was accompanied by an unusual swing to the government. But according to Betts:
So it was not that border protection won the election for the Coalition; rather it lost the election for Labor.

Geddit? No bouquets to the Party that won, only brickbats to the losers. This corresponds to the professionals who Betts says were
appalled at Labor offering any support for Howard's policies and switched to the Greens or Democrats.

And this:
Eleven per cent of former Labor voters, however, voted Green or Democrat. Most were opposed to the border protection policy.

Betts grasps that political divisions in Australia are being “reshaped by questions of national identity”, but seems to have trouble getting her head around the reality that the ALP is well behind the curve on the changes. The vocal supporters of multiculturalism have traded for many years by relying on abuse and vilification of their opponents, without feeling the need to present the case for their policies; they were always assumed to be “self-evident”, with the implied assumption that any failure to support the accepted wisdom was a moral failure on the part of dissenters.
Expect to see more divisions in ALP and leftist ranks over Kyoto. When you rely on the votes of environmentalists and coal miners, you’re headed for a fall.

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