Since the 1970s the Australian electorate has become increasingly disenchanted with the major parties. Lately this has accelerated. At the last federal election, the minor parties (including the Greens) attracted 36% of the vote. But this pattern is not spread evenly across the population; the minor party vote is a lot higher in regional areas. Overseas, this city/country divide was reflected in the Brexit vote, and in Trump’s election in the US.
What’s driving this, and what, if anything, should governments do about it?
The Grattan Institute’s mission is to work out what governments can do to make Australia a better place and they’ve been much exercised lately with these questions. So on a warm, drizzly Tuesday night in January we crowded into the CWA Rooms in Bermagui to hear Dr John Daley, the Grattan’s CEO and speaker for the first Bermagui Institute dinner for 2018, distil down a complex mix of current economic, institutional and cultural issues to leave us with the regions, migration and discomfort with ‘the other’.
Is it the economy, stupid?
The stagnation of household incomes and the rise in inequality have been cited as reasons for this shift. But in Australia, at least, incomes had been rising steadily prior to the 2013 election, when the minor party vote saw a steep increase. And, yes, inequality had risen, but only minutely. Inequality in wealth, as opposed to incomes, was a lot higher, but there is evidence that this is not a concern for low income households. And anyway, when minor parties are campaigning, inequality and wealth distribution are not a major topic. So, no.
Is it institutional?
Lack of trust in Australian governments has been rising steadily since the 2007 federal election. In America too—and Trump’s ‘drain the swamp’ catchcry reflected this sentiment, that people in power were more concerned with looking after their own interests than the public’s. Minor party rhetoric is that they’re there for the ordinary person. And often minor party candidates are ordinary people themselves—fish and chip vendor Pauline Hanson, the ex-military Jacqui Lambie … and who can forget ‘motoring enthusiast’ Ricky Muir?
Major party candidates have almost without exception risen through the ranks of party staffers, on the one side, or trade union officials on the other. ‘It’s unimaginable,’ said Daley, alluding to post-WWII PM Ben Chifley, ‘that we would again have as a prime minister anyone who had actually driven a train.’
Party membership has dropped steeply. ‘There are now eleven AFL clubs that each have higher memberships than the Liberal and National parties,’ said Daley. And members of the Labor Party are mostly drawn from unions, which themselves are falling in numbers—currently 13% of workers, down from 40% thirty years ago.
Another reason for the plummeting of trust levels might be the media, which are rapidly subdividing along political lines. People are getting their news less from mainstream outlets and more from the echo chamber of social media, i.e. from the opinions of people with whom they already agree.
In the US there are two entirely parallel conversations running now. Republican voters watch Fox news, and Democrats watch CNN. The divide is not as stark—yet—in Australia, but you can usually assume that someone who reads The Daily Telegraph or The Australian is a conservative voter, and someone who watches the ABC or reads The Guardian is of liberal bent.
Another factor in the lessening of trust is governments’ habit of raising expectations—jobs, economic growth, development of the regions—then failing to deliver. And greater awareness of lobbying and political donations—only a third of money donated to political parties is disclosed, and even that only 18 months later. But what’s the difference between a donation and a bribe? ‘It’s understood that you never bribe a person when you need them,’ said Daley. ‘You give them a benefit then eventually, when you need a return favour, it’s that much harder to say no.’
Even so, large corporates are now spending more on hiring lobbyists than political donations, in recognition of their effectiveness. There are thousands employed in Canberra, using their parliamentary passes to access politicians at will.
The great cultural divide
It’s true that both major parties in Australia have softened in their stances on issues such as same-sex marriage, abortion and medicinal marijuana. Has this driven voters to the minor parties? Probably not—the general population has also drifted to a more progressive stance on such issues, and there’s not a lot of evidence that minor party voters really care about them anyway. The minor parties themselves don’t have much to say about them.
Which brings us to migration, the great anomaly.
Views on migration fall across a fault line between city and regional voters. Minor party voters, in general, are less comfortable about migration than major party voters. As for the minor parties, One Nation, in particular, has an openly hostile platform on migration. But minor party voters are predominantly regional, and regional areas have fewer migrants. It seems that people who have less experience with migrants are more likely to be worried about them.
Trump’s other effective slogan, ‘Make America Great Again’, appealed to those rural and small town voters, in the grip of an economic downturn, who turned their ears to the idea that America could ‘Again’ be run by people like them.
But here’s the irony: because population growth, thus economic growth, in Australia is primarily migration-driven, and migrants tend to settle in the cities, regional areas are being left behind.
What to do?
The Grattan Institute’s remit is not just to analyse the issues, but to suggest fixes. Daley had a few suggestions for the major parties, having identified declining trust and the cultural divide as the drivers behind the rise in the minor party vote (‘keeping in mind,’ he said, ‘that it’s not necessarily a bad thing.’)
Regarding trust, action on politicians’ entitlements might help, although it would be largely symbolic (despite the generosity of entitlements on an individual level, they hardly put a dent in government spending). So too, transparency on political donations. And removal of parliamentary passes from anyone except politicians and their staffers—limiting access for lobbyists—could do away with the perception that wealthy corporations are controlling party policy. It occurs to me now that a federal ICAC could also help, but Daley didn’t mention this.
As for the culture divide, ministers could show their faces in regional areas more often, and politicians could stop dog-whistling about migrant crime (it only encourages the minor party vote anyway) and instead start to emphasise the benefits of migration, e.g. the growth of small business and the high numbers of immigrating professionals, e.g. doctors, a boon to our depleted numbers.
The night after John Daley’s talk, I was watching the evening news. There’d been trouble with Sydney trains and the vision showed packed platforms, crowds of commuters surging at carriage doors. And maybe I hadn’t been paying attention but now I saw it, the diversity of the city—Asian, Middle Eastern, Caucasian, African. Who is ‘other’ now?
When the waves of migration start to lap at the regions—and they must, for environmental and political catastrophes are forcing record global dislocation—let’s hope that Australians will become desensitised to ‘the other’ and comfortable with the successful multicultural nation we are becoming.