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Political geography

By Graham Young - posted Tuesday, 15 August 2000


As far as the public is concerned, political party conferences are irrelevant – they don’t change votes. But they do provide pointers as to where the parties think the votes are.

This is more a feature of Liberal Party national conventions than those of the ALP. The ALP National Conference is anchored to the Party Platform. This document is binding on the elected representatives, although they have the final decision about the timing of implementation of any policy. By contrast, the Liberal Party National Convention is more a series of seminars and motivational talks, with no ability to bind Federal representatives. As a result, ALP debate tends to be more intellectually rigorous – there is more at risk if resolutions are binding – and less driven by public relations concerns. It is therefore a less reliable indicator as to where the party expects to find votes.

Nevertheless, both parties’ conventions are about theatrical display and symbolism at the same time as they are about policy. The two Conventions just past hold clues as to where the electoral battle, due by Christmas next year, will be fought.

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This is the first of a series of essays looking at the party conventions and the possibilities for approaches to the next Federal election. It will attempt to sketch the political landscape and some of its advantages and threats to both sides.

End of the Mass Market

For 200 years the political debate has revolved around individual rights – and not just in terms of political debate. The result is that people are less likely to see themselves in institutional terms and more in personal terms. For sellers of consumer products, that means the rise of the niche market – for politicians, the swinging voter. In politics the Cold War provided a constricting frame that hid the early signs of that trend. With that frame removed, established political allegiances are breaking apart.

The World’s Smallest Political Quiz – promoted by the Libertarian Party in the US – neatly sums it up. It analyses voters into five categories – Right Conservative, Left Liberal, Moderate, Libertarian and Authoritarian, which bisect the existing political divides in Australia. With a decline in institutional loyalty, individuals are becoming more likely to make choices that reflect those sorts of classifications, which forces politicians to pitch more on the basis of issues. Most of the major parties are capable of providing a home for people in most of these classifications.

Paradoxically, this fracturing of the market also makes politics more tribal and class-based than it has been. The ALP split of the ’50s was based around political antagonisms based partly on religion, but more firmly on attitudes to Communism. It fractured the working-class party and gave Menzies a record term.

In the absence of an overarching factor like the Cold War, support for political parties is more like support for football teams. There is no strong rational reason for supporting one team rather than another, so support tends to revolve around whimsy, or social identity. So at the same time as the modern political party has to target individual voters in terms of particular issues, they also need to relate to the voter as a part of his or her social group. This group will not be a whole class, but perhaps a sub-class, or even a regional grouping.

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Economics is still a good predictor of voting intention, but here there is an interesting intersection with the class basis of politics. Financially better off electors tend to be less prone to think of themselves as being members of a class than those who are financially poorer. The old mass class-based approach to politics is therefore more alive in Labor electorates than in Liberal ones. The result of this is that the Labor Party has more safe seats than the Liberal Party.

This has the effect of making it easier for the Labor Party to pitch for sectional interest votes. The problems with the niche market is that you have to be careful what is promised to each grouping, otherwise you may cram new voters in the front door while older voters disappear out the back. Because the mass market is still alive in working-class electorates the Labor Party has fewer voters it is likely to alienate, and can therefore be more innovative and daring in its pitch for new voters.

The Laboral Party

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About the Author

Graham Young is chief editor and the publisher of On Line Opinion. He is executive director of the Australian Institute for Progress, an Australian think tank based in Brisbane, and the publisher of On Line Opinion.

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