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The Coalition: a misunderstood political entity in universities?

By Chris Lewis - posted Monday, 12 January 2009


A generalisation that has long stuck in my mind is a bias by many humanities academics and students, at least among those I have known reasonably well, that it is Labor which is the most progressive major Australian political party in terms of adopting appropriate domestic and international policies.

For myself, brought up in a working class suburb and a full-time factory worker or labourer for about 20 years of my life, I too have looked to Labor, at least in all House of Representatives elections, thus far.

But years of politics study should enlighten one. My conclusion today is that a sophisticated liberal democracy needs an effective centre-left and centre-right political party to ensure that Australia finds an appropriate balance between competitiveness and compassion.

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Forget the dribble going on within the media about the Coalition’s present leadership woes. While such commentary is needed to fill newspapers and television discussion, politics is often a game of luck for opposition parties. Who would have thought that Steve Bracks would go on to become a successful Labor premier in Victoria after winning the 1999 Victorian election against the seemingly invincible Jeff Kennett. Similarly, a party may benefit at times from the context of the day, as illustrated by the success of the Coalition parties during the 1950s and 1960s; due to division within the labour moment over ties to the communist movement.

And with the Howard government virtually committing electoral suicide with its extensive promotion of Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs), which openly sought to eliminate penalty and overtime rates, the election was handed to Labor. The replacement of Beazely with a relatively youthful Rudd was merely the icing on the cake.

In my opinion, both Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull are at least the intellectual equal of Rudd, although only time will tell when a Coalition leader again gets a chance to lead a government.

In truth, contemporary Australian politics has incorporated aspects associated with the ideas promoted by both Labor and the Coalition as part of their interaction with the Australian people, which has ensured a pragmatic policy mix in response to the various issues of the day. One only has to note how most Coalition and Labor voters and politicians came to their senses to reverse the disgraceful treatment of Australia’s Aborigines in regard to their natural rights as Australian citizens, the racist exclusion of Asian immigration for many decades, and the illegality once attached to homosexuality.

But in regard to the balance between economic and social policy, just imagine what sort of problems Australia would have today if Labor had dominated federal politics since 1945 in the same way that the Coalition did.

Sure, Australia may have had a more expansive social welfare model in line with the bigger spending European nations (such as Sweden) as government outlays and social welfare spending increased dramatically in many Western nations during the 1960s and 1970s. And perhaps Australia may have had a more extensive nationally-owned manufacturing sector.

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But the likelihood of future policy difficulties for Australia would have been similar by the early 1980s. Australian policy makers, believing that the nation would not have been a major manufacturing industry player, would have still developed inefficient industries in the 1950s and 1960s with a lack of export focus as higher tariffs and wages were accepted then by both major political parties and Australian society.

By the 1980s, with lower trade barriers being further encouraged throughout the Western world (besides agriculture), Australian industry would have come under the same pressure to become more productive in this era of freer trade. Even more efficient manufacturing nations, including those with a longstanding export focus (such as Sweden), have lost many jobs to developing nations. For instance, manufacturing employment in Sweden declined from 1,100,000 jobs in 1960 to 691,000 in 2005 while the number of employees in the service sector rose from about 2,000,000 to 3,300,000.

And, given that social welfare has continued to increase under both Labor and Coalition governments, Australia may have been under even greater pressure to address higher levels of spending should it have occurred that Labor dominated the political scene. Again one can note how Sweden has reduced public assistance to disadvantaged or vulnerable groups from 36.2 per cent of GDP in 1993 to 31.3 per cent in 2003 while Australia increased such spending from 16.5 per cent to 17.9 per cent (OECD 2008 Factbook).

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About the Author

Chris Lewis has an interest in all economic, social and environmental issues, but believes that the struggle for the ‘right’ policy mix remains an elusive goal in such a complex and competitive world.

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