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Greens could replace morally wayward Labor

By Crispin Hull - posted Tuesday, 12 July 2011

More evidence is in that there is no such thing as a “rusted-on” Labor vote in Australia.

In the 1990s chunks of the formerly supposed rusted-on blue-collar Labor vote fell away when Pauline Hanson and John Howard applied the WD40. Xenophobes and ‘battlers’ deserted the Labor Party. More recently many of the formerly supposed rusted-on anti-conscription, libertarian Labor voters have deserted to the Greens.

This week’s Newspoll had Labor’s primary vote at 27 per cent, its lowest on record, and the poll a fortnight before had Labor leader Julia Gillard behind the Leader of the Opposition as preferred Prime Minister for the first time.


It is more fundamental than the carbon tax or the way Gillard came to power. It is part of the continuing realignment of Australian politics after the old left-right or socialism-v-free enterprise alignment collapsed. It might even end up with the Greens replacing Labor as a major party.

Voters seem to be realigning according to what psychologists call moral foundations theory. The politicians do not seem to have twigged to what is happening. Gilbert and Sullivan inadvertently summed up moral foundations theory a century before it was developed when the wrote in Iolathe: “Nature always does contrive…that every boy and every gal that’s born into the world alive is either a little Liberal or else a little Conservative.”

Moral foundations theory, developed this century largely by Jonathan Haidt at the University of Virginia, defines five moralities (or more crudely survival strategies) shaped by evolution that determine whether one tends to be liberal (small l) or conservative: “The harm-care foundation stresses kindness, gentleness and nurture. Human groups needed to feel the pain of others to help their survival. Similarly with the fairness-reciprocity foundation that stresses altruism, justice, rights, equality and autonomy which all helped human groups survive.”

These two foundations are emphasised by (small-l) liberals.

The other three moral foundations (also important to survival of human groups) are emphasised by conservatives. They are: loyalty which stresses patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group; authority-respect which stresses deference to authority and respect for traditions; and purity-sanctity which is shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. This foundation underpins religious notions of living in a purer, less carnal way. The taboos on incest, some foods and the like have evolutionary advantage and then became religious edicts supported by conservatives.

Haidt and others have done an immense amount of research via questionnaires in many countries which reveals the strength of these moral foundations and their effect on political beliefs. Conservatives stress the last three and liberal the first two, and people do not move much over time.


All five foundations have been crucial to humans to survival in the evolutionary sense, but different people cite some as more important to them than others and in doing so shape their political outlook.

Both major parties used to draw from all five moral foundations in varying degrees -different factions in each party emphasising different foundations.

Labor has always had significant support from people with harm-care and fairness-reciprocity liberal moral foundations. The welfare state, justice, equality and individual freedom have underpinned a lot of Labor support. The Coalition has always had significant support from people with loyalty, authority-respect and sanctity foundations – the conservative moral foundations.

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This article appeared in The Canberra Times on 2 July 2011.

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About the Author

Crispin Hull is a former editor of The Canberra Times, admitted as a barrister and solicitor in the ACT and author of The High Court 1903-2003 (The Law Book Company). He teaches journalism at the University of Canberra and is chair of Barnardos Australia, the children’s charity. His website is here:

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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