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Left and Right in Australian politics

By Don Aitkin - posted Wednesday, 17 August 2016

The last two essays have looked at the various meanings of  ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ as the terms are used in politics. In this essay I look at their application in our own country. I have spent some years in the UK and the USA, and visited other parts of the world on a regular basis. In Britain it was clear to me at once that their politics, despite the apparent similarity of parties called ‘Labour’ and ‘Labor’, was not the same as ours, and the longer I was there the more I saw the differences rather than the similarities.

Britain had a class system that was manifest to a visitor; we had perhaps a pale status system. Yes, there were hangovers from your British past, for those who had that past in their ancestry, but it was not the same. There were real socialists in the House of Commons  in the 1960s, but hardly any in the House of Representatives in Australia, which also lacked an aristocracy and an established church. Yes, the monarch was the same, but she was mostly on postage stamps in Australia. In Britain she was there, alive and well, and visible. All this meant that Left and Right (no more inverted commas) had different and deeper associations.

In the USA, it seemed to me, the whole party system was further to the Right than was the case in Australia. Some of my American friends were horrified that we had a national health system in Australia — that sounded like socialism; others were envious. In Australia most people were employees. In the USA there was a substantial section of self-employed and small employers — indeed, I encountered everywhere a large and diverse manufacturing industry that was not just General Motors, but also a myriad small engineering, pharmaceutical and food production firms. The people who owned these firms often had university degrees, liked good literature, symphonic music and the arts generally, and supported good causes. To a much greater extent than in Australia, people went to church and took religion seriously. So you could get what seemed to me strange combinations of Left and Right in a group of people, and you could not predict their party loyalty. Their politics was greatly affected by voluntary voting, by the fact that elections could be held on the same day for local, state and federal positions, and by the omnipresent figure of The President, an office that had, and has, no real counterpart here or in the UK.


Some time later I went to South Korea, then several times, and before long I was doing a lecture tour there for the Department of Foreign Affairs. I learned after my official lecture and Q&A that some questions could not be asked in public, but could be asked in late-night beer-drinking in the company of students. I did a bit of that, and learned more. The party system in South Korea, I came to see, was further to the Right even than that of the USA. Their big division was not between Left and Right at all, but between the young and the old. Why? The old had survived the long and dreadful war between North and South that was the cause of my Australian military service in Nasho in the mid 1950s. They had rebuilt their country in an astonishing way. They feared those ruling the North and wanted no contact. The young had grown u in a country that got better every year, and they had no memories of the war. They wanted contact, and a freeing-up of the political order. Fathers and sons were at cross purposes. Australia, the UK and the USA had nothing like that at all.

The Korean students asked me about Left and Right, and I developed a metaphor that seemed to work work well then (the 1980s). I would draw a river in plan on the blackboard, and show its course moving either to the Left or to the Right. In Sweden, I told them, there had been a steady move to the Left from the 1920s onwards. In Australia and the UK maybe the movement of the river was a bit to the Left. But within the river, I said, there was always a Left bank and a Right bank, and at any time you could see the politics of the day as moving one way or the other, perhaps staying in the middle of the stream, perhaps getting close to one bank or the other. But the river itself, I said, was moving as well. They liked metaphors, and I got some good questions.

I still think that the metaphor has a little force to it. It seems to me that over the past thirty years our politics has moved steadily to the Left, partly because of our growing wealth (there has been more that could be redistributed), and partly because more and more have had higher education, see central government as a good thing and the federal system as old-fashioned, and earn their incomes from the service industries. But the old Left/Right dichotomy in day-to-day politics seems to have lost a lot of its old force.

Where, for example, do you place injecting rooms on the Left/Right scale? Where do you put the Greens? Where do you put speed cameras, gay marriage, drug cheats in sport, genetically modified foods, solar power, what should happen about Palestine, hospital funding, shark nets on beaches, very fast trains, medical cannabis and asylum seekers/illegal immigrants? Such issues, and they are part of our daily news, don’t seem to me to fit neatly on a Left/Right scale. It doesn’t help much to talk about them in radical/conservative terms, either. Some of the issues can be placed on a tough-minded/tender-minded scale, and I remember a two-by-two table that had two axes, Left/Right and tough/tender. But the outcome was static — it told you where some people were in a moment of time, but not what was happening to a society over time. My guess is the there are as many tough-minded on the Left as there are on the Right.

I have written about this subject before (for example, here), and  by and large I don’t use the terms if I can avoid them. Our political parties try to cover the middle ground, because that is where most people are. They have members and supporters who have extreme views (from the perspective of someone in the middle, anyway), and most of the time the party leaders try to ignore them or neutralise them. At the moment the real division seems to be between those who think that, for example, fulfilling the original Gonski and NDIS goals is more important than the state of the country’s indebtedness, and those of the opposite persuasion. Another way of putting it is to see the division as being between those who think that the country is plagued by inequality that is growing greater, and those who think that there will always be economic inequality, aspiration and hard work should be rewarded, and the important thing is a safety net.

We are a rich, comfortable, creative society that has escaped many of the dramas of the rest of the world, mostly because we are a long way away from the danger spots. I hope that continues to be the case, and I hope also to see a growth in altruism and concern for others. We seem to have lost the interest in what I used to call ‘the Australia project’, the notion of building under the Southern Cross a really good society free of the ills and evils that beset societies elsewhere.


It was alive and well in the 1980s, to the best of my memory. Where did it go?

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Hugh Flavus, Knight was published in 2020.

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