The Parliamentary Library has published a new monograph by Maurice Rickard called Principle and Pragmatism: A study of competition between Australia’s major parties at the 2004 election and other recent federal elections (you can tell they aren’t commercial publishers, can’t you?). It has lots of interesting material derived from the Australian Election Surveys and also an analysis of campaign launch speeches to gauge ideological positions and shifts.
Rickard uses the Manifesto Research Group categories to code each sentence in the campaign speeches and to classify them as ‘left’ or ‘right’. Unsurprisingly, he finds that the major parties are close to the centre but in the places we would expect, with Labor just to the left and the Liberals just to the right (though with the Liberals closer to the centre overall).
The chart that most interested me (on p.68, for those who download the publication) was the division of issues into economic and non-economic. This shows that since 1998 the Liberals have moved to the right on economic issues and to the left on non-economic issues. Their campaign rhetoric is consistent with strong spending increases on health and education, and the overall philosophy of ‘big government conservatism’, with growth-oriented economic policies used to finance a large welfare state.
As I have argued before, the big question is how viable this is as a long-term political strategy. Despite the Liberals’ rhetorical and policy shifts on non-economic issues, public opinion still favours Labor on these matters. And that’s with the benefit of being in government and actually implementing big-spending policies. If the Coalition loses the 2007 poll, will voters believe Opposition promises, or fall back on long-standing stereotypes of the political parties? The danger, as has happened in the states, is that the Liberals will just look like a less sincere and less competent version of Labor.