The PM’s left-leaning campaign rhetoric

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.

14 thoughts on “The PM’s left-leaning campaign rhetoric

  1. I’ve made an argument before about why I think the available Newspoll data does not necessarily prove there is no political value in big government conservatism.

    But even granted you may have a point, is being hardline economic liberals any more a viable strategy for the Coalition than being Scandinavian Social Democrats would be for Labor? Howard is in the broad ‘centre’ of Australian public opinion – I don’t see how you can win from outside that position, and published opinion polls seem to indicate the ‘centre’ is more ‘left’ than it was even 10 years ago. The public simply doesn’t seem to favour major deregulation or cuts to government spending – and if the Coalition does find an issue with traction, modern Labor leaders are ruthlessly pragmatic in shutting such things down, and generally willing to go as far to the ‘right’ as it takes to do so.

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  2. The left has long criticised the strategy of parties such as the US Democrats and UK Labour on the grounds that “if people want Tory policies they vote for real Tories” – ie they are claiming these parties would be more successful if they moved further left to distance themselves from their opponents.

    I think that’s dead wrong myself (median voter theory trumps it), but I expect that if the coalition loses office federally we’ll see a lot more of the corresponding argument from the right. So I’d expect a sharp move – NSW Liberals style – further right in the new Opposition.

    But as Gough once said of his own party in similar circumstances “only the impotent are pure”.

    And Leopold is correct – a major problem for small government advocates everywhere is explaining why voters like that wicked big government so much. The welfare state, for example, was brought in pretty much as soon as universal suffrage became available.

    You really are forced into the position of either assuming all of the people have have been fooled all of the time, which is a very strange position for pro-market people to take (markets, of course, depend on people knowing their own interest), or of conceding that big government is in the majority’s interest but claiming other things (eg property rights) are more important – ie departing from any form of utilitarianism.

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  3. “The welfare state, for example, was brought in pretty much as soon as universal suffrage became available.”

    Though there wasn’t much except old age pensions until after WW2. The stronger correlation is probably with the size of the economy, and I think that’s the problem now – there is so much money around that spending discipline is weak. And welfare for able-bodied people has always been unpopular.

    The overall point however is a valid one, and indeed in many posts I have discussed the unpopularity of particular small governmet views, but I need to make an electoral as well as a normative case for a smaller-government Liberal Party.

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  4. Andrew Norton wrote:
    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.
    I don’t think that’s what is happening – it would be hard to look less competent than the NSW Labor party. My suspicion is that the social conservatives (who have allied with the Liberal party) are who are turning people off. The federal Liberal party is taking hits on all the “wet” issues, to the point where the dry issues are getting ignored. Look at the cynicism that greeted the trial of Hicks – overwhelming comment that it was a political fix. If smaller government and more liberal free market policies are what the Liberal party aspire to, they are going to have to cut the social conservatives loose ala the democratic labor party.

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  5. David – In many ways I would like to believe that is true, but I doubt it is. There are a lot of ‘conservative’ views evident in public opinion – on patriotism, on crime and punishment, on welfare, on immigration and social cohesion.

    The Hicks case had no political impact for a long time, but it reached a point in the last 6-12 months when the Americans looked absurdly incompetent for letting his case drag on so long, and the government ended up looking foolish for going along with the increasingly lame excuses for delays. The gag on Hicks looks to be just another political bungle by the Americans.

    I don’t think it has any intrinsic link to ‘social conservatism’.

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  6. “I don’t think that’s what is happening – it would be hard to look less competent than the NSW Labor party”

    I haven’t lived in NSW for years, but thinking back to Kerry Chikarovski and the like, it never stopped the NSW Liberal party before.

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  7. Andrew Norton wrote:
    I don’t think it has any intrinsic link to ’social conservatism’.
    Eh? What about your list of left/right issues on the ABC bias commentary? While baying for Hick’s blood had a partly bi-partisan political angle, by far and away the loudest dogs in the pack were socially conservative commentators.

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  8. David – Though that was tribal reaction to the whitewashing of Hicks in some leftist quarters. In the end, almost everyone agreed that the process was unsatisfactory, even where they did not think it likely any substantive injustice was being done. I doubt there was much sympathy for Hicks in public opinion.

    This was a once-off case, as Australian law can now deal with people like Hicks.

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  9. The speech-coding stuff is clever, and clearly the best we can do in Australia. But I still feel it’s well behind the Poole-Rosenthal scores for the US (http://voteview.com/), which are based on coding up US legislators’ votes. Unfortunately, P-R scores only apply when you have lots of free votes.

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  10. “welfare for able-bodied people has always been unpopular. ”

    Don’t those results depend very much on how the question is phrased?

    For example, ask people about ‘welfare’ and they give it the thumbs down, ask them about ‘helping poor children’ and they give the opposite response?

    Not confident of that, it’s just my recollection of the surveys I’ve seen. My own gut feeling is that people are deeply hostile to welfare going to ‘undeserving’ folk (‘bludgers’), but are not necessarily in favour of cutting the LEVEL of benefits – just targetting them better and making sure people are making a genuine effort to find work.

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  11. Andrew Norton says:

    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.

    To say that Howard, “since 1998 has moved to the left on non-economic issues” seems to be wrong on the face of it. Howard’s ideological reputation over the late nineties through early noughties has been built on reinforcing Australia’s populistic social conservatism.

    In general Australia’s dominant political tendency over the past decade has been a popular resistance to elite-driven social change whether this be economic rationalism or political correctness. The converse of this has been a community tendency to relying on the personal and professional, rather than political, for making some kind of human progress.

    In a more specifically ideological sense Howard has been particularly strong on pushing a nationalistic cultural identity policy. This comes through in his border control, immigration civics and family values policies.

    And how can the claim that the LN/P’s “have moved to the right on economic issues” with its “strong spending increases on health and education…with growth-oriented economic policies used to finance a large welfare state.”?

    The only exception to the bi-partisan drift to the statist Left is Howard’s ideologically driven Work Choice policy. But this “exception proves the rule” as WC will be revoked or revised when the LN/P loses control of the parliament.

    And it is pretty clear that there is a bi-partisan drift to the nationalist Right is beyond doubt, given the collapse of the multicultural consensus and other rat-bag hangovers from the ratbag seventies cultural Left.

    So in general both parties have drifted to the statist Left in economic matters and the nationalistic Right in cultural matters. With a more general social conservatism constraining rapid change of any kind in all politically-related institutions. This is the reality of ‘big government conservatism’.

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  12. David Rubie April 12th, 2007 11:52

    My suspicion is that the social conservatives (who have allied with the Liberal party) are who are turning people off. The federal Liberal party is taking hits on all the “wet” issues, to the point where the dry issues are getting ignored…If smaller government and more liberal free market policies are what the Liberal party aspire to, they are going to have to cut the social conservatives loose ala the democratic labor party.

    Wrong. In fact the parties of the Right went through their worst phase ever during the period when they attempted to be trendy and take on with-it social causes. The “Wet” LN/P vote declined from 1969-72 and from 1972 through 1996 it held power for a total of 11 years – a 45% ratio. Well below its historical average.

    It is social conservatives that keep the LN/P in general and Howard in particular, in the game. There would be no reason at all for most people to support a Right wing party if it was not socially conservative and culturally nationalistic. Patriotism in polity and family values in personality are the what keeps the Right alive and kicking amongst the populus.

    I predict that the Wettish Liberals, as represented by the DEMs, will be wiped out at this election. And the very Wet GREENs will not pick up that many votes given the ecological correctness of the major parties.

    It is entirely proper that a Right wing party committed to free enterprise will follow a socially conservative and culturally nationalistic philosophy. A successful culture of capitalism relies on a personal ethic of family responsibility and a political ethic of civic responsibility. Japan is a good example.

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  13. Andrew Norton April 12th, 2007 13:21

    In many ways I would like to believe [the possible decline of the Dries] is true, but I doubt it is. There are a lot of ‘conservative’ views evident in public opinion – on patriotism, on crime and punishment, on welfare, on immigration and social cohesion.

    What a relief! Esteemed Right wing thinker draws back from the brink of intellectual suicide and political oblivion. Andrew you must be crazy to think that a resurgence of cultural liberalism will help the philosophy of personal initiative and small government.

    Is an Open Borders immigration policy implied by libertarianism going to result in a smaller welfare state? I dont think it would give results different from that observed in California, that priceless laboratory for social experiments.

    Is legalising drugs going to restore personal initiative? I would like to see how much free enterprise there would be if half the population turned into drug-addled couch potatoes.

    Is a more liberal attitude to crime going to result in a freer society? Only if one is prepared to live in a world of gated communities. Hardly an ideal of personal freedom.

    Is an atomised society of “constructed” individualism, constantly making over their identities and cutting hereditary and familial ties going to improve the chances of self government? Strong families and communities tend to make civilised individuals. Weak families tend to generate ferals.

    Is multiculturalism going to result in a society of self-reliant individualism? Hmm… Most cultures in the world are tribal-based and despise the conservative individualism practised by Protestants in the US and UK.

    I think the Right has to get over the silly brand of cultural libertarianism made fashionable over the past generation. It was an ideological fad brought on by younger Right-wingers trying to get with it and down with the cooler hippies.

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