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The myth of polarisation in modern Australia



Politics has become too polarised; politicians no longer know how to compromise. It's a perspective regularly articulated by Canberra insiders — most recently, by Anthony Albanese in an interview with the Guardian. Liberal Senate president Scott Ryan made the same point a few months earlier, bemoaning the inability of leaders to meet each other in the middle.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison reacts to questions during question time at Parliament House (Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images)Indeed, you can find variants of the complaint just about everywhere, with politicians and pundits lamenting the breakdown of civility and decrying the unnecessarily combative atmosphere. But the ubiquity of the argument — that repeated insistence of an unprecedented gulf separating the parties today — becomes quite strange as soon as you think about history.

The ALP emerged from the Great Strikes of the 1890s, disputes that, at various points, seemed likely to be resolved by gunfire. That connection between the Labor Party and the workers' movement meant that when, in 1904, Chris Watson formed the first national labour government anywhere in the world, the Sydney Morning Herald told its readers that he should be immediately removed, later describing his administration as a 'scratch team of untried extremists'.

Throughout most of the 20th century, organised workers identified with Labor and respectable society backed its opponents, a relationship that gave political polarisation (by today's standards, at least) almost institutional stability.

After the Second World War, the prospect of an ongoing Labor administration spurred the creation of a secret rightwing army known as The Association, which came close to deploying during the coal dispute of 1949. Throughout the fifties, Bob Menzies painted Labor as a front for subversion — even, at one point, threatening Labor MPs with legal sanction as he sought to ban the communist party.

The election of Whitlam in 1972 — and his dismissal in 1975 — split the nation between those who saw Labor as conducting long-overdue reforms and those for whom Gough represented a crazed socialist parvenu, rightly undone by the Queen's loyal representative.

Bob Hawke's victory in 1983 on a platform of social harmony — and his subsequent embrace of policies we'd now call neoliberal — played an important part in destroying the perceived distinction between Labor and Liberal. Nevertheless, the ongoing significance of the trade unions, even under the Accord, maintained a level of polarisation between the parties. You only have to think of the 2009 election, in which the anti-Workchoices mobilisation known as Your Rights at Work helped bring down John Howard and elect Kevin Rudd.


"The culture wars need to be understood as a symptom rather than a cause. They emerge not from political polarisation but, in a sense, from its absence. If the fights are so vicious, it's because, as the old adage has it, the stakes are so small."


Today, the ACTU seeks to reprise that effort in the form of its Change the Rules campaign. Yet it's doing so from a much lower base, precisely because the old distinction between Liberal and the ALP no longer resonates in the way it once did.

The day after Albanese's interview appeared, Labor parliamentarians agreed to support the government's draconian anti-encryption laws, in face of objections from appalled civil libertarians and tech workers. The deal provided another example of how, contrary to claims of polarisation, the two parties customarily agree on almost all matters of substance.

The rare exceptions — the carbon tax, for instance — stand out precisely because of the broader consensus on most questions of policy. After the explicit embrace of the market by Hawke and Keating, Labor doesn't even pretend to offer a different economic philosophy (mostly competing with the Liberals on the grounds of efficiency and expertise), while, despite Donald Trump, the alliance with the United States remains the bedrock of foreign relations irrespective of who's in office.

Furthermore, the decline of the unions — and the corresponding erosion of traditional class loyalty — means that the conservatives can, on occasion, win in industrial seats that once would never have voted Liberal, just as the results in the Wentworth by-election and in the Victorian state poll demonstrated that wealthy voters no long perceive Labor candidates as innately dangerous.

Why, then, do so many pundits decry the divisions in Canberra, at a time when, objectively speaking, the parties have never been closer? The short answer is that they're responding to a genuine polarisation — not between Labor and Liberal but between both parties and the rest of society. As the core support for political organisations continues to decline, the key opposition confronting parliamentarians is the hostility of ordinary people to politicians as a whole.

This sentiment reflects a global phenomenon: witness the current uprising against politicians in France by the so-called 'Yellow Shirts'. In Australia, you can identify any number of issues fuelling it, from the huge property portfolios accrued by MPs in an era in which many young people now believe they'll never own a home to the extraordinary entitlements claimed in Canberra even as welfare recipients are audited by algorithm.

In a piece for the Monthly a few years back, Richard Cooke quoted from the focus groups quizzed by researcher Scott Steel:

'Let's talk about politicians.'

[Groans, chuckles and guffaws are the response every single time, regardless of age, gender or more complicated demography.]

[More laughter.]

'Give me a few words that you reckon most accurately describes politicians today.'

'Just in it for themselves.'

'Lying [expletives].'

Steel concludes: 'The two most popular expletives, are "bastards" and "dickheads". Except for old ladies over 70 — they particularly like the word "mongrels".'

Now, almost by definition, the gulf between Canberra insiders and the rest of the population gives punditry a peculiar blindness. But the hostility to the political class also gets interpreted (by the political class) as a polarisation between the parties because of the way that the broader disenchantment manifests within traditional politics. With the public attitude to politicians oscillating between indifference and contempt, individuals (even from the major parties) can tap into the prevailing mood by marketing themselves as outsiders, mavericks opposed to the status quo.

Hence the so-called culture wars, in which MPs attack each other with a peculiar viciousness, usually over remarkably minor issues. The extravagant rhetoric that accompanies such outbreaks fuel the calls for civility, as pundits urge politicians to abandon stunts and grandstanding in favour of 'sensible centrism'.

Yet the culture wars need to be understood as a symptom rather than a cause. They emerge not from political polarisation but, in a sense, from its absence. If the fights are so vicious, it's because, as the old adage has it, the stakes are so small.

More precisely, the lack of outlets through which real social tensions might be expressed (let alone resolved) fosters the anti-elitist posturing of the parliamentary demagogues. Demands for civility and consensus won't change that. The problems go much deeper.



Jeff SparrowJeff Sparrow is a writer, editor and honorary fellow at Victoria University.

Main image: Prime Minister Scott Morrison reacts to questions during question time at Parliament House (Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Jeff Sparrow, Anthony Albanese, polarisation, unions



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Existing comments

Thanks Jeff. I agree "Why, then, do so many pundits decry the divisions in Canberra, at a time when, objectively speaking, the parties have never been closer? The short answer is that they're responding to a genuine polarisation — not between Labor and Liberal but between both parties and the rest of society." The cruel treatment of people seeking asylum in Australia is a good example of this. The Government are desperately trying to wedge Labor on the Border Protection issue, and Labor are too cowardly to stand up to the Government for fear of being wedged.

Grant Allen | 10 December 2018  

The problem is Labor knows that there is no credible alternative to the 'explicit embrace of the market' as an organising principle in politics. All attempts to establish non market-based political economies have utterly failed everywhere, and certainly will not deliver the kind of wealth that the modern proletariat demand.

David Rasborsek | 10 December 2018  

When it is considered that ex-trade union hacks now occupy some 60% or thereabouts of parliamentary seats in this country when unions represent only 18% of the workforce and a mere 6% of the population, I can't agree, Jeff, that the "unions are in decline". They now potentially wield more power when the Labor Party is in government than ever before. Despite the Labor Party's sanctimonious demands for gender equality in preselections for parliamentary representation, I can't wait for them to apply their high ideals to the trade unions and insist that the union representation amongst members must not exceed 6%.

john frawley | 10 December 2018  

I have been saying for years they are just a cartel, I worked for a Democrat senator when Hawke was PM in the late 1980's and was shocked to see how often they ganged up together to stifle any dissenting voices.

Marilyn | 10 December 2018  

There may be agreement on many issues but there is total disagreement on the policy affecting the future of our planet - climate change. This is probably the only issue that really matters at the moment.

Peter Anderson | 11 December 2018  

The uprising against politicians in France is related to the expectation of these politicians that the people share their feelings on so called climate change . But when the people are expected to pay for it through higher fuel taxes, the politicians get a more accurate message.

Joe | 11 December 2018  

When I voted against the Howard government and helped to elect the Rudd government the year was 2007, not 2009. Is Jeff missing two years of his life? I remember quite a lot of polarised politics in those two years, not least about asylum seekers and about responses to climate change. 2009 was notable for a blurring of partisan differences, but not one involving the major parties. That was the year the Greens voted with the Coalition in the Senate to block the first version of the carbon pollution reduction scheme. At the time there was broad agreement, if not quite a consensus, in the wider community on the need for a price on carbon. The Greens, who are absent from Jeff's narrative, helped to kill that broad agreement, thereby consigning the politics of climate change to the too-hard basket where it has mostly remained ever since. Ideological divisions or the lack of them in Australian politics can't be explained by simply assuming that it's all the major parties' fault because they resemble each other so closely. They don't.

Ray Cassin | 11 December 2018  

Jeff, I agree with some of what you write. I turn 70 next week .I worked in the public service and as a teacher for half a century. I was always a "union man".Most of my working life I voted Labor, at least until the 1990's when I voted for the Democrats and then the Greens (first preference) as I was not happy with some Labor polices related to what you call might call neo-liberalist economics and the detention of asylum seekers. I hope that Shorten will win next the election, in the forlorn hope that the lessons of the Royal Commission into the Banks etc will be extended to the rip offs of workers generally by big business and greedy franchise companies ripping off workers on visas etc. BUT I am not holding my breath that anything will change. What we are seeing in France and the UK could easily erupt here, if nothing is done to ease the plight of the workers. Maybe the possible crash in house prices maybe a trigger? David, the so called Markets are failing society , only a few reedy people at the top are befitting .Where are our Social Justice values?

Gavin O'Brien | 11 December 2018  

David R. has said a very true thing; the affluence modern voters are now accustomed to is a millstone around the necks of all political parties, not just Labor, and is a particular weight bearing on trade unions. In a sense, by focusing almost exclusively on wages and conditions unions have been the chief cause of their own current irrelevancy. Any opportunity to cultivate a rank and file membership alive to the menace of consumerism and which feels shame at putting itself into debt to feed its craving for a material life-style was squandered decades ago. The result on the one hand is a bewildered working class willing to sell itself to any political philosophy that will offer it the wealth it craves and which frustrates an equally bewildered political class on the other which is rarely able to develop even half way decent public policy. That said, David’s belief that “all attempts to establish non market-based political economies have utterly failed everywhere” is not quite correct. The worker’s co-operatives, the Mondragón Corporation, established in Spain’s Basque region some sixty years ago continue going from strength to strength and offer a small insight into what is possible with a politically conscious working class. (See Race Matthews: “Jobs of Our Own: Alternatives to the Market and the State.”)

Paul | 11 December 2018  

The problem with Parliament these days is they are either abusing each other, shagging each other or abusing their expense accounts. Its a rich boys club where there is no real commitment to the real business of politics which is to create and keep jobs and ensure that everyone has a fair go. Women are denigrated for ideological reasons and bullied into submission or silence and forced to resign. The revolving door of leaders (in both major parties) shows how sickeningly selfish modern politicians are. There is no stability and playing the man, rather than the ball, seems much more prevalent than it used to be. As Wilde said "True friends stab you in the front". Not true of Canberra pals. It is a back stabbers paradise.

Frank Armstrong | 11 December 2018  

The parties are a duopoly like Coles and Woolworths (and Aldi - the minor party). As the article observes, they do not really compete, but look after themselves to the detriment of the real world. Each party is a hierarchy, in which control is centralised. Subordinate members are not free to do things. Creativity is stifled. Non-members are seen as opponents. The party elect no longer have "skin in our game", as opposed to independents, who depend on looking after their electorate. (I made similar but more general comments along these lines last week (6/12) in response to Andrew Hamilton's article "What it will take to redeem the banks". It is not only political parties).

Peter Horan | 11 December 2018  

I do agree with Jeff Sparrow - and would add that the so-called "culture wars" are a theoretical construct that don't reflect the reality of most Australians. But in my time reading the comment columns in Eureka Street, I must say there is also an exaggerated polarisation and reactionary element that doesn't reflect Australian society either. Call it apathy, call it being "easy-going", call it indifference or call it tolerance or acceptance - Australians are generally radical centrists and would not label the articles in ES as being particularly leftist as some commenting seem to do. It's simply the reality of the fair-minded Australia I live in.

AURELIUS | 12 December 2018  

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