Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Today by Paddy Manning

Left right left
There is some false equivalence going on here

Image of people voting at polling booths

Channelling Yeats on the decline of the West, today’s Fairfax newspapers sound the alarm about increasing political polarisation in Australia, running the headline “The centre cannot hold” in the Sydney Morning Herald. They might as well have written that the right cannot hold, because the actual figures show a steady drift to the left.

In a piece written by two former advisers to ex-prime minister Kevin Rudd, Lachlan Harris and Andrew Charlton, Australian Election Study (AES) data is analysed to show that between 1996 and 2016 the number of politicians who could be classed as moderate has fallen from 37 per cent to 10 per cent. Similarly, the number of voters describing themselves as centrist has fallen from 54 per cent in 1993 to just 42 per cent in 2016.

An important rider: the AES is not some dodgy survey with a selection bias, like the ABC’s opt-in Vote Compass. According to ANU political science professor Ian McAllister, who runs the international project, the AES uses a truly random probability sample, based on the electoral register and using a geographic overlay. “It is very representative,” he says.

Two observations: there is a steady drift to the left, which is shown by the increase in the number of voters identifying themselves as such, from 19.5 per cent in 1996 to 31.4 per cent in 2016. By contrast, the right has hardly budged, from 26.9 per cent in 1996 to 27 per cent in 2016. McAllister says this growth on the left is driven by younger and more highly educated voters, has been “going on for some time, and it’s not related to which party’s in office”. The trend accelerated since the financial crisis, but predated it, going back to the ’90s. But we should not overstate it: in numerical terms, if 0 is extreme left, 5 is the dead centre, and 10 is the extreme right, the electorate has moved from 5.5 to 4.9 in 20 years.

Second, it is false to equate the Greens with the fly-by-nighters like the Palmer United Party, Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives, Nick Xenophon’s SA Best or even One Nation, which has been through several incarnations since founder Pauline Hanson was disendorsed by the Liberal Party in 1996. As has been written previously in The Monthly Today, here and here, The Greens have been around since the 1980s, have a stable policy platform, and have made steady inroads into state and federal parliaments.

In short, McAllister agrees, saying that’s “exactly right”. The proof, he says, is in the rate of churn in voter support for those parties from one survey to the next. Protest parties tend to have high churn rates, and this is true for the parties of Palmer, Bernardi, Xenophon and Hanson: around 50–70 per cent of their votes are from first-time voters. By contrast, the churn rate for the Greens started back in the ’90s but has fallen dramatically over the last few federal elections – to around 20–25 per cent in the last 10–12 years. Conversely, the Greens’ proportion of “loyal” voters has consistently risen, to the level of the other major parties. “So I conclude from this that they are now a mainstream party, rather than a protest party,” McAllister says.

The obvious question is, why haven’t the Greens – whose primary vote has flatlined at 9–10 per cent according to Newspoll – benefited more from this long-running shift to the left? McAllister has two answers: first, he says, political parties are very adaptive, and so Labor has picked up on some of the issues that drove the Greens support, just as the Coalition has lifted some of One Nation’s policies. Second, McAllister believes, the Greens have lost some appeal by shifting from the “green environmentalism” of Bob Brown to the “red environmentalism” expounded by NSW Greens senator Lee Rhiannon.  How that analysis squares with the electorate’s shift to the left is arguable. Less seriously, as SMH editor Ben Cubby tweeted today, on these numbers Australia will be a “100% socialist utopia by 2049”.

since this morning

Russia’s ambassador has accused Australian journalists of denying his “freedom of speech” and described coverage of his press conference last week as insulting.

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has denied that the Australian government retracted his offer for white South African farmers to come to Australia on humanitarian visas.

Queensland Greens senator Andrew Bartlett will make a bid for the lower house seat of Brisbane, paving the way for the return of Larissa Waters. Former senator Waters won preselection today as the party’s lead upper house candidate for the next federal election, beating rival Ben Pennings of the Stop Adani campaign.

Cementing the longest period of policy stability on record, Reserve Bank board members meeting today kept the overnight cash rate steady at 1.5 per cent, where it has been since August 2016.

in case you missed it

In this exclusive for The Age, Nick McKenzie reveals footage of six Victoria Police officers pinning down, beating and pepper-spraying a mentally ill disability pensioner in the Melbourne suburb of Preston.

Coalition backbenchers have formed a group called “Monash Forum” to lobby for government funding of new coal-fired power stations, The Australian reports [$]. The name has prompted objections from the RSL.

A new report has warned that the declining performance of Australian school students will cost the country $120 billion in coming decades, and that $20 billion of this amount is due to rising educational inequality.

by Don Watson
Rethinking the republic
A change in our head of state won’t change everything, and other lessons for the next push

by Edward Scheer
Crying games
Media tears change the way we see things

Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is the author of Inside the Greens and the unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?


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