New politics should rethink old divisions
News Weekly | November 2, 2002
If the new politics referred to by Clive Hamilton in his counsel to the Democrats to quit the middle ground (“Democrats: piggy in an overcrowded middle”, The Age, October 7) is to be anything more than a superficial marketing pitch for the votes of that increasing percentage of Australians who no longer identify with the major parties, it will have to encapsulate a more sophisticated sense of the political landscape than the idea of a linear left-right spectrum.
It is curious that even proponents of new politics persist in perpetuating archaic notions about how ideas fit together.
Our understanding of virtually everything has become more sophisticated, yet in political discourse we dogmatically pay distorted homage to seating arrangements at the birth of general representative democracy in France in 1789. The design of parliaments, particularly the oppositional architecture of the Westminster model, has been befuddling our thinking ever since.
In the beginning, those who sat on the left were libertarians and anti-statists, while those on the right were state interventionists of various hues. The idea of being of one wing or the other was a workable shorthand for the time – and also for a time thereafter.
But the fading of extreme and irreconcilable viewpoints has rendered the left-right spectrum a largely worthless tool. As Samuel Brittan argued as far back as 1968 in Left or Right: The Bogus Dilemma, the left-right spectrum obscures more than it illuminates.
It might be noted in passing that no political party that has enjoyed any significant electoral success in Australia in the past half-century has conformed to the simplistic ushering of linear-spectrum thinking. Neither of the major parties, who so significantly define our understanding of left and right, represent particularly coherent lines: our current Prime Minister, for example, is a curious blend of social conservative and market libertarian.
The National Party, depending on your emphasis, is either a pillar of conservatism or a bastion of agrarian socialism. That blazing comet across the electoral sky, One Nation, was pilloried as right-wing but in many respects might just as intelligently have been called quite left-wing. Also commonly thought of as way-out right-wing was the Democratic Labor Party, which aside from its anti-communism warranted the epithet not much at all.
The DLP remained a genuine labor party, with affiliated unions, until its 1975 demise, and its policies on conservation, immigration and economic development were considerably more “progressive” than its opponents cared to admit at the time.
Indeed, one of the ALP’s foremost thinkers, Race Mathews, suggested in The Age in May (in response to another Hamilton piece) that the Labor Party should commit to the principle of subsidiarity – that higher orders of governance should not assume on behalf of lower orders functions that the lower orders can perform for themselves. That’s a dusting off of the DLP’s core policy ethic.
Given the limited usefulness of seating arrangements, fictional lines or anything with wings to convey the reality of how people actually think about issues and how political processes actually work, I’m not sure Hamilton’s suggestion the Australian Democrats move away from the middle has much merit in terms of “new politics”.
If there is to be anything new, or even political, about the new politics, it will be because it is about finding agreement rather than disagreement. A healthy democracy is built no more on the right to dissent than it is on the ability to find common ground – the ground in the middle.
The vast bulk of productive work by government is the result of consensus, despite what the theatrics designed to pique the interest of a conflict-obsessed media might otherwise suggest.
Many regard the ideological convergence of the major parties as a bad thing, but it is only bad because they have managed, due to their self-perpetuating power structures and shrinking, increasingly unrepresentative memberships, to reach a consensus out of touch with the needs and aspirations of many Australians, be they conservative or conservationist.
But consensus itself is not a bad thing. The middle ground remains where most of us are.
As they ponder the political colour spectrum and consider painting their wagon a brighter green, perhaps with red stripes, members of the Australian Democrats might ponder what it actually means to act like a democrat.
The so-called fundies seem to have a good grip on the majoritarian understanding, but a refresher course on the liberal aspect mighty be handy, since that’s the strain that has proved a more effective deliverer of social goods.
Don’t be too beguiled by that surging Greens vote: no party can hope to attract significant community support without a good dose of centrism, and if Kerrie Nettle keeps opening her mouth, much of the work Bob Brown has put into making the Greens look sensible will be undone.
For the Democrats to walk away from the middle ground would be, surely, to act less as democrats – hardly an auspicious start for the practice of new politics.