One of the most conspicuous features of Western democratic politics since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 has been the steady move away from leftist policies and platforms. With few exceptions, political parties with histories of social progressivism and sweeping economic reform have chosen to mount their election campaigns on terrain long defined and dominated by their conservative opponents. (The democracies to have bucked this trend — one thinks of the rise to power of Greece’s Syriza Party in the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis [GFC], and the victory of New Zealand’s Labour Party under its progressive leader Jacinda Ardern — are the exceptions that prove the rule.)
It is as though conservative parties are, once again, the de facto parties of government — as they were in the decades following the Second World War — and the parties of the left only come into power intermittently as a kind of temporary reprieve. But even then, these parties must spruik their centrist credentials in order to ward off the inevitable scare campaigns mobilised by their opponents (along the lines of “Who do you trust to manage the economy?” or “Who do you trust to protect our borders?” or “Who do you trust to preserve our way of life?”). In this sense, the Australian Labor Party in the 1980s was a portent of things to come. The government led by former union boss Bob Hawke and his mercurial Treasurer Paul Keating had to differentiate itself dramatically from Gough Whitlam’s swashbuckling (if self-destructive) “It’s Time!” socialism of the late-1960s and early-70s, which it did by limiting the power of the unions (through the 1983 Prices and Incomes Accord), by pursuing modest social reforms, and by deregulating the Australian economy. In so doing, the Hawke-Keating government established the centre-left template for the successful campaigns of Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Kevin Rudd, and Joe Biden — each of whom had to assure voters of a smooth, inoffensive, more competent, more-or-less continuous transition from their conservative predecessors.
Even so, over the past decade — despite the GFC and the ever-more-pronounced effects of climate change — Australia, the United States, the UK, and non-Anglophone nations like France, have reverted to electing or re-electing centre-right, right, and even far-right governments. Australia’s last federal election, in 2019, seemed to be a clear demonstration of the unelectability of a progressive opposition, even when going up against an unpopular incumbent.
What, then, has the 2022 Australian federal election told us about democratic politics? The Coalition was resoundingly defeated — that much is certain. The Labor opposition was far less ambitious this time around in the pledges and programs it took to the electorate. It was not so much that they adopted a timid, “small target” strategy; rather, they made themselves as inoffensive, as non-divisive, as “safe” as possible so as not to give voters a reason not to vote for them (including when it comes to asylum seeker policy). Which is to say, Labor made the federal election a referendum on Scott Morrison and the Coalition. Consequently, Labor’s primary vote remained relatively stable, whereas the Coalition’s dropped by more than 6 per cent.
But while Labor was a “safe” option, it’s campaign could not resonate with the concerns, the convictions, the deep fears, the impatience, the moral outrage, the aspirations and exasperations on the part of many voters — not just women and younger voters, but some minorities and many local multicultural communities. So, while the major parties combined only received two-thirds of the primary vote, so-called “Teal” independent candidates, the Greens, and several minor parties garnered fully one-third of the national vote. Significantly, the issues that most enjoy a kind of cultural resonance — such as climate change, gender equality, LGBTIQ+ rights, corruption/transparency, a First Nations Voice to Parliament — but which may be deemed insufficiently “mainstream” or too divisive for the major parties to give them their proper weight, found powerful expression in the campaigns of “Teal” independents and the Greens. As a result, the Australian parliament looks to be the most diverse it has ever been, with a thin Labor majority, sizeable Green representation, and a large crossbench.
What does all this tell us about the interaction and tension between those two vital aspects of a healthy democracy: its representative politics (which increasingly tends to be centrist or centre-right) and its democratic culture (which is far more contested, agonistic and variegated, in which many citizens are driven by uncompromising moral claims which can often not be accommodated by the processes of political negotiation and compromise)? Is Australia’s patchwork parliament a surprising new model for how these aspects can be held together?