Friday, 25 June 2010

From volatile vote to transition vote to transition party and then......?

Australia is a privileged nation. It has universal suffrage and a system of compulsory voting.  There are exemptions.  Conscientious objectors to voting on religious grounds can apply for an exemption.  Serving a long jail sentence may exclude people as would mental impairment.  Australian citizens must enrol themselves on the Electoral Roll at the address at which they reside and citizens then must vote at the appropriate time.  The latter isn't exactly true.  No one actually ensures that the enrolled person puts pencil to paper.  So if the elector turns up, has his or her name crossed off on the roll, takes the ballot paper and places it unmarked in the ballot box, all legal obligations have been met.

The result of all this is that approximately 90% of eligible Australians cast a ballot.  These sort of numbers give a virtually iron-clad legitimacy to the government so elected.  In the United States, where voting is not compulsory, it is unusual for the President to receive more than 50% of the votes of all eligible Americans.  When you add to this electoral rorting during the George W. Bush era, one wonders what it has to take in the American system to query Presidential legitimacy at times.

So what do we do with our one humble but powerful vote here in Australia.  The conventional wisdom tells us here in Australia (which has, in essence, a two-party system of government) that government is decided by approximately 20% of the population who are swinging voters (and, Networkers, don't believe everyone who says they are a swinging voter).  The other 80% is more or less split between conservative voters and progressive voters and this 80%, again more or less, remains static.

This brings us to talk about party allegiance.  So many people vote the way their parents did.  It can take an earth-shattering event for people to change their vote.  Sure, there are protest votes which do not turn into a party allegiance switch and which can swing quickly back to the original party of allegiance as quickly and easily as a compass swings to True North.

This is a preamble to telling you, dear Networkers, that I am keeping an eye on The Greens vote because there is a possibility that - at least in some parts of Australia - this vote could be a transition vote.  Let me explain.  Up until the 1950s, the Catholic vote in Australia in the main as a vote for the Australian Labor Party.  I quote from John Warhurst's McCocker Oration of 2006:

Beginning with the Labor Party split in the mid-1950s the place of Australian Catholics in party politics has been transformed over just one or two generations. The change has been remarkable. Once, Catholics were identified largely with the Labor Party, for a combination of Irish-Australian ethnic, working class status and sectarian religious reasons.   ...
...  The Catholic community had no place in non-Labor politics then. The gulf was enormous. From federation until 1980 Professor Joan Rydon has calculated "the almost negligible Catholic component of the non-Labor parties". There was antipathy towards those Catholics who did make it in the Liberal Party as Sir John Cramer, a Catholic federal Liberal MP in the 1950s, has testified in his memoirs. For most the Liberal Party was not even an option as an astute Catholic commentator and Labor critic like B.A. Santamaria could confirm.

This is no longer the situation - far from it.  Catholics are all through the Liberal Party.  Tony Abbott, a Catholic, is Leader of the Opposition and followed Malcolm Turnbull, a Catholic.  The Leader before Turnbull was Brendan Nelson who is/was the first Catholic ever to lead the Liberal Party.

How did this come about? There was The Split.  Out of the political split among Catholics in Victoria (1955) and Queensland (1957) came the Democratic Labor Party (DLP).  The Preferential System of voting allowed this third party to grow in influence, directing their preferences to the Liberal and National Parties and effectively keeping out of the Australian Labor Party.  Over the years, the DLP fell into decline and is no longer a viable political entity with the exception of one member currently elected to the Upper House in Victoria.  And what happened to the Catholic vote which had been garnered by the DLP?  DLP voters became fully fledged Liberal or National Party voters.

History has demonstrated that the disgruntled DLP vote was actually a transition vote for a transition party which, in reality, was a transference of a substantial Catholic vote from the Australian Labor Party to the major conservative coalition.  At this site, Antony Green includes a discussion relating to third party vote transferrence.

I watch with interest what is happening in the food bowls of New South Wales and Queensland as farmers go toe to toe against mining and coal-seam gas interests.  Four Corners did a wonderful program in relation to the Liverpool Plains campaign against the miners in their program, The Good Earth.  Read the full transcript here.

I still have in my memory of this program the picture of a very nervous Barnaby Joyce driving up to the Liverpool Plains.  These were dyed in the wool National Party voters who had had precious little support from their own party who had sought and received support from The Greens.  Barnaby's demeanor reminded me of the National Party panic over Pauline Hanson and One Nation.  Will the former National Party voters of the Liverpool Plains actually give their No. 1 votes to The Greens.  I have my doubts.  And, if these conservative voters were to actually go the other way and join The Greens, what would be the impact on The Greens - particularly the impact on some sections of their more radical social agenda?

And so to the Darling Downs in Queensland and the invasion of the extractors of coal-seam gas (CSG).  Please go here for the Backgrouond Briefing site and listen to or read the transcript of Gas Rush. Darling Downs is the gold standard for the National Party vote and the National Party (now absorbed into a new political party comprising the National and LIberal Parties) in Queensland is probably the most disciplined and cohesive of all voting demographics in Australia. 

Out into all this has gone Drew Hutton.  And here let me declare myself.  I don't trust Drew Hutton.  I lived in Queensland for all the years of the Joh Bjelke-Petersen dictatorship and I've seen some pretty horrible National Party politics in Queensland since.  Drew Hutton - as chief mover and shaker of The Greens in Queensland for decades -  has treated with the Nats and, unless my memory is faulty, there have been times when The Greens in Queensland have directed their preferences to the National Party.  And this from a party regarded as progressive?
So when a few years or decades or a generation go by what will be discerned?  Will we find we have been living through a political shift, a period of voter transferrence - either from The Greens to the National Party or from the National Party to The Greens.

My best hope is that all those campaigners against the over-reachers of the resource industry will meet their political match.  I hope the organised voices of individual communities are heard and have impact.  But let's not get starry eyed about the politics of it all.

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