The myth of conservative Australia

Many think the right-wing policies of the Coalition and Labor represent the conservatism of Australians. Eliot Hoving shows that this is not the case

Greens Leader Christine Milne told The Guardian in June that “The opinion polls have been consistent for some months: the country is going conservative and it is pretty clear that there will be an Abbott government”.

There is certainly a right-wing consensus between Labor and the Liberals over pro-business policies and the need to cut spending to get to budget surplus.

But this is not driven by public opinion or public conservatism. In fact neoliberal policies conflict with the desires and views of most Australians.

Large majorities believe the government is doing “too little” when it comes to regulating banks (62 per cent) and providing adequate health care (74 per cent), affordable public transport (67 per cent), and quality education (54 per cent).

An Essential poll in May recorded that a majority think large businesses (63 per cent), mining companies (62 per cent), and people on high incomes (60 per cent) don’t pay enough tax. An April Essential poll on budget measures found 71 per cent opposed postponing infrastructure spending and 60 per cent were against cutting spending on unemployment and disability benefits.

This is confirmed by the Australian Election Study (AES) results which show the number of people in favour of more spending on social services has risen from 15 per cent in 1987 to 34 per cent in 2010.
Concerns about inequality have risen as neoliberal reforms have cut and privatised services, and eroded workplace conditions.

Those in favour of wealth and income redistribution have risen from 46 per cent in 1987 to 51 per cent in 2010, whilst those against have fallen from 34 to 19 per cent. The Scanlon Foundation 2012 Report, based on random interviews of 2000 people nationally, also found that 74 per cent agree or strongly agree that the gap between high and low incomes is too large.

This is not to say the official consensus about neoliberal policies has had no effect. In March 2012 an Essential poll found 44 per cent agreed that the government was too large and did too much, compared to 28 per cent who disagreed. In the absence of any mainstream opposition to ideas about the need for “small government” and to reduce government debt, many people accept them.

But this has failed to dislodge overwhelming public opposition to cutbacks and support for progressive taxation and spending.

Market reforms and privatisation have been consistently unpopular. A 2011 Essential poll, asking about recent privatisations, found 59 per cent believed they benefited private companies the most, while only 6 per cent thought they benefitted the general public1. Essential poll found in June that 57 per cent opposed the privatisation of SBS and ABC compared to only 15 per cent in support.

Nor is it simply over economic policies that the major parties are out of step. In May an Essential poll found that 56 per cent of respondents believed unions were important for working people today, compared to 35 per cent who didn’t. Furthermore 43 per cent believed that all workers would be better off with stronger unions compared to 29 per cent who disagreed. This is a much higher figure than the percentage of the population currently in trade unions: 18 per cent.

AES survey trends show that an overwhelming majority now see big businesses as having too much power (72 per cent in 2010).

In May Essential also found 58 per cent support for same sex marriage. A June 2010 poll found 61 per cent support for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan.

Thus across a variety of issues polling suggests that the public is to the left of the mainstream parties. This indicates a significant desire for the kind of social democratic policies Labor once advocated, like taxing the rich to fund services, and ample space for unions and other social movements to grow.

This helps explain the rise in disillusionment with the political process. The Scanlon Foundation found trust in the government has fallen to 26 per cent, whilst lack of trust has risen to 72 per cent.
AES surveys show consistently that almost half the population sees the government as run for a “few big interests”.

Australian racism

Asylum seekers stands out as an issue where widespread opinions are significantly to the right.
According to the Scanlon Foundation, strong negative views about refugee boat arrivals outnumber strong positive views by approximately two to one. This translates to significant support for “deterrence” policies. The Essential Poll for July 2012 asked: “Do you think the Federal Labor Government is too tough or too soft on asylum seekers?”. Sixty per cent of respondents replied “too soft” versus only 12 per cent “too tough”2.

Kevin Rudd’s PNG deal is draconian and unworkable but Essential polling found 61 per cent support it.
Both political parties have elevated asylum seekers to the forefront of the political debate. Yet it has consistently rated as low in the list of people’s key concerns. Essential in July this year recorded people’s most important concerns for the election as economic management (45 per cent), the quality of healthcare (42 per cent), Australian jobs and protecting local industries (39 per cent) and quality education for all (25 per cent. Only 14 per cent thought asylum seeker policy was a top three issue3.

Its real potency is as a scapegoat for real concerns. Media scare stories about refugees getting extravagant welfare benefits or taking government housing encourage the idea that asylum seekers are to blame for the rundown of government services or unemployment. Polling by the Lowy Institute has found that those who saw refugees as a “critical threat” to the “the vital interests of Australia in the next ten years” rose from 31 per cent in 2006 to 39 per cent in 2009.

The government and the media actively feeds misinformation about asylum seekers. The Scanlon Foundation 2012 survey found that respondents incorrectly thought the main reason for boat arrivals travelling to Australia was “for a better life” (46 per cent), whilst only a minority answered persecution (18 per cent) and fear of their lives (9 per cent). However according to DIAC’s own statistics on boat arrivals, 93.5 per cent for 2010-11 and 91 per cent in 2011-12 were found to be refugees.

When asked about those who are genuinely fleeing persecution people are much more welcoming. Eighty three per cent said they would help a refugee settle in the community and 67 per cent agree they have made a valuable contribution to society, a Red Cross poll in 2010 found.

This shows that if refugee activists can successfully debunk the myths it is possible to win public support for asylum seekers. The refugee campaign has done this successfully in the past. Newspoll shows from 2001 to 2004 the number of people that supported turning back all boats fell from 50 per cent to 35 per cent, whilst the number wanting to accept some or all increased from 47 per cent to 61 per cent.

The refugee movement must orientate to the union movement and concerns of workers such as cost of living pressures, and underfunded social services. We need to win workers and the union movement to stand against refugee bashing, because it divides the working class and lets the bosses and government off the hook for their neoliberal policies.

Labor’s crisis

Labor’s likely defeat at the election stems not from the public’s conservatism. Labor’s right-wing policies have lost it support, alienating its working class base.

Yet the Australian public continues to look to Labor for social democratic reforms. A June poll showed that the Labor government’s two highest rated policies were the expansion of dental health services for low income earners and increasing the tax free threshold. But alongside these policies, Labor has more often moved in the opposite direction, reneging on the mining tax and announcing cuts to single parent payments, public sector jobs and university funding.

Hence many intend to vote for the Liberals to punish Labor, but don’t view a Liberal election victory as their desired outcome. Research by JWS on 54 marginal seats recorded that although only 32.2 per cent were planning to vote Labor, 53 per cent of respondents “would like to see some form of Labor victory at the next election” compared to only 29 per cent who wanted to see a Tony Abbott victory.

The warped priorities of the major parties and their mutual commitment to neoliberalism reflects the needs of Australian capitalism, not public opinion. Both Labor and the Liberals are unwilling to address rising inequality, reverse privatisation, or increase social spending or do anything to take the profits of Australian banks, mining companies and other corporations.

The political power of capital, and the disconnect between the major parties and popular sentiment demonstrates a key limit of parliamentary politics. But grassroots campaigns can fight back and shift formal politics to the left.

Actions by unions undermined WorkChoices under Howard and in NSW halted the Labor government’s plans for power privatisation. Victorian and NSW nurses have fought State Liberal government cuts by taking unprotected strike action. The refugee campaign made it impossible for the Liberals to use the race card to win the 2007 election and forced Labor to close Nauru.

Polls reveal consistent opposition to conservative economic and social policy. This represents a large audience for The Greens and the wider left to mobilise in defence of public services, against privatisation and against the profit-hungry corporations. Whether Abbott or Rudd ends up winning the election, this should give us confidence about the potential to fight for change.



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