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How to Vote Progressive in Australia: Labor or Green?

Chapter 5

What’s Left – Progressive?

Carmen Lawrence

In politics, including in Australia, the much-overused word, ‘progressive’, has come to describe people’s positions on a cluster of issues, the precise composition of which depends on who’s doing the talking. But it appears to be used as shorthand for a vaguely left-wing way of looking at the world, based on the premise that it is possible to change society for the better. It’s certainly not a revolutionary agenda.

Rowson1 proposes that the progressive imagination envisages a world with ‘safe and sound’ ecologies; that most progressives want societies to become more equal in both opportunity and outcome. To be progressive is to place a high, in principle, value on sharing the bounties of life. According to McKnight,2 central to being progressive today is the question of sustainability: how humans can live a good life without destroying the ecological basis for that life. He adds to the list care for the vulnerable, a commitment to the ‘common good’ and respect for diversity.

Crucially, being progressive is typically marked by the belief that governments have a pivotal role to play in ensuring a fair and sustainable production and distribution of these goods, but progressives also embrace the individual freedoms and rights that democracies claim to afford. In discussing contemporary UK politics, Roberto Unger proposed3 that a progressive is: ‘someone who wants to see society reorganised, part by part and step by step, so that ordinary men and women have a better chance to live to a larger life’. By definition, progressives understand the importance of politics in this process.

Whether the Australian Labor Party will continue to capture the majority of the votes of those who endorse any or all of these values or whether the Greens will win them over is an open question. But the signs are ominous for Labor.

In Australia, voters who might be described as ‘progressive’ have in recent decades voted principally for the Australian Labor Party, in smaller numbers for the Democrats and, more recently, for the Greens (although the takeover by social moderate Malcolm Turnbull might change that). The last Australian Election Studies survey showed that while there were few differences between Labor and Green voters in their preferences on economic policy and income redistribution, they differed significantly in their opinions about global warming and the treatment of asylum seekers. We found a somewhat similar patterns in our 2014 study of policy preferences:4 Green voters were considerably less conservative than Labor voters on a measure which captured attitudes to turning back asylum seeker boats; expenditure on foreign aid; increasing police numbers; harsher sentencing for drug users; and migrants’ contribution to crime. And those intending to vote Green were also more likely than intending Labor voters to endorse items relating to same-sex marriage, gender roles and abortion. While Labor now presents a more reactionary position on the first of these policy groupings – particularly on the treatment of asylum seekers – it continues to embrace a progressive position on the second cluster.

Whether the hardening of Labor’s position on refugee policy will see more votes bleed to the Greens, only the next election will tell, but polls suggest that inner-city seats in Sydney and Melbourne – where many progressives live – are particularly vulnerable for Labor. While the preferential, district-based voting system will continue to deliver results that favour the two major parties, strategic voting by the Coalition could see more seats go to the Greens at the expense of the more left-wing members of the ALP (who typically hold such seats). The effect could well be to shift the Labor Party even further to the right and further away from a progressive approach to key economic and social issues.

In an article on ‘The Drum’ following Gough Whitlam’s death, Greens candidate and former adviser Robert Sims argued that ‘Whitlam represented a style of visionary, conviction politics that many voters yearn for in today’s age of craven politicians, opinion polls and spin doctors’. In comparing the Greens with the Labor Party of the 1970s, Sims argued that the Greens enjoy ‘support from social movements and activists who want an end to business as usual’ and are now more Whitlamite than modern Labor. According to this view, it is the Greens who are the beneficiaries of Whitlam’s legacy and it is they who represent the modern face of progressive politics. Bob Brown has proposed that ‘left’ is now seen as an interchangeable word with ‘progressive’ and that the Greens are the only party of substance on the left side of politics.5

Some support for this analysis is evident in the drift toward the Greens of the well-educated, affluent and civically engaged middle class – the same type of voters who provided crucial support for the Whitlam government. It is also reflected in the policy positions they endorse.

Every election produces its own unique set of certainties about the virtues of the winners and the defects of the losers, certainties that more thoughtful consideration – and the passage of time – have often shown to be flawed. Instant, impression-based analyses of what has happened, and why, saturate the media. All the signs are that the next election will be no different. The score cards will be marked for the winners and losers and predictions made about their future prospects. In every electoral cycle, the imminent demise of the losing party (whichever it is) and creeping tide of blue (or red) – or green – across the nation will be trumpeted as unique, without precedent. Few scribes will have the humility to look back later and read what they predicted and judge whether it bears scrutiny. Most, like economists, will never have to say they’re sorry.

In all of the ‘horse race’ commentary, it’s likely that only a few will pay close attention to the serious problems masked by the sound and fury of election campaigns: the disenchantment and disengagement of Australian voters; the rot infesting the major parties; and the steady erosion of Australia’s political culture. Few will reflect on the steady decline in party membership and the diminished participation by Australians in the business of shaping political values, designing policy and selecting candidates.

Yet voters themselves seem acutely aware of these problems. Much of the sentiment about politics and politicians, revealed in blogs and posts and articles, is indicative of a near universal disdain for politics as an enterprise; ‘politics’ has increasingly become a dirty word. To attribute ‘political’ motives to people is to question their honesty and integrity and their capacity to do anything other than in their own the self-interest. Many Australians now seem deeply scornful of their parliamentary representatives. This suits the agenda of those who seek to denigrate and diminish the role of government and, by definition, frustrates progressive policy objectives.

The disdain with which politics is viewed extends to the major parties which are judged to be failing our democracy. They are seen as parties in name only, having mutated into hollow corporations run by a handful of paid officials; remote from their declining membership and the rest of Australia, and ripe for the picking by special interests.

The story behind the news is that our already rudimentary political parties are withering, as power is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands – and there are no signs that this is sparking any serious effort at party reform. Whether it is the Coalition or the Labor Party, it’s clear to even the most rusted-on supporters that the factions have ossified and morphed into groups in the thrall of one or two power brokers (in the case of the ALP, tightly controlled by a few union leaders), driving away members with broader interests in ideology and policy. Even the highly factionalised audience at the 2015 conference of the NSW Liberal Party fell about laughing when newly minted PM Malcolm Turnbull claimed that, unlike their rivals, the ALP, their party was not riven by factions.

As Jaensch and his colleagues reminded us in their audit of Australian political parties,6 ‘Australians don’t care much for political parties’: 67 per cent in their survey expressed little or no confidence in them and only 9 per cent thought that parties have high standards in the conduct of their internal affairs. A 2012 national survey of voters found there was a widespread perception that political parties were corrupt. Attitudes like these may help explain people’s reluctance to become active in political parties. In her survey of organisational, including political party, membership, Crikey’s Cathy Alexander reported that ‘there are far more members in the RSL, the MCC and the low-profile Federation of Australian Historical Societies than in any party. There are more Scouts than Liberals, there are more Freemasons than ALP members’.7

Tellingly, the most recent ANU post-election survey8 also found significant increases in voters’ scepticism about whether it makes a difference which party they vote for; voters apparently find it increasingly difficult to discern any ideological distinctions. Only 56 per cent of those surveyed believed their vote made a difference, down from 70 per cent in 1996. Only 43 per cent, an all-time low for the survey series, believed it made any difference which party was in power. Perhaps this perception goes some way to explaining the rapid turnover of state governments – it becomes a matter of turn-taking, not policy merit; management credentials, not political philosophy.

These trends have been observed in many established democracies – and even some of the emerging ones. The erosion of trust in politicians and political elites is commonplace, as is greater public scepticism about these elites and their pronouncements. More alarming is that, in some places, these feelings now appear to be moving to encompass democratic regimes and institutions themselves. While these symptoms of decline are not unique to Australia, we do seem to be unusual in failing to devote serious attention to them. Neither our governments nor our political parties, with the possible exception of the Greens, appear overly concerned.

In response to similar, but much smaller scale, problems to those identified in Australia, several Scandinavian governments, with the support of all the major political groupings, undertook a systematic analysis of what was causing the recent democratic decline in their part of the world. They attempted to diagnose the flaws in their democracies and to recommend appropriate remedies. One of the reports to the Norwegian parliament concluded that ‘democracy – fundamentally understood as representative democracy, a formal decision-making system employing election by a majority and directly elected bodies – is in decline. The political purchasing power of the voter ballot has been diminished’.

The report’s authors were effectively arguing that the power of voters in the chain of governance had been lessened. However, their research also showed it was not that people’s values had changed, but rather that politics had changed. Voters remained interested in political issues, but had come to believe that the decision-making power of their elected representatives was in decline; that governments had abdicated important areas of responsibility – primarily to corporations and financial markets – and could no longer exercise as much influence as they once had.

These beliefs are supported by the evidence:9 not only have many of the tasks previously reserved for governments been shifted to organisations not answerable to voters, but politicians themselves publicly denigrate the capacity of governments to deliver effective policy outcomes. One of the contributing causes to this shift is the growing political influence of those for whom government is, at best, a necessary evil; the political players who have captured power but, without any sense of irony, are committed to an avowedly small or anti-government agenda. This process of ‘depoliticisation’ sometimes takes the form of handing over responsibility for contentious issues to ‘independent’ bodies and presenting them as purely technical matters, allowing politicians to avoid any serious censure for policy failure. Or it may take the form of a handover of political decision making to the market, rejecting the need for public deliberation at all. The rash of privatisations and public asset sales in many advanced liberal democracies from the 1980s onward is illustrative of the pervasive conviction that the private sector is invariably more efficient in allocating resources than the public sector. As a result, the boundaries of the state have been markedly reconfigured – and shrunk.

The authors of the Norwegian report also agreed that voters were not deluded in their belief that the scope of political power had contracted. They observed that the large economic actors, including multinational corporations were often, as a result of globalisation, more powerful than governments, and not infrequently threatened that they would move capital, production, headquarters or jobs out of the country if policy settings (including taxation) were not to their liking. Globalisation has arguably shifted power from elected representatives to major corporations and institutions – such as the EU, the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and various international agreements – and moved important issues beyond the reach of national democratic politics and accountability. These players constrain the range of actions governments are prepared to take – or can take – to redistribute wealth and protect the environment. Just ask the Greeks.

There is also a fairly widespread consensus in the academic literature that globalisation ‘undermines, subverts, or sets limits on democracy’.10 As Scholte11 has argued, ‘globalization has undermined conventional liberal democracy, with its focus on national self-determination through a territorial state’. Hay’s12 analysis gives greater weight to the impact of the international diffusion of neoliberalism more generally, with its largely unchallenged prescriptions for a technical set of devices for managing a national economy: privatisation; the contracting out of public services; the displacement of policymaking from the political realm to independent authorities; and the privileging of multinational trade interests ahead of national priorities. As Hay puts it, this represents a rolling back of political deliberation and a rolling forward of the purview and influence of the market. He argues that this process has served to depoliticise policymaking, accelerating political disengagement and disenfranchisement. These factors have all contributed to people’s increasing apathy toward conventional politics; people believe that power has migrated elsewhere and that the constraints imposed by these more powerful, vested interests are likely to swamp any other considerations, no matter what political parties promise before the election.

The absence of a serious, coherent discussion about any of these forces from Australia’s political players is striking. Indeed there appears to be collusion between the two major parties to ignore what’s happening, although there are some recent signs that the implicit agreement may be breaking down, perhaps because more Australians are publicly worrying that governments’ authority is being usurped by the big international economic players. The recent sceptical responses to the claimed benefits of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement and the China–Australia Free Trade Agreement are indicative of this concern, particularly about Australian standards relating to labour rights, food safety and environmental protection. And although Labor has, of late, been more equivocal about the benefits of these agreements, it has yet to prove that this is more than oppositional posturing; it’s one of the reasons why more and more progressives are eyeing off the Greens.

Australian surveys regularly show that a significant portion of voters worry about the power wielded by multinational corporations and see significant risks, especially for job security, in opening up the economy to foreign competition.13 The rent-seeking behaviour of large international companies, their purchase of influence through election funding and lobbying and their extreme resistance to paying their fair share of tax, are the focus of particular unease. It appears that Australians are much more wary than their political representatives about the benefits of global and regional integration.14

The privileging of corporate interests over community and environmental concerns is also generating increasing resistance from those who do not see the outcomes of these conflicts as inevitable. That such strong community organisations have developed to campaign against the unfettered expansion of the gas and coal industries into agricultural land in New South Wales, Queensland and into pristine, Indigenous lands in the Kimberley shows that many people are unconvinced by claims that such developments are imperative for our economic security. And people notice that their elected representatives, governments and the instruments of government routinely put community interests last. The ‘light touch’ and self-regulation now typical of many state (and increasingly, Commonwealth) regimes is symptomatic of the retreat of government and shrivelling of the political sphere – and a failure of the Labor Party to provide an alternative, progressive, voice.

It seems that for today’s Labor Party the neoliberal economic agenda has ‘became more than a set of economic policies; it gradually evolved into a deep commitment to the underlying principles and philosophy of economic liberalism, and an inability to imagine any other way of governing’.15 The failure of Labor to question this dogma, indeed its willingness to provide the kinder face of neoliberalism is, in my view, one of the reasons for its decline in influence and legitimacy. Labor’s political leaders have failed to articulate policies that can be seen to promote an improved quality of life and to foster the public good – goals central to a progressive agenda. Nor have they expended any serious intellectual effort in exploring alternative economic models, which allow for a proper weight to be given to social and environmental interests. To many observers, Labor appears bereft of either a positive vision for the country or a viable strategy to achieve it; they have little to say about ‘the necessary and productive tension between individual and collective purposes’.16

This, of course, is not unique to Labor or to Australia; left-ofcentre parties everywhere have succumbed to the sirens’ song of the end of history, the inevitability of the status quo – and are suffering the consequences. Giving up the power to craft alternative policies, a focus on creating the right impression has come to dominate the public voices of the major parties. Here in Australia, Labor has been too clever for its own good, often embracing simplistic, lowest common denominator policies, emulating the worst of the conservative agenda – its asylum seeker policy being the most egregious example. In trying to accommodate all points on the ideological compass, the Party ends up losing its reason for existence. People seem to understand that to conduct politics without its ‘essential, principled moral nature’, as one commentator put it, is to engage in bad politics. At the very least, it is politics conducted in bad faith.

The allegiances that people feel to political parties in Australia are continuing to fray. This represents a loss of the easy vote and more people are open to being persuaded; they are less fixed in their views. On the left, the Greens are attract ing new voters and perhaps, more importantly, activists. The ALP is not. This decline is most evident among the young, the better-educated and the more politically aware. Progressives are moving. They are clearly worried about the direction in which Australia is headed but doubt whether Labor can provide an analysis and understanding of what may be done. They want at least to hear a debate on issues such as the role of government, population and immigration, rising inequality, reconciliation with our Indigenous people, simultaneous underemployment and overwork, human rights and international citizenship, models of economic growth, and the priority which should be given to environmental improvement and protection. Only those parties who understand this and can craft a credible vision of a ‘good society’ – one which places economic decisions in the wider social and environmental content – will motivate and galvanise progressive voters to support them. With its current factionalised structure, narrow base and short-term focus, it’s hard to see Labor rising to the challenge.



2    D. McKnight, Beyond Left and Right, New Critic Lecture Series, IAS, UWA, 2007,

3    Radio 4, ‘Analysis’ program. Available at:

4    I. L. Rossen, P. D. Dunlop and C. M. Lawrence, ‘Development and validation of the political MAP (Multidimensional Attitudes Paradigm),’ unpublished manuscript, 2015.

5    R. Simms, ‘The Australian Greens and the moral middle class’, 2010,

6    D. Jaensch, P. Brent and P. Bowden, ‘Australian political parties in the spotlight,’ Democratic Audit of Australia, Report No. 4, 2005, 2.



9    C. Hay, Why We Hate Politics, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2007.

10  Ronaldo Munck, ‘A new “great transformation”?,’ Annals, 581, May, 2002: 13.

11  J. A. Scholte, Globalization: A Critical Introduction, Macmillan, London, 2000, 261.

12  Hay, Why We Hate Politics.

13  M. Pusey and N. Turnbull, ‘Have Australians embraced economic reform?,’ in Australian Social Attitudes, eds Ian Marsh, G. Meagher, R. Gibson, D. Denemark and M. Western, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2005.

14  I. Marsh, G. Meagher and S. Wilson, ‘Are Australians open to globalization?,’ in Australian Social Attitudes, eds Ian Marsh, G. Meagher, R. Gibson, D. Denemark and M. Western, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2005.

15  D. McKnight, ‘The renewal of social democracy,’ in State of the Nation: Essays for Robert Manne, ed G. Tavan, Black Inc, Melbourne, 2013, 52.

16  M. Lilla, ‘The truth about our Libertarian age,’ New Republic, June 17, 2014.

How to Vote Progressive in Australia: Labor or Green?

   by Dennis Altman and Sean Scalmer