Lachlan Harris and Andrew Charlton have a piece in the Fairfax press decrying the collapse of centrism in Australia.
There are some problems with their data. As William Bowe has pointed out, the change in voter attitudes described by Harris and Charlton as “polarisation” looks more like a straighforward increase in support for the left, rising from 19.5 per cent to 31.4 per cent over the period 1996 to 2016. Measures of voter disaffection show no consistent trend over the period except for a sharp uptick in 2016.
Regardless of the data, there’s no reason to dispute the central claim that Australian politics is more polarised than at any time in the past twenty years.
The big problem with the piece, and the besetting sin of centrist analysis, is the near-complete absence of discussion of actual policy. The assumption is simply that whoever is in the middle must be right.
The case of climate policy, the only specific policy issue mentioned in the article, illustrates the point. Do Harris and Charlton really think the appropriate starting point is to split the difference between policies based on overwhelming scientific evidence and a denialist reaction derived entirely from the politics of the culture war?
More broadly, I think it’s useful to discuss the issue in the light of the three-party model I proposed a while ago. In policy terms, the problem described by Harris and Charlton is the collapse of the neoliberal consensus that dominated both parties from the 1970s to the Global Financial Crisis. This consensus never commanded all that much popular support. Now that it’s failed to deliver the goods, the parties are being forced to respond to the elements of their base that could safely be ignored in the past.
On the right, that means Pauline Hanson and tribalism/white nationalism in general. There’s no evidence Hanson’s support has increased since her first upsurge in the 1990s, nor has she changed. The difference is that her views have now become mainstream on the political right, as witness her reconciliation with Tony Abbott.
For Labor, the soft neoliberalism pushed by every leader from Hawke onwards* is no longer an option. The disasters that have befallen social democratic parties that have gone along with austerity politics, and promoted themselves as better managers, stand as a warning of what the dangers. Labor is finally breaking with the orthodoxy of small-targets and promising progressive tax policies to finance necessary public expenditures.
It’s certainly true that this represents a break with the model of Australian politics that has prevailed since the 1980s. But a choice between alternatives is democracy is all about, even if one of those alternatives represents the worst in our national character.
* The exception was Kevin Rudd’s brief flirtation with a renewed social democracy, epitomised by his essay in The Monthly. Interestingly, Andrew Charlton was closely involved with that piece (I also had a peripheral involvement).