This is my response to Peter Dempster’s proposals.
I can see one important merit of them. Electoral politics is inherently polarising because electoral politics involves politicians beating other politicians to qualify to be politicians in the first place – by getting into parliament – and then joining the team that helped them get to parliament in beating the other team. So it’s good to have stabilising influences such as what’s been proposed.
But while I like this intention, it seems to me that the idea has some difficulties intellectually and has no chance practically. The results of the survey that Peter quotes are interesting and informative, but I don’t think they should be read naïvely.1 For instance 45 percent of people say they’d consider voting for a new centrist party, but we know how many people do vote that way when people try to establish such parties.
This leaves aside the question of where the ‘centre’ is. For me the ALP are a thoroughly centrist party. The concrete policy decisions the Government is making so far are relatively centrist also, but the right now has the problem the left had from the 1960s to the around the mid 1980s, which is that they have an unreasonable faction. 2 In the same vein, I’m not sure how easy it is to pick a single dimension of ‘centrism’. For instance on military matters there’s nothing centrist about me. I’m in favour of doing almost anything to avoid getting into a war. Not anything – I’m not a pacifist – but almost anything. There’s nothing centrist about that.
Moreover I’m quite left wing when it comes to income distribution, but allergic to the self-righteousness of the left. I don’t hold this against them personally, because the more I’ve thought about politics in the way I now think about it, the more I blame the system not the victim. Self-righteousness works politically. It works to recruit and hold adherents, and rev them up against their opponents. Being more low key and resigned about things in one’s manner doesn’t.
On the practical side, I also don’t think political journalists know much at all. They hang around parliament and engage in lots of pub-talk. Then they continue the pub-talk on Insiders, and Outsiders and Leftsiders and Rightsiders and Purplesiders and Lemon Merangsiders. I think we have a pretty good idea of who’s a moderate and who’s not from political journalists’ and others’ reporting right now.
More generally, I think the idea has precisely no chance of going anywhere. Even if quite a few people could give it a lot of public profile. The engine of political engagement is emotion, not reason. The proposal embodies an entirely abstract idea, and people routinely fail to defend abstract ideas at the ballot box.3
In speaking with people who are seasoned campaigners on both sides about the idea of a party based on giving sortition or random selection a bigger presence in our democracy – for instance by selecting the upper house or some part of it by lot – their advice to me is that it would definitely bomb unless one had squared off some policies to campaign on – which, to be consistent, one imagines one would do with some randomly selected or otherwise representative body.
If one campaigned for this, most people wouldn’t get it. And most of those that did have lots of other things on their mind. Do they want to vote Green? Which of the parties do they feel happiest with? Do they feel vengeful towards the existing lot for the way their electricity prices have gone up? In that context abstract ideas typically cut across those considerations. If I help ‘centrists’, will that get my electricity prices down or should I vote for the candidate who says that working families are stretched to breaking point by rising electricity prices and we have to Eaze the Skwese?
There’s also the chicken and egg problem. Lots of small businesses start thinking that their idea is so great that people will beat a pathway to their door. I know because I thought people would queue up to get the same home loans from Peach Home Loans that they could get from Westpac or any other lender. It turns out that, not only is it very difficult to get known, but even then, there are various psychological reasons why people are wary and will head down to their local branch. Still it plugs away in its low key way. Does anyone out there want a home loan? Our Going Troppo Liberator Loan comes with free access to Troppo for the duration of the loan – with a home loan from the bank of your choice and $1,000 in your bank account.
Finally, where is the evidence that strategic voting of the kind Peter envisages can take off in a substantial way? That’s a genuine question, I don’t know, but I would expect it’s a pretty boutique kind of operation (though the graph the Troppo elves chose to illustrate the piece suggests otherwise, so perhaps I’m wrong). Perhaps more to the point, I can’t really envisage any way that’s practical and consistent with our traditions of preventing large scale cheating. If someone agrees to vote in a deal with me, how do I know they’ve done so? And how will that effect my confidence in them and theirs in me?
- I hope you like that little gizmo over the “i” in ‘naïve’. I do! But I digress. ↩
- I was going to say it’s an ideological faction and to some extent it is, but that’s dignifying it somewhat. Opposition to greenhouse gas abatement isn’t really ideological, it’s part tactical and part a reaction to another ideology which one might call ‘political correctness’ – anyway, that’s just a quibble – not very interesting. . ↩
- My favourite example is the election of 1977 when there was a small swing away from the Fraser Government after its landslide win in 1975. One Liberal MP had a swing to him. Phillip Lynch who’d been engaged in various shady land deals (I may be being unfair here, he may have been innocent, but there was a fair smell about him at the time as I recall.) ↩