Friday, May 22, 2009

Counting your enemies in Australian politics

Arch conservative nitpicker Gerard Henderson is now one of the longest running columnists in the Sydney Morning Herald. He's happiest when the Liberals are in power, of course, but he's never beyond giving a spray to either side of politics, the ALP for the all the perceived failings of the left, and the Liberals for, well, just not being conservative enough.

Recently, he was rather miffed that the Greens won a state parliamentary seat in the Fremantle by-election in Western Australia. He was comforted by his own analysis that the Greens would never win a seat outside the inner city electorates. But what really got his goat was the Liberals' part in the affair: they didn't run a candidate.

Fremantle was, admittedly, a safe Labor seat. And there is a strong tradition of major parties not turning up in by-elections where a) they cannot hope to win, b) the overall poll numbers are not finely balanced, and c) there is no topical scandal.

So by Henderson's numbers, Labor got their usually tally, while "nearly all" traditional Liberal voters [must have] voted Green. He shafts responsibility home to the Liberals' practice of preferencing the Greens over Labor in close-to-the-wire electorates.

Of course, this assumes that Liberal voters either a) do what they're told, or b) see Labor as their worst enemy, and in either case, c) are pretty stupid if they're meant to be conservative or right-wing, but end up voting for a good solid left-winger.

Henderson characterises the Greens as "Australia's only left-wing party" - which, despite some on the left agreeing with that, is more a measure of his sniping at Labor (something he does at every opportunity). Of course, there are plenty of left-wing parties, but none (to my knowledge) have parliamentary representation in Australia, bar the Greens and the Australian Labor Party.

But it really depends on the conversation you are having as to whether you call the ALP left or right. Certainly anyone with clear left-wing sympathies would consider them right, but come election time, if it's a choice between two evils, left preferences mostly end up with Labor. Of course, there are those left fundamentalists who would rather attempt to foment revolution by ensuring those Labor quislings are out in the cold and waiting until the Liberals are sufficiently on the nose.

Unfortunately for them, the Australian electorate as a whole is rather conservative, and so will never - as a whole - go any further left that the ALP. Cold comfort for Henderson, whose nose is put even more out of joint by the actions of the Liberals at the margins.

The margin in this case is how-to-vote cards, which can have some influence on outcomes. From a purely party-political perspective the Liberals, of course, see their fundamental enemies as the ALP. So they will do anything to reduce their parliamentary presence, even so far as to encourage their own voters to go over the heads of Labor, even further left to the Greens.

So it depends who you consider your enemy - and this is where the equations go perverse. Labor is the enemy of the parliamentary Liberals, a fair few people on the left, and Henderson when it suits him. The Greens are the enemy of the far right, and the ALP when the Greens are too close at their heels. The Liberals are the enemy of the left and parliamentary Labor.

And Henderson, at times, seems to profess to being surrounded by enemies.

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