While the majority of Australian voters – around 85 per cent – still nominate a party they “identify” with, recent elections clearly show that the degree of loyalty to their chosen party has declined, according to Flinders academic Associate Professor Haydon Manning.
He said professional pollsters now maintain 40 per cent of voters are “swingers”, and this explains why the focus of national politics is increasingly about the party leader’s acumen.
A political scientist and electoral analyst, Associate Professor Manning will speak on Australian democracy and the electoral system past and present as part of the second symposium in a series for history teachers at Flinders University on May 19.
Other speakers at Teaching Democracy will include the holder of the Distinguished Fulbright Chair, Professor Howard Schweber, and philosopher Dr Lina Eriksson.
Associate Professor Manning said that the two major parties were formed and developed on the basis of class-based interests, rooted in the experience of work, and was a major reason for the stability of Australian democracy over the course of the 20th century.
“Yet we know today that the degree to which people’s socialisation is fashioned by the workplace experience has dissipated significantly,” he said.
He said that with less than a fifth of wage earners belonging to unions and small business ownership expanding, the cues Labor historically evoked now struggle to resonate.
“So it is hardly surprising, as the NSW and Queensland elections demonstrated, that Labor voters are increasingly willing to desert their historical loyalties,” Associate Professor Manning said.
“The politics of class are really not going to wash as well as they did 40 years ago. But that has not deterred the current PM, and her Treasurer, from harking back to the past with rhetoric about a Budget supposedly ‘Labor to its bootstraps’.”
Associate Professor Manning said that while Australians “grizzle a lot” about politics, politicians and democracy, about two thirds of voters, when asked in surveys, nevertheless say they are satisfied with the state of Australian democracy.
“There’s not a lot of evidence to suggest the crisis of disillusionment that is argued by some senior political journalists around the country,” Associate Professor Manning said.
“And while the current situation of a minority government can be viewed as a ‘crisis’ and sorely undermining public confidence, it is likely to be resolved at the next election “in no uncertain fashion,” he said.
The system is, of course, not perfect: Associate Professor Manning said frustrations such as management of the Murray Darling basin are inherent in the system because the Australian constitution and federalised government are the result of necessary compromises that ceded control of some issues to the States.
“Democracy ultimately can never quite live up to our expectations because it’s based around the history of compromises that we live with today,” he said.
Democracy’s biggest problem today, in his opinion, lies with the major parties struggling to attract quality candidates.
“Many people who feel a calling to civic duty are simply put off by the rigours of the media cycle. They figure they’re not born actors ready to dance to the media’s sound-bite mentality and, understandably, shy away from the debasing recent phenomenon of ‘gotcha journalism’,” he said.
Symposium organiser, School of Education lecturer Mr Adrian Rudzinski, said the Flinders symposia offer support to history teachers in coming to grips with the mandatory content of the new national history curriculum and the Civics and Citizenship curriculum for schools.
“It’s a stimulating way to pick up background knowledge and to engage in lively conversations with local and international experts from different disciplines,” he said.