Political attitudes shifting left in Australia, says survey

Percentage of voters describing themselves as 'left' is growing, according to the survey.

Politics in Australia, so dominated by the major parties’ conservatism, it is turning people off participating in the political process a survey by the School of Politics and International Relations at the Australian National University has found. However, it also shows more people are moving leftward in their political attitudes.

The recently released Trends in Australian Political Opinion: Results from the Australian Election Study 1987-2016shows the longer-lasting trends in public opinion rather than polling snap shots.

The research is based on Australian Election Study (AES) post-election surveys of opinions using the same methodology — surveys drawn randomly from the electoral register. It claims to present the “most sophisticated and exhaustive set of data ever collected in Australia on the dynamics of political behaviour”. While some of the questions are ambiguous, it nevertheless makes for interesting reading.

It shows that  alienation from the no-choice parties of capital is a rational response. It also shows that many are still thinking about the issues that matter, even if they do not necessarily get involved in the political process. However there was little questioning on the latter issue.

The survey results reinforce just how out of touch the major parties are. The data shows that despite the right’s efforts over the past 20 years or more to take back ideological ground and material gains won through struggle, there is not a clear ideological shift right. If anything, those parties considered “far right” are failing to gain traction.

Instead, the trends show people are increasingly moving towards the “centre left”; they are making up their own minds about issues and the parties they support rather than following familial tradition or tribalism. Interest in politics has risen, even if this interest does not necessarily translate to numbers on the street.

There is demonstrably less interest in the traditional parties of government — Labor, Liberals and the Nationals. There is ongoing interest in the Greens and, despite huge mainstream media promotion, only a slight increase in interest in One Nation (based on 1983–2004 figures).

The hard right has cohered organisationally and attracted votes, if in an intermittent and fractured way, but this seems to be more about the existing right-wing becoming disenchanted with the Coalition, rather than an ideological shift.

This is welcome news, especially in a time when the establishment media is increasingly blatantly playing the role as propaganda outlets for the right.

The AES data shows that while people are less interested today in “discussing politics” and “persuading people how to vote” compared with results from 20 years ago, they were more likely to consider the choices they had in front of them and less likely to “always vote for the same party”.

Policy was a strong factor in determining who they vote for, as compared to candidates. Those who think there is a “good deal of difference” between parties has shrunk, and those who think there is “not much difference” have grown. Regarding economic issues, education remains a critical issue, followed by taxation and industrial relations. Health, refugees and environment remain key non-economic issues.

There is less interest now in being described as left or right compared with 1996. But those surveyed described the Liberals and Nationals as being to the right, and Labor and the Greens to the left. However, the apparently larger audience for leftist ideas does not have a home outside Labor and the Greens, both of which fluctuate right and left.

This could explain why fewer people were “satisfied with democracy” and more “not satisfied with democracy”, compared with 1969. More believe people in governments “look after themselves” and fewer believe they “can be trusted”. Slightly more (56%) believe government is run for “a few big interests” compared with 1998 (53%). About the same number (12%) believe it is run for “all the people”. Fewer believe that who you vote for will make a difference.

Today, 74% said big business had too much power, compared with 1967 (60%). Fewer people say the unions have too much power, perhaps as more identify as working or middle class. Union membership is on the decline and, after years of mainstream union bashing, those saying the unions have too much power is on the rise (55%), although not at its 1990 level (68%).

Unsurprisingly, a majority favours wealth distribution (55%) up from 46% in 1987. Support for decriminalising abortion and marijuana has grown. Fewer people prefer harsher criminal sentences or believe that government support for Indigenous people had gone too far. Fewer people believe that asylum seekers trying to come to Australia by boat should be turned back compared to 2001, or that immigration is too high. Global warming is considered by more to be a growing threat, and support for the war on terrorism has declined from its high point in 2001.

Neither Indonesia, Malaysia, Japan, Vietnam nor the US are seen as security threats to Australia. Just under half (41%) of those surveyed saw China as a threat — about the same as 1996, but down from 61% in 2006. More people see the Australia-US defence alliance as important (87%), up from 79% in 1993.

Taken as a whole, the survey seems to indicate that while there has been some progress in people seeing through the racist anti-China propaganda, more work needs to be done.

Strangely, the April 2 Fairfax Media analysis of the survey surmised that “the ideological drift towards the extremes of the political landscape that the AES details is one of the causes of Australia’s broken politics”. In fact, the survey does not show polarisation but a shift to the left, while the proportion self-identifying as right wing has bounced around within the AES’s margin of error which is about 2%.

This leftward shift is a consequence of decades of bipartisan neoliberal attacks. And it is surely a good thing that so many seem to be able to identify that the system is broken.

[Pip Hinman is a member of the Socialist Alliance.]

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