In a postscript on my last post, Carbon pricing & Mr Abbott's end game, I said in part:
Like Peter (Brent), I struggled to make sense of Mr Abbott's position. However, as I wrote the above post, I found my ideas changing a little. It wasn't that Mr Abbott's statement on double dissolution itself became any more practical. Rather, in looking at the whole carbon tax question as part of a broader pattern, I formed a view on Mr Abbott's tactics that was a little different from my previous view.
Mr Abbott's game plan may, as Peter suggests, be short term poll driven. My feeling is that it's more complicated than that, something that I alluded to in my conclusion. Mr Abbott is playing a high stakes game centred on fissures in Australian views. He is actually attempting to create a new majority coalition of interests while continuing to do his best to destabilise the Government. He may well succeed.
This morning's muse is an attempt to explain my conclusion.
The Fracturing of Australian Politics
To say that Australian politics has become quite fractious would seem self-evident to many Australians. Many struggle to understand why this should be so. Yet it's actually not hard to understand.
Many Australians feel quite insecure. Many other Australians don't understand why. After all, we got through the Global Financial Crisis, we have had a growing economy, things are pretty good. And so they are for many. If you are in a stable job, if you own your own home, then low inflation and low interest rates make for a pretty good life style.
Many Australians are not in that position. Even if their incomes are presently good, and that is not true for many, they feel insecure. You just have to look at the demographics to understand why. The proportion of Australians working in casual or short term contract work is at record levels. Add to this the growing number of Australians facing retirement with insufficient funds, the number of parents worried about their kids getting jobs, and you suddenly have a majority of the Australian population in the worry zone.
Many Australians are also worried about the cost of living. Other Australians struggle to understand why. After all, the stats suggest that inflation is low. Yet the reality is that many Australians are experiencing very considerable cost of living pressures because of the distribution of price changes. Things like utility prices, rents, food prices, school fees are all placing pressures on many families.
Over the last five years, one of the marked changes noticed by welfare agencies is what we can call the emergence of middle class poverty. Simply put, these are previously middle class families who suddenly find that they cannot pay their bills or even buy food. Beyond the immediate pressures experienced by these families is the sheer humiliation of defeated expectations.
These factors are compounded by continuing economic change. We have moved from an Australian economy to a two speed economy to a patchwork economy. One difficulty with change is that those who lose the jobs are generally not the same as those who gain the new jobs. I am not saying anything profound, just that the change process creates a differential pattern of winners and losers and adds to insecurity.
The Rise of Issues Based Politics
If you look at my writing, I obviously have concerns about the rise of issues and special interest based politics. However, here I want to make a different point.
Regardless of the arguments for or against any issue, most Government actions create patterns of winners and losers. From local government through to the national government, official decisions have affected people in ever expanding circles. Those on the winning side of a particular issue are happy, those on the losing side the opposite.
It was ever thus. However, as the range of interventions has expanded, so has the quantum of losers. This has created the new types of political movements that I have spoken about before. The pattern is complicated and conflicting, but it is there.
Measurement and Mechanistic Policy
The rise of issues based politics links to another trend, one that I have called mechanistic measurement. Crudely, this looks at absolutes that can be measured.
It has always been the case that Governments at all levels will interfere with the level below if it suits their interests, interventions justified on national or state interest grounds. It has also been the case that those of us who want to achieve particular things that we consider to be important will use whatever mechanisms are available to us to do so.
Today, the rising level of Government interventions driven by special arguments translates into simplistic actions and measures that then flow down the line.
I can already see readers bristling, so let me make what is (I think) an objective statement.
Issues based politics focuses on particular causes. Government policy approaches then translates that into simple measures and measurements. Meantime, those disadvantaged simmer away.
Differential Affects & Mr Abbott's strategy
Political and economic change has differential effects across the nation. Policy measures, too, have differential effects.
Mr Abbott is a highly intelligent man. He is also a populist, gut level politician. In the most simple terms, he is attempting to put together a new majority coalition (I am not talking in party political terms) that actually combines all those who are fearful or disadvantaged by current approaches.
What might this look like?
In my previous post I said:
In geographic terms, the mining and carbon taxes have somewhat similar distributional effects. As, in fact, do the poker machine proposals. I haven't attempted to map this, but it might be interesting to try at some point.
Here I was referring both to geography and socio-economic factors.
Let me take the poker machine case. Club members are especially concentrated in lower income groups. They are also geographically concentrated, with clubs especially important in the country.
Now turn to the mining tax. This is most strongly opposed in mining areas and in sectors dependent on mining. Again, we have geographic and socio-economic concentration.
Somewhat similar arguments apply to the carbon tax.
Mr Abbott's target coalition combines geographic specificity (country, mining areas, outer metropolitan areas) with specific socio-economic groups (poorer, threatened). Together, these represent a majority of votes.
To meld his coalition, Mr Abbott needs to keep the Government destabilised and reactive. He needs common enemies that will meld people together (Greens, excessive Government). He also needs a bit of luck.
Will he be successful? I begin to suspect he might. He is actually defining new ground rules that most commentators don't understand because, while it appeals to many in the electorate, its actually too far outside the commonly accepted world view.
Ridicule is not an effective weapon because it appeals to the diminishing number of the previously converted.