Left vs Right – where we come from

In an interesting article in the Global Mail, Labor MP Andrew Leigh argues that Labor is the true ‘liberal’ party in Australia and that the Labor party should embrace this ideal as a way to reconnect with their traditional base. This suggestion got me thinking, as I often do, about the true differences between left wing and right wing political ideology. In Leigh’s article he states:

In my first speech to parliament, I argued that the Labor Party stands at the confluence of two powerful rivers in Australian politics. We believe in egalitarianism: that a child from Aurukun can become a High Court justice, and that a mine worker should get the same medical treatment as the mine owner. And we believe in liberalism: that governments have a role in protecting the rights of minorities, that freedom of speech applies as much to unpopular ideas as to popular ones, and that all of us stand equal beneath the Southern Cross. The modern Labor Party is the heir to the small-L liberal tradition in Australia.

For me, the egalitarianism aspect of Labor’s values is the most important reason that I support most of the party’s policies. I often remind people that an easy test when comparing two policies is to decide which one does the most good for the most people. This, for me, is the starkest difference between the opposing ends of the political spectrum. Left wingers tend to judge a policy’s value based on the effect it will have on their entire community. For lefties, community ranges from everything from a local council area, to the entire country, and often to the whole world. Conversely, right wingers are much more likely to think first and foremost of the policy’s impact on themselves and their immediate family. Any concern about the impact on a community is only seen through the prism of the resulting impact on the individual. If the policy doesn’t affect the individual or their family, it is sometimes ignored, or worse, labeled a ‘waste’.

This attitude is the main reason why, as a leftie, I often feel I’m talking a different language from a right winger, or sometimes that I’m from a different planet.

I came across two examples of this differing perspective this week. The first was the attitude of Michael Smith, radio shock jock, during his appearance on SBS’s Go Back to Where You Came From. Throughout the three episodes, Michael was predictably hostile towards what he termed ‘illegal boat people’, who he saw as a threat to Australia’s idyllic way of life. Even while in a former Somali asylum seeker’s home, Michael found it difficult to hide his disgust at the decisions that this man had made as a desperate child seeking to save his own life. I was so outraged by Michael’s behaviour, at times I found it hard to watch. But the most depressing part of his journey were the moments where he seemed to be struggling to reconcile his pity for the African refugees within his line of sight, with his hatred of anyone who enters Australia by boat. He met an orphaned boy who he felt drawn to in a Somali refugee camp, and seemed to finally understand a small amount of what these people are going through – what might drive them to risk everything for a better life. When asked what he would do to help these people, I was hoping that he might put his right wing ideology aside for a few moments and pledge never to call asylum seekers ‘illegals’ again. I hoped that he would promise to spend the rest of his career educating his radio audiences about the plight of refugees, and explain why they become asylum seekers, rather than whipping up fear and resentment towards them as he has been doing. In actual fact, what he suggested he do to help was an incredibly courageous and humane thing – to try to adopt the child he had bonded with. My point is, this decision shows the contrast between a right winger and a left winger. Smith has absolutely no sympathy for the millions of refugees that he’s never met, and is never likely to meet. He would therefore never support a policy that tries to help even a small percentage of these faceless people, and would actually reduce its potential success by encouraging his audience to share his view. Smith’s best attempt at helping the small sample of refugees he met in Africa, was to grant one of them access to the privilege he has enjoyed his entire life. Just the one that he bonded with. The one that he chooses to save. The one that becomes an Australian, part of his inner sanctum, part of the only group of people he feels obligated to protect – his family. Smith said more than he could ever understand with this suggestion.

Julian Burnside explains this scenario much more eloquently than I can in this post about Go Back to Where you Came From and the opposing left and right wing camps. He explains that the three guests on the show who are left wing (Deveny, Bailey and Asher) believed that:

The misery of individual suffering places an irresistible obligation on each of us.

His response to this is that: 

This is psychologically true, but does not translate into workable policy: it would have us trying to help them all (or trying to help all the sympathetic ones, or the cute ones, or the ones who appeal to us individually).  Connected to this, but much more compelling is the ethics of proximity: our obligation to help depends on how close the person is to us (both in relationship and geographically).  The child who comes to the door pleading for help has a more pressing claim for help than a similarly distressed child on the other side of the world.

For the likes of Smith and most right wingers, I believe the ‘ethics of proximity’ are considered not for those who share our country, or state or even our neighborhood, and certainly don’t extend to humanity beyond our shores. The ‘ethics of proximity’, any sort of compassion or empathy, is limited to those who share their living rooms. This is why, for right wingers, a political policy must always benefit that individual and those with the closest proximity to them only. Everyone else can go get stuffed.

The second example of this attitude in right wingers was much more blatant, coming from Mitt Romney’s Republican nomination acceptance speech:

President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet. My promise is to help you and your family.

In other words, Romney knows perfectly well that his right wing supporters don’t give a damn about the environment. Their only concern is their family. This line was designed to imply that Obama’s promise to save the planet is an example of a left wing government turning their back on individuals, in order to save the entire society (or the total sum of all individuals). Regardless of the irrationality of this sentiment (how do you save/help/support/encourage individuals without doing the same for all individuals?) I believe this is the crux of our differences.

Of course we could argue all day about the reasons why a strong community will always benefit more individuals in the long term. We could try to explain why it’s much better for all of us to work together to help improve our collective circumstances, rather than trying to appeal to each individual’s selfishness. But this is not the sort of conversation that right wingers are interested in having. Is someone like Michael Smith or Mitt Romney ever likely to be persuaded by such an argument? I’m not holding my breath.


  1. Hi Victoria.
    A great piece, though I will take issue with the use of the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’. Whilst I agree broadly with your analysis, it’s my view that the use of ‘left’ and ‘right’ for political classification is no longer relevant or accurate. Being terms that originated from the French revolution, time and the complexity of modern politics have made the use of ‘left’ and ‘right’ almost irrelevant.

    It’s my view that the two predominant ideologies in modern western democracies are Conservatism and Liberalism. Certainly, contemporary political debate in this country is divided along these lines. Even the 2 major parties are split into conservative and ‘small L’ liberal forces. The asylum seeker debate is a classic example of this. PM Julia Gillard is a traditional ‘leftie’, yet her policy is seen as a major jump to the right. But former Liberal PM Malcolm Fraser has one of the most compassionate, or ‘leftie’ views on the subject. And on climate change, Malcolm Turnball was a leader of a predominantly conservative party, yet his belief in action, let alone the science was unequivocal. A very ‘leftie’ attitude. And ultimately, this led him to fall on his sword due to the momentum shift within his party sliding back to its conservative heart.

    Whilst there’s not much of popular American culture that I admire, there dissection of the political system is something that I think we can adopt here. It’s a far more accurate way of pigeon-holing the lunatics….

    Interested in your thoughts. Keep up the great writing.


  2. It’s clear to me from the example of Smith and his encounter with an individual Assylum seeker that the answer is to repeat that experience ad infinitum until one feels empathy with a broader swathe of humanity. In other words for each of us to be prepared to become involved sympathetically with ohers.

    • I am surprised she isn’t eaisly leading. I do NOT think she is out of touch. She may teach at Harvard, but any status she has was hard earned.Scott Brown seems like a front boy for the banks. Are people really so stupid that if wall street starts driving an old truck we will let them rob us blind because it looks folksy ? Wall Street is a bunch of modern day carpet baggers. How long are we going to allow their rampant thievery to continue???!!! I personally believe Elizabeth Warren will make the fight for the rest of us who really do work for a living.I am also noticing some diconnect between the poll data that appears in the news and what actually happens during an actual vote. Scott Brown has Wall Street money backing him up, so news about polls CAN be bought. GO VOTE!!

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