The Scourge of the Swing Voter

AdelaideWonkDrinksHappy Australia Day! Last night I went to the inaugural Adelaide Wonk Drinks. It was, as promised, heaps good. I had my very first offline Twitter argument, which was interesting. This particular argument reminded me why I would prefer to debate a die-hard right-winger than an ‘undecided voter’. At least the right-wingers know what they want and understand immediately what I want, and we can disagree to our hearts’ delight. But an undecided swing voter who seems to be tempted to use his valuable democratic right to deliver an informal vote is, in my opinion a very frustrating person. What would the people of Syria think?

The reasoning that this particular undecided voter gave for his indecision was an assortment of arguments that I think can fairly be filed under the heading of there’s no discernable difference between Labor and the Liberal National Party. I guess it really depends who is doing the discerning. And if you’re just assessing your individual life experience under either party, instead of looking at the way their policies affect society as a whole, then I would argue that you’re evaluating the parties’ differences through a far too narrow, short-term view.

The idea that we’re just as well off or just as badly off under either party is quite a trendy response to politics of late. It’s the same attitude that most of the mainstream media seems to hold – politicians can’t be trusted and the outcomes of their policies are not so different that they’re worth analysing or even discussing – a pox on both your houses. In my view this is a load of bollocks. I can’t help but notice that those who propagate the notion that the parties are no different from each other are also the ones who enjoy patronising the views of anyone who they view to be ‘rusted on’. To support and campaign for a political party these days seems to be akin to being viewed as a ‘fanatic’. Or as my sparring partner said last night ‘a barracker’. I was told that people like me, who obviously support one party passionately over another, are acting as if the Labor party is a football club. I am in fact a one-eyed supporter of a football club and so I find this suggestion particularly irritating. I am very passionate about my football club and my politics, but my support of the Port Adelaide Football Club and my support of the Labor Party are too entirely different beasts.

The choice of which football club I support was made at a young age. Choice is probably the wrong word here. I inherited the club from my father, who inherited it from his father. I was ‘rusted on’ to the club from birth. But choice is the most important word when it comes to supporting a political party. Because that’s what politics is all about – one option versus another. To say that both choices are the same is blatantly untrue. If you’re trying to find similarities between the Labor Party and the Liberal National Party, sure, you’ll find many. You’ll also find times (not so many recently) when decisions are made jointly by the government and the opposition in a bi-partisan approach. But ultimately, the entire reason that there are two major parties in Australia is because one is progressive and one is right-wing. Those who think they are being smug and clever, or winning some award for cynicism by proclaiming that both parties have come so close to the middle that there is no longer daylight between them, need to take a closer look. And they need to consider their own values and ideas in relation to the policy agenda of each party.

As an example, let’s use the policy area of the environment. As a progressive voter and a supporter of action to reduce the catastrophic effects of climate change, I will support the major party which is most likely to implement policies that align with these values. Many will argue that the Greens are a better choice in this policy area, and that may be true. But ultimately, a Greens voter still needs to choose between Labor and the LNP when assigning preferences, even if it is just the decision as to who gets the last number on the ballot paper. Since the last election, the Labor Party has implemented a Carbon Price. There are many voters who think this policy didn’t go far enough, and that’s a valid argument to have. But when choosing between the policy of Labor – action on climate change – and the policy of Abbott’s Liberal National Party – scrapping the Carbon Price – it’s blatantly obvious that the two parties are poles apart and my choice is an easy one to make. My adversary, the undecided voter, was really overreaching on this topic. He said that he wants action on Climate Change too, but whatever Tony Abbott says, as Prime Minister he won’t be able to repeal the Carbon Price, so it ultimately doesn’t matter who you vote for. Really? Is this not like saying ‘I like apples, and I don’t like bananas, but this banana doesn’t really taste like a banana so it doesn’t matter if I eat a banana instead of an apple’. This is nonsensical.

And what about the topic of redistribution of wealth, something else I am very passionate about. When I am assessing the effect Labor’s policies will have on social and economic equality in Australia, versus the LNP’s policies, it’s obvious to me which party is offering the outcome that most closely aligns with my values. For example, the Mining Tax is an important reform designed to share the wealth from the natural resources that we all own. The Labor party introduced this policy, the LNP have vowed to scrap it. It’s probably a good time to also mention that I don’t consider middle class welfare to be a policy of wealth redistribution. Wealth distribution maybe, but not redistribution.

Another policy area that is important to me is education. Access for all to quality education is vital for social equity. The Gonski policy proposals more closely align with my ideals in the area of education policy than anything I’ve ever heard the Liberals say on the topic. But does this really surprise anyone? The very definition of being right-wing means that you prefer ‘small government’ over ‘big government’, and small government invariably means cuts to government funding for education, health and welfare.

The attitude ‘there is no difference between them’ has resulted in a lot of angry Queensland and Victorian voters. It’s a bit late now to remind them that a protest vote against the Labor party will help deliver a conservative alternative. A lot of Queenslanders and Victorians who voted for their right wing party now appear shocked that these right wing governments are executing a right wing agenda. Cuts to education funding, cuts to public service jobs in the area of health; slash and burn, and Newman’s version of austerity, not stimulus. But can you really blame Newman and Baillieu for doing what they were given a mandate to do? If the voters were too uninformed to understand the policy agenda of conservative governments, they’ve got no one to blame but themselves. This is a really tough way to learn that the two parties are not the same, and that the outcomes of their policies are completely different.

It might sound trendy and intellectual to deny the very simple concept of choice between two opposing sets of political principles. It might seem simplistic for me to say that my choice between Labor and Liberal National is an easy one based on which platform best aligns to my vision for the country. But I really do find the choice incredibly simple. This does not mean that I barrack for the Labor Party. It does not mean that I think that everything the party does is perfect (as many things the party does are clearly far from perfect). It doesn’t mean that I agree with every single policy that the party develops, nor does it mean that I blindly support everything that Labor members say. I’m not a mouthpiece for the Labor Party. I have not been brainwashed to adopt their ideas and policies from some propaganda machine. But I make a considered choice between two different options. The Labor Party is just a vessel for me to get the Australia I want, not the other way around. Going back to the football club example – I was a Port Supporter before I ever watched a game of football. But I was a progressive before I chose a political party to support.


  1. I’m with you on most of this, Victoria – with one query…

    I’ve never been a member of a political party, but have been a member of a union all my working life and in retirement now still retain my (proudly public sector) union connections. What bothers me is that the Friedman (neoliberal) economic view of the world infiltrated the Labor view from the eighties on, so that now we have a parliamentary Labor party with quite a few members beholden to a corporate agenda. That is, private good, public bad – if in doubt, read or listen to Alan Kohler. My view is that the current minority Labor government has on balance been a good one precisely because the independents and Green have helped push it past its darkside members and given the country the ghost of a reform start against massive corporate advertising dollars in the areas of energy (carbon pricing), mining (super profits tax), gambling and tobacco plain packaging.

    What do you think?

    As for football, as a 4-5 year old in the 1950s I was dragged along to Victoria (!) Park to watch Thorold Merrett stab passing the ball into the Collingwood forward line.

    Clearly there are some things we’re bound to disagree on…

    • Vic,
      The ‘undecided voter’, I think is a myth. Very few, if any, exist. Sure, we can point to polls and swings, and the like, but any time I hear or read the words ‘undecided’, I subtitute ‘rusted on’ instead.
      It saves me a lot of analysis and heartache, and by refusing to argue the merits of a particular issue, I can move on. As you say, you can argue to your heart’s content in the knowlege that the ‘undecided’ is usually a ‘rusted-on’, and right-winger at that.

      Why do they describe themselves thus. Easy: to feed an ego that requires recognition of their importance. By describing themselves as rusted-on – right or left wing, but in my experience those describing themselves in this way are in reality right-wingers … – they feel as though they are being courted by the pundits and pollsters.

      Rubbish. Tosh. These people are NOT going to change their voting behaviour. We should stop feeding these trolls and just enjoy the atmosphere and friendly drinks with fellow pollie tragics.


  2. So here’s Tony Abbott on the question of the carbon tax:

    Given his weather-vane oscillations on the subject, I don’t think it’s some kind of crime to be skeptical of what he says right now — Especially when there’s no particularly compelling reason to think that he’s even going to be leading his party come election time.

    Given that he’d need to find some way to fund all the other redistributive schemes he’s been promoting (paid maternity leave springs to mind), and the fact that the corporate special interests who enjoy carbon-tax-funded rebate schemes right now won’t want those rebate schemes to go away, I don’t think he’s going to be particularly keen on abolishing sources of government revenue, and I think he’s lying (repeatedly, knowingly, deliberately) when he says he will.

    So he’ll do to the carbon tax what Labor did with Work Choices: Dick around with the fringes of it, change its name, and claim credit for, uh, “repealing” it, while its core remains in place. It’s all he’ll be able to do without the support of minor parties in the Senate blocking any substantiative abolitionist legislation, don’t you think?

    But that’s a bit of a distraction.

    You’ve chosen to support a political party to further your policy aims. That’s probably laudable, it’s a path that the overwhelming majority of your contemporaries can’t be bothered doing anymore, much to the chagrin of all of the parties. So big ups to you, well done.

    But the mistake you make in a discussion such as this is in assuming that the only way (or even the most effective way) of pursuing policy aims is by joining and supporting a political party.

    Those days are long gone.

    It used to be that political parties were the basically the only place to be if you were interested in debating policies, but now an awful lot of substantiative debate happens outside of the party frameworks. Democracy has been, well, democratised, as it were.

    Quite a lot of people see very little value in propping up ageing and irrelevant parties anymore, particularly when the parties seem to be a major source of corruption and malfeasance, and are chock-full of operatives who treat voters with contemptuous snarling dismissiveness. If there’s another way, why not explore it?

    There are policy directions I’d like to see Australia take which aren’t even on the roadmap right now, such as across-the-board income tax increases to fund social justice programmes (might be better than forcing single mothers onto Newstart, don’t you think?). I’d like to see thoughtful responses to innovation and risk so that Australian ideas stop being driven offshore (why aren’t we a global hotbed of solar innovation? I reckon it’s partly because we’re an extremely risk-averse culture, and because our governments of both stripes have a history of encouraging low-risk investments with favourable tax treatment). I think it’d be great if the continuous embarrassing wave after wave of nonsensical moral panic about the internet was replaced with… well, nothing really. Just quiet, relaxed, nothingness. How much better off would we be if our country got serious about redressing two and a half centuries of evil-minded bigotry against aborigines, instead of somehow believing that “the intervention” has it all under control. And wouldn’t it be fantastic if Australia’s national security obsession was put back in its box, and we had a serious conversation about our attitude towards human rights.

    I reckon they’re pretty important values, and both parties either ignore them or actively work against them. So for people who hold those values dear, it’s almost insane to support either one of them, isn’t it?

    So that’s what (some) swinging voters do: Consider policy and sometimes advocate independently of the boosterism that accompanies political parties. Carefully, patiently, using as many sources of information as possible.

    And in doing so, we actually become the most powerful voters in the electorate. There are probably 48% of Australians who will reliably vote ALP come hell or high water, and another 48% who will reliably vote LNP. Neither side can muster enough votes to reliably win elections by themselves: It’s the 4% in the middle who actually decide elections.

    We’re politically engaged, thoughtful, high-information below-the-line voters who put a lot more time and effort into debate, influence and advocacy than most rank-and-file party members ever will. I’d have thought that parties should be doing their best to listen to us and adopting elements of our policy proposals instead of demonising us as “scourges”. But perhaps that’s one of the reasons why the parties are in decline.

    – mark

  3. Vic, happy oz day to you and your readers too. Disregarding those that “can’t see a difference”, by definition swinging voters choose ONLY on policy. I know because I am one. By not having to be loyal to any political party means my precious vote can be cast towards the proposed policy path that I think is best. I can approach each and every election with an open mind, and judge accordingly. Granted it is not easy with the media spin put on most of the information I seek to make the right decision (that’s why I thoroughly enjoy your post, albeit lopsided) but it’s my only method I know to maximise my vote.

    Which translates to the party that gets the message out to a swinging voter as having the best policies will win that swinging vote.

    Happy to discuss with you over beers; please don’t wish poxes (poxii?) on my home. go dons! ev.

  4. Thanks for your comments everyone. Evan, I didn’t know you read my blog and since you obviously do, I’m glad you were moved to comment. I feel exactly the same as you – I’m not loyal to a political party, I’m loyal to my own ideals and so far, Labor has consistently been the party that is closest to delivering the policies I agree with. They’re not always as close as I would like, but in saying that, they’ve always been much closer than the Libs. Looking forward to catching up at Easter so we can discuss further.

  5. Hi Vic, another great works of art within the Australian political arena, explaining the difference between the lefties of hard knocks and the right-wing nuts that like to screw the underclass.

    Those Swinger Votes must be critical and look for those cracks of daylight where the truth does lie among all those promises politicians do make often but don’t keep true too.

    My last comment is for those Informal Voter where there is nothing but wasted space between their wing-nuts and stick their heads in the sand awaiting for the storm to pass.

    In closing we had a lovely Australia Day on the shores of Mornington Vic.

  6. There is a place for swinging voters, obviously. It would just be nice if more of them made up their minds in the way the one above claims to do. However in my experience the vast majority are in this powerful situation because they have no particular political philosophy. They are dangerous because they are suckers for the kind of amateur dramatics employed by TA in his transparent ‘No Carbon Tax’ campaign.

    Worse are the informal voters. The Syrians would be quite pleased, I expect, to be in the position of being obliged to at least show up to a polling booth and might see the opportunity as the hard-won (by brave men and women, not wet types like you, Informal Voter) glory it is.

    Who you vote for is a value judgement. Personally my values have never extended to putting a tick in the box for a Liberal candidate, but that’s another story.

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