MORE evidence is in that there is no such thing as a “rusted-on” Labor vote in Australia. In the 1990s chunks of the formerly supposed rusted-on blue-collar Labor vote fell away when Pauline Hanson and John Howard applied the WD40. Xenophobes and “battlers” deserted the Labor Party.
More recently many of the formerly supposed rusted-on anti-conscription, libertarian Labor voters have deserted to the Greens.
This week’s Newspoll had Labor’s primary vote at 30 per cent, its lowest on record, and the Labor leader Julia Gillard behind the Leader of the Opposition as preferred Prime Minister.
It is more fundamental than the carbon tax or the way Gillard came to power. It is part of the continuing realignment of Australian politics after the old left-right or socialism-v-free enterprise alignment collapsed. It might even end up with the Greens replacing Labor as a major party.
Voters seem to be realigning according to what psychologists call moral foundations theory. The politicians do not seem to have twigged to what is happening.
Gilbert and Sullivan inadvertently summed up moral foundations theory a century before it was developed when the wrote in Iolathe: “Nature always does contrive . . . that every boy and every gal that’s born into the world alive is either a little Liberal or else a little Conservative.”
Moral foundations theory, developed this century largely by Jonathan Haidt at the University of Virginia, defines five moralities (or more crudely survival strategies) shaped by evolution that determine whether one tends to be liberal (small l) or conservative:
The harm-care foundation stresses kindness, gentleness and nurture. Human groups needed to feel the pain of others to help their survival. Similarly with the fairness- reciprocity foundation that stresses altruism, justice, rights, equality and autonomy which all helped human groups survive.
These two foundations are emphasised by (small-l) liberals.
The other three moral foundations (also important to survival of human groups) are emphasised by conservatives. They are: loyalty which stresses patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group; authority-respect which stresses deference to authority and respect for traditions; and purity-sanctity which is shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. This foundation underpins religious notions of living in a purer, less carnal way. The taboos on incest, some foods and the like have evolutionary advantage and then became religious edicts supported by conservatives.
Haidt and others have done an immense amount of research via questionnaires in many countries which reveals the strength of these moral foundations and their effect on political beliefs. Conservatives stress the last three and liberal the first two, and people do not move much over time.
All five foundations have been crucial to humans to survival in the evolutionary sense, but different people cite some as more important to them than others and in doing so shape their political outlook.
Both major parties used to draw from all five moral foundations in varying degrees — different factions in each party emphasising different foundations.
Labor has always had significant support from people with harm-care and fairness-reciprocity liberal moral foundations. The welfare state, justice, equality and individual freedom have underpinned a lot of Labor support.
The Coalition has always had significant support from people with loyalty, authority-respect and sanctity foundations – the conservative moral foundations.
Now Labor has had support from some people with the conservative foundations. The tribal loyalty of the NSW Right and the Catholic-Labor social conservatism are examples.
So, too, the Coalition has had support from people with liberal moral foundations. The Menzies ideal of individual liberty – especially in the economic arena – is an example.
But in the Howard years, the Coalition shed virtually all pretense of small-l liberalism. The liberal moral foundations of justice, equality, empathy, altruism and kindness were virtually junked. Authority, respect and sanctity became paramount.
The small-l liberal part of the Coalition has been axed: Fraser, Chaney. Macphee, Puplick and the like do not fit in the new Coalition which has emphasised conservative moral foundations at the expense of liberal ones.
Everyone knows where they are with the Coalition these days: patriotism, self-sacrifice, religious purity, deference to authority, and respect.
Not so on the Labor side. Whereas the Coalition has junked liberal moral foundations, the Labor Party has not junked conservative moral foundations. Gay marriage, euthanasia and empathy for refugees – liberal moral foundations – are off Labor’s radar. Patriotism (the mad Afghan adventure) and sanctity are firmly on it.
In short, voters don’t know where they are with Labor. More than 20 years on from the fall of the Wall Australian Labor has not worked out its moral foundations. Voters do not know and cannot tell whether its moral foundations are liberal or conservative.
On the other hand, it was relatively easy for the Coalition to junk liberal values after the Wall came down and communism was shown as an impractical defiance of human nature. Deference to individual liberty in social matters (even in defiance of the conservative authority and sanctity moral foundations) was a bulwark against the threat of communism. Once that threat went, individual liberty was less important in the Coalition view.
Let’s now return to Gilbert and Sullivan and all those boys and gals in Australia who are either liberal or conservative, the liberals.
In 2007, Labor attracted a fair number of voters with conservative moral foundations – particularly loyalty, the bedrock of unionism. Loyalty to unionism and the “Labor cause” – essentially a conservative moral foundation – gave Labor a lot of support. The Gillard removal of Rudd offended voters who held as important the conservative moral foundation of loyalty.
Further, Labor’s adherence to the Afghanistan foray and its “let’s-hope-it-will-go-away” attitude to gay marriage, the republic and euthanasia and its “more-brutal-than-now” attitude to boat refugees left people with liberal moral foundations only two places to go – despair or the Greens.
The liberal-conservative divide is so strong in human affairs – because of the evolutionary experience – that it is unsurprising that the two-party system (or variants on it) has developed. In multi-party systems the parties usually are categorized on one side or the other.
The divide – and the party positions that coalesce around it — is so strong that it is difficult for third parties to get a toehold. And ones that want to sit in a central position, like the Australian Democrats, often fail.
But the Greens are taking voters who have liberal moral foundations from Labor. The Greens’ moral compass has been consistent for more than two decades. Of course, to displace Labor, the Greens will have to evolve more from hair-shirt wearing basket weavers who meet every ounce of successful economic initiative with daunting demands for redistribution to the undeserving.
A displacement is not likely but quite possible, and if it happens everyone will say (after the event), well that was obviously on the cards and rework their thinking with the benefit of hindsight.
Thirty percent of the primary vote – less than a third – is a dangerous place to be in a polity of two major parties and one significant other.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times on 2 July 2011.