The economist Harold Hotelling used to tell a story about a beach served by two ice cream vendors. Imagine you're offshore, looking at a beach – Sandringham, Glenelg, Cottesloe. As you look from left to right you see people evenly distributed along its 400 meter length, and you can pick out the two vendors.
Hotelling asked what would be the best position for the vendors. Students quickly concluded that one should be at the 100 meter point serving the left hand end of the beach, and the other at the 300 meter point serving the right hand end. That way, no one would be more than 100 meters from a vendor.
He then asked where, on an unregulated beach, the two vendors would actually locate. A little thought and one finds the vendors next to each other in the middle. The vendor who might start at 100 meters moves a little closer to his competitor, without losing the customers to his left. The same logic applies to his competitor and the process continues until they meet in the middle.
When this marketing analogy is applied to politics we have an explanation for the 'Tweedledee -Tweedledum' phenomenon of two-party politics. Like companies competing for a share of the market for soap powder or six cylinder cars, guided by market research, there is a drift to the undifferentiated centre.
But what if one of the vendors has a brick and concrete stall near the right hand end, say at 350 meters, while the other has a barrow? Again, the two vendors will come together. A few newcomers may set up in the vacated space in the middle and down the left hand end, but markets are tough on new entrants, particularly when the two competing incumbents are united in only one purpose – to keep the beach to themselves.
This metaphor for Australian politics is dismal but robust. It is confirmed by research and experience.
Research on Australian social attitudes suggests that in terms of important political issues Australians are much more generous, compassionate and liberal than their representatives in the major parties. While politicians talk about tax cuts, a clear majority of Australians are calling for more expenditure on health, education and environmental protection, accepting that such increases have to be financed by higher taxes.
Recent research by ANU's Shaun Wilson and his colleagues backs up earlier findings about our attitudes and the values that underpin them. There is deepening opposition to neoliberalism, and there is a large and growing majority of voters who agree that income differences have become too large. Half of all Australians believe that we should look after the community's interests first; only a third believe our priority should be to our individual interests.
e can note the experience of Peter Andren, the independent member for the conservative rural seat of Calare, who is consistently re-elected without preferences (against a combined Coalition vote of 29 percent in 2004). Andren's stated views on most issues, particularly moral issues such as treatment of asylum seekers, are well to the 'left' of the timid policies offered by the Labor Party.
Many commentators suggest that people have become disengaged from politics. Surveys of perceptions of ethics and honesty place politicians near the bottom, among car salesmen and advertising executives. Party membership has been tumbling. Young people, who have not experienced the more passionate politics of the 1960s and 1970s, are deeply cynical about the possibility of change through the processes of elective politics. Trust in government is low; even the disgraceful revelations of the 'children overboard' affair didn't shift voter attitudes, because they considered lying to be the normal behaviour of any politician.
Election data confirms this disengagement, particularly from the established parties.
Between 1950 and 1990 voters overwhelmingly gave their first preference vote to one of the major parties. Over that period, even at the height of the DLP's fortunes, the combined Labor plus Coalition first preference vote was almost always 90 percent or more. In the 25 years since then, however, that combined vote has fallen fairly steadily to around 80 percent. (Minor parties, however, don't have a long life span.)
We should re-frame this disengagement, however; politicians have become disconnected from the people. Their concerns are inward, towards their party machines, factions and preselection committees, and occasionally towards the similarly disconnected lobbyists whose plush offices encircle Parliament House. Politicians in both camps are involved in tribal savagery; the experiences of Barnaby Joyce, John Brogden and Mark Latham have all exposed a savagery which is a long way removed from the stated ideals of their parties and the normal decency with which Australian citizens deal with one another. No wonder people turn away from politicians in the same way as they as they avoid the company of brawling drunks.
When politicians in the major parties do attend to the citizens, it is in the way of the marketing executive, determined to sustain or gain market share. The marketing executive offers trinkets such as cash-back vouchers and extended credit terms, supported by glitzy advertising. The parties in the last few elections have been engaged in a similar exercise, carefully explaining their proposals in terms of the monetary benefits for a single mother in Broadmeadows, a retiree in Deakin or a family in Tusmore, but never taking the risk of talking about values or principles.
Is it too much to ask our politicians to follow the example set by earlier Prime Ministers who have guided us through troubled times by appealing to the 'basic decency of the Australian people'?