Is it true that the major parties in Australia have become nearly indistinguishable in their beliefs?

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Is it true that the major parties in Australia have become nearly indistinguishable in their beliefs?
I have chosen the following topic, ‘Is it true that the major parties in Australia have become nearly indistinguishable in their beliefs?’ as contrary to sentiments held by many of the nation’s pundits, this essay will firstly endeavour to examine the policy differences that continue to play a pivotal role in distinguishing political ideologies synonymous with the two major political parties, hence underpinning the case that Australia’s two major political parties have not reached the zenith of policy convergence. Whilst it is the case that both major political parties now broadly agree on neo-classical economic policies, ideological differences continue to exist specifically in relation to social democratic policies (industrial relations, health, climate change, UN treaties, reconciliation and homelessness). Secondly, this essay will endeavour to underpin the notion that the ability to distinguish between the major parties increases or decreases according to the political issues of the day and hence is by no means a static phenomenon within the context of Australian political history.
Since federation in 1901 variously named conservative parties and the Labor Party have vied for government. Conservative and Liberal alliances have predominated and have governed Australia for most of the past half-century. The Labor Party was in government briefly in the early 1970s, and again from 1983 to

1996, prior to winning the recent federal election held on the 24th of November 2007. The Australian Labor Party, formed out of the labour movement during the late nineteenth century, was traditionally the party of the working class, whilst the Liberal Party of Australia, formed in 1945, was supported by the middle and upper classes in an effort to combat what effectively were viewed as rigid socialist ideologies held by the Australian Labor Party in the first sixty-five years post federation.

Over the past two and a half decades Labor has moved to the right of the political spectrum by embracing free-market policies, beginning with the currency float and the abolishment of exchange control in December 1983, thence in 1988, culminating with the introduction of general tariff reductions and economic rationalism. The Liberals, by comparison, have moved closer to Labor in recognizing the unique significance of Australian culture and symbols, rather than merely viewing Australia as culturally dependent on Great Britain and the United States. However, an Australian Republic has broader symbolic support amongst Labor voters compared to conservative voters (Warhurst 2003, para. 43).
Whilst it is the case that both major political parties have reform agendas and areas of conservatism (Johnson 2007, para. 20); so the reform/status quo dichotomy is no longer a strong indicator of party preference, Liberals generally continue to accept a greater gap between the rich and impoverished in society (as it provides incentive). Thus, Liberals are less convinced about the need for governments to promote equity within society and this claim is best underpinned by the policy differences that the two major parties adhere to in terms of industrial relations. Labor is committed to protecting award conditions for those employees who are most vulnerable i.e. individuals earning less than one hundred thousand dollars per annum, whilst simultaneously pledging not to restrict the flexibility of those on higher salaries who are better equipped to prosecute their own case in relation to wages and conditions (Gartrell 2007, Industrial Relations, Employment & Workforce Participation section).

Labor is also committed to creating a new independent industrial umpire to oversee its new industrial relations system and bring a sense of fairness back into Australian workplaces (Gartrell 2007, Industrial Relations, Employment & Workforce Participation section). In contrast, Liberals do not subscribe to the notion of collective bargaining, preferring instead the implementation of individual workplace agreements spanning all sectors of industry and by doing so, discarding the requirement for a strong safety net encompassing basic award conditions and protection for good employees against unfair dismissal by unscrupulous employers (Gartrell 2005b, para. 6).

Hence, based upon ideological differences specifically in the area of industrial relations policy, Labor would appear to be far more mindful of civilising the excesses of global capitalism by endeavouring to protect the rights and tenure of Australian employees, particularly the most vulnerable participants in the workforce. Labor is still more likely to value community benefit over individual benefit, cooperative resource use over competitive resource use. Labor is also more likely to fund community activities, thus underpinning significant long-standing Labor Party ideology, known as societal collectivism, whereby individuality is respected but not to the extent of possessing a winner take all ideology (Barker 1993).
Generally speaking Labor has an ideological preference for universal healthcare, whereas the Liberal Party by contrast has an ideological preference for a market-based healthcare system. It was the Labor Party, under Gough Whitlam’s Prime Ministership, that first introduced universal healthcare (Medibank) in July 1975, which at the time was fervently opposed by the Australian Medical Association (Palmer 1983, p. 29). Universal healthcare (Medibank) was abolished by the Fraser Liberal government in September 1981, prior to being reintroduced (Medicare) by the Hawke Labor government in February 1984, which to date, remains in place and is broadly accepted by both sides of federal politics. Fetherstonhaugh (2001, p. 7) stated that ‘according to Neal Blewitt the introduction of national insurance by the Labor party at that time was consistent with its underlying philosophies that were egalitarian in ambition, distrustful of the workings of the market in health, and favoured universal entitlement, compulsory if necessary, to ensure greater scope for the less well-off to make choices’.
The Keating government introduced commonwealth dental funding in 1994, however it was axed in 1996 after the Howard government was elected. The newly elected Rudd government has pledged to spend $290 million on reinstating the commonwealth dental program (Gartrell 2007, Health & Dental Care section). In addition, both sides of the political divide support the continuation of Medicare rebates for psychological services that were introduced by the Howard government in July 2007, as well as the thirty percent annual rebate to those who have private health insurance coverage. The ideological difference currently distinguishing the Labor Party from the Liberal Party, relates to the Medicare levy surcharge, with the Rudd Labor government having increased the Medicare levy surcharge threshold for singles, families and their dependent children/students, as well as for pensioners below Age Pension age. By having increased the Medicare levy surcharge threshold, the Labor government will effectively reduce fiscal expenditure on private health insurance rebates. The overall impact on the Budget will be a net saving in excess of $299 million over the next four years (Gartrell 2007, Health & Dental Care section).

This enactment by the current government will more than likely act as a catalyst for a number of private health insurance members abandoning their cover, thus culminating in an increase in private health insurance premiums for those members who decide to retain private health insurance. However, it has to be said that this action taken by the newly elected Labor government will not put upward pressure and demand on the public health sector, as the great majority of private health insurance members who may ultimately decide to abandon their private health insurance will predominantly consist of young, healthy adults. As a result, it is therefore reasonable to conclude that the Labor Party remains committed to improving and enhancing the public health sector by utilising savings received by committing to fewer private health insurance rebates. In contrast to the Liberal Party, Labor still views market-based healthcare as an ‘option’, rather than a necessity.

Other areas of policy divergence between the two major political parties include climate change with Labor signing and thence pledging to ratify the Kyoto Agreement, implementing an emissions trading scheme by 2010, to meet a science based target to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 60 per cent by 2050 (Gartrell 2007, Climate Change & Environment section). Labor has also pledged a $500 million Renewable Energy Fund - to develop, commercialise and deploy renewable energy in Australia, which is in addition to a $240 million Clean Business Fund – to help business and industry deliver energy and water efficiency projects, with a focus on productivity and innovation (Gartrell 2007, Climate Change & Environment section). And finally, Labor is pledging a $150 million Energy Innovation Fund – to keep our world leading scientists and researchers in Australia, rather than losing them overseas and a $500 million Clean Coal Fund to fund the deployment of clean coal technologies (Gartrell 2007, Climate Change & Environment section). In contrast, the Howard government deliberately stifled and frustrated action on climate change, culminating in the refusal to sign and ratify the Kyoto Agreement (Ritter 2007, para. 4), whilst simultaneously pledging to implement an emissions trading scheme in 2012, two years after Labor, not to mention that current Liberal Party policy will see emissions increase by 27% by 2020, above 1990 levels (Gartrell 2007, Climate Change & Environment section).
Labor has pledged to uphold the spirit of various UN treaties to which Australia is a signatory. The most notable being the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol culminating in the newly elected Labor government abolishing the infamous ‘pacific solution’ that was introduced by the Howard government and by doing so, abolishing temporary protection visas that violated many human rights’ principles and treaty obligations (Manne 2008, para. 4). Manne (2008, para. 6) claimed that “The Pacific Solution caused great human suffering. It involved 'excising' Australian territory to prevent claims for protection under the Australian legal system, warehousing asylum seekers who arrived by boat in Nauru or Papua New Guinea, denying the right to legal assistance, deciding claims for refugee status outside the rule of law, and refusing durable resettlement to those found to be refugees”. Labor has also announced that Australia will be prosecuting its case to gain a permanent position on the UN Security Council (Coorey 2008, para. 1). In contrast, the Howard government held little more than contempt towards the United Nations culminating in the abuse of various UN treaties, specifically in relation to the implementation of the ‘pacific solution’, the invasion of Iraq led by the United States and the abject and shameless abuse of human rights pertaining to indigenous Australians. As an example of the Howard government’s attitude to indigenous affairs, in 1997 the Howard Government’s response to judicial pronouncements in relation to native title was to pass legislation precluding the application of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 to various aspects of native title interests (Behrendt 2000, p. 24).
The recently elected Rudd Labor government has, as one of its first acts of parliament, formally apologised for past injustices committed against indigenous Australians, particularly in relation to the stolen generation (Gartrell 2007, Indigenous & Reconciliation section). Given the experience in North America and New Zealand, it would be reasonable to assume that the issue of a treaty and compensation for stolen wages will also be addressed, hopefully sooner rather than later. In contrast, the Howard government refused to even entertain the idea of a formal national apology, let alone addressing the issues of stolen wages and a treaty, preferring instead to pursue so-called ‘practical reconciliation’ (eds. Parkin, Summers & Woodward 2006).
A Rudd Labor government has pledged to tackle the issue of homelessness by pledging to invest $150 million over five years with the aim of halving the number of homeless people turned away from homeless shelters (Gartrell 2007, Housing section). ‘A place to call home’ is Federal Labor’s five year plan to establish up to 600 new houses and units across the country for families and individuals who are homeless (Gartrell 2007, Housing section). In contrast, the Howard government’s response to this abject and growing societal problem was ‘to slash commonwealth funding for public housing by thirty percent in real terms since 1996, thus placing even greater pressure on struggling crisis services’ (Gartrell 2005a, para. 8). In May 2006, “there was a bizarre revelation made through Senate Estimates that the Howard government did not consider homeless job seekers to be 'exceptionally vulnerable' as part of its welfare changes (Gartrell 2006, para. 1). The definition was applied when job seekers failed to meet their participation requirements and consequently faced a penalty of eight weeks without income support” (Gartrell 2006, para. 2). Due to the vary nature of homelessness individuals have no fixed address in the majority of cases and consequently encounter profound difficulties corresponding and engaging in dialogue with Centrelink in relation to meeting mutual obligation activity requirements, thus running the risk of being penalised by having their welfare benefits severely reduced or worse, cancelled in toto. Doherty (2007, para. 1) states that ‘up to sixty thousand homeless individuals are disfranchised by virtue of the fact that many are not registered with the Australian Electoral Commission’, thus forfeiting their basic human right to vote in federal, state and council elections (Human Rights & Equal Opportunity Commission 2007, para. 2).
On the question of perceived policy convergence in relation to Australia’s two major political parties, an Australian Electoral Study was conducted between 1990 and 2001 and respondents were asked whether Labor or the Coalition best represented their views on a range of political issues (Goot 2004, p. 61). The ensuing results indicated that the largest number of differences were recorded in 2001 – on immigration, asylum seekers, refugees, terrorism, defence and national security (Coalition strengths); education, health/Medicare and industrial relations (Labor strengths) – an election which according to the pundits not even a cigarette paper could separate the combatants (Goot 2004, p. 61). Between 1987 and 2001, respondents consistently associated Labor with the left and the Coalition with the right of the political spectrum (Goot 2004, p. 61). Goot (2004, p. 61) claims that “not only were the respondents able to tell the parties apart, they thought it mattered which party won. And the proportion that thought this, far from falling since the 1960s, as some arguments for convergence might lead one to expect, may have increased: after the 1987, 1993, 1996 and 1998 elections the proportion of respondents saying that they ‘cared a good deal which party won’ was greater than after the 1969 election – notwithstanding the fact that the 1969 election saw the Coalition record its biggest ever loss of votes”. Goot (2004, pp. 63-64) states that “the proportion of respondents who say it matters a ‘good deal’ which party wins is not very different from the proportion that reports at least ‘some’ party differences. The proportion of respondents who report a ‘good deal’ of difference between the parties increases or diminishes with the issues at hand. The record suggests two high points: 1948, when bank nationalisation figured prominently on Labor’s agenda; and 1993, when there were well-publicised party differences over industrial relations, healthcare and a goods and services tax. The low points are almost as widely scattered: 1967, 1972 and 1973; and 1996, 1998, and 2001”.
Goot (2004, pp. 64-65) states that ‘voters can tell the parties apart when they stand for quite different things. But, as Labor was reminded in 2001, voters are also prepared to distinguish between the parties – on the basis of likely competence or strength of commitment – when they stand for the same, highly valued, things’. Goot (2004, pp. 69-69) claims that ‘after the 2001 election, respondents differentiated between the parties on a wider range of issues than at any of the elections in the 1990s. They continued to see ideological differences between the parties; they continued to think it mattered who won; and no more than a third of respondents thought that in terms of what the parties stood for there was no difference, or not much’.

In conclusion, whilst it is unequivocally the case that both Labor and the Liberal Party broadly agree on neo-classical economic policies, this essay has highlighted areas of social policy that continue to differentiate Australia’s two major political parties in the minds of punters. Therefore, the ability to distinguish between the major parties increases or decreases according to the political issues of the day and hence there cannot be a single definitive answer to this question, that convergence or divergence is very much a matter of what policies one looks at, over what period, and what sort of balance (if any) between issues one is prepared to wear.

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