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Electing Social Policies – or Not.

22 July 2010 at 4:49 pm
Staff Reporter
OPINION | The analysis is in: Social policies will only get a run in the election campaign if they strike a chord with swinging voters in marginal electorates says co-publisher of Pro Bono Australia News, David James.

Staff Reporter | 22 July 2010 at 4:49 pm


Electing Social Policies – or Not.
22 July 2010 at 4:49 pm

David JamesThe analysis is in: Social policies will only get a run in the election campaign if they strike a chord with swinging voters in marginal electorates says co-publisher of Pro Bono Australia News, David James.

The race has started. The horses – a mare, Julia and Tony, a stallion – are out of the starting blocks. “Game on”, Julia said to Tony in her first question time as Prime Minister. For the next five weeks, we will be inundated in media coverage which treats the election as a sporting contest, replete with sports and gaming metaphors.

Consistent with that, the vast majority of voting Australians are mere spectators to the game, rather than participants. The only voters in the game – the most important people in this country during the next five weeks – are the swinging voters in marginal electorates. They number around 150,000 people; the remaining 99% of us – being those who do not live in marginal electorates or are committed voters – can do no more than watch on.

This fine balance results in political parties forming their election policies to appeal to swinging voters rather than having regard to party principles, or the national interest, or even commonsense.

Ask any hard core Labor or Liberal supporter what they think of all this and they will offer you a lesson in political reality: the first responsibility of a political party is to keep the other mob out of power. This is because, once in power, the other mob’s basic worldview will prevail in all manner of decisions, the vast majority of which will never end up in a newspaper or on TV. So, in real politic, Julia and Tony have to aim their election policy guns at those swinging voters in those marginal electorates if they are win power for themselves, their party, its worldview, and its tribe.

Hot Button Social Issues?

That analysis suggests that social policies will only get a run in the election campaign if they strike a chord with swinging voters in marginal electorates. If that is true, we should not expect issues like homelessness, child protection, mental health, community development, social enterprise, disability services, aged care, home and community care, and the many other social policy issues to feature in the election.

A review of and confirms this.

Labor offers policies in relation to just five policies: health, a national curriculum, tax, superannuation and foreign policy/defence (under the banner, Strengthening Australia). That’s it. There is absolutely no attempt at being comprehensive or even thoughtful. Clicking ‘More Policies’ takes you to a short list of links to Government websites, including Budget 2010-11, Paid Parental Leave, and the National Broad Band. Incongruously, there is also a link a tiny ($12 million) program called Fresh Ideas for Work and Family that provides grants of $5,000- $15,000 to small businesses to improve work/life balance; why that, and not links to the Home and Community Care Program, or Supported Accommodation Assistance Program, or Disability Services Program, or a hundred others?

The overwhelming impression is that the website is very underdone and been given low priority. It appears that party heavyweights decided that swinging voters are unlikely to consult the Labor Party’s website to develop an informed view of how to cast their vote – and it’s hard to challenge that judgement.

The Liberal Party’s election website is similar in terms of depth, though somewhat richer in presentation. It opens with a push-video that has Tony insisting, pointing fingers, music swelling in the background, that ‘This election is about you’. The policy offerings address paid parental leave, the economy, climate change, mental health, population, small business, asylum seekers and something called ‘Our Action Contract: a strong plan for Australia’; (as opposed to ‘a weak plan for Australia?’)

The screaming exception to those two websites is – perhaps no surprise – the Greens. Its site offers a comprehensive compendium of 41 policies, listed in alphabetical order. Fifteen social policies are offered under the category ‘Care for People’, including policies regarding children, young people, disabilities, older people, women, indigenous people, women and on. There is even a policy on social services, which addresses the role of the non-government sector. From a policy perspective, when it comes to handing out prizes for best website, the Greens get the Gold Medal. Neither Labor nor Liberal deserve any medals, even if the Liberal site is marginally better.

We learn that the priority social issues – those which are addressed by all three parties – are asylum seekers and population, with paid parental leave a distant third. The Liberals have made mental health one of their policy issues, but have not been joined in this by Labor.

The contrast with the recent election in the United Kingdom is stark.  In that campaign, social policy – in the form of the Conservative Party’s ‘Big Society’ policy – put social policy front and centre of that election.

It is possible to have social issues at the fore, though it seems that won’t be the case in this election.

The question asks itself: What should the Not for Profit sector do to secure a higher priority for its issues in this and future elections?

Pro Bono Australia is working towards getting social policy higher in the Federal Election agenda. Keep up-to-date with our ELECTION WATCH stories and take part in our survey – the results of which will be sent to the major political parties for comment.


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