22/07/2003 - 22:00

Joe Poprzeczny: State Scene - Bringing people together

22/07/2003 - 22:00


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INCREASING numbers of voters claim there’s no real difference between WA’s conservative Liberal and left-of-centre Labor parties.

INCREASING numbers of voters claim there’s no real difference between WA’s conservative Liberal and left-of-centre Labor parties.

Although Labor’s union links qualify this, there’s little doubt it’s difficult to distinguish them on fundamental ideological grounds.

And this applies despite Labor’s recently bungled envy-motivated bid to introduce a premium property tax.

No Gallop ministers advocate socialisation of business enterprises.

Look at how Education Minister Alan Carpenter washed his hands of the squabble over government school cleaners versus private contractors, leaving schools to make individual decisions.

This contrasts with the 1920s to 1960s, when Labor’s platform carried a socialisation plank calling for restructuring of Australia’s economy along the lines advocated in Karl Marx’s Manifesto.

Another difference, until the 1980s, was that certain leading Labor lights – MPs and union bosses – would have felt at ease in any European Communist party.

Poland’s Solidarnosc ended that with its historic 1989 negotiated toppling of Communist General Wojciech Jaruzelski, after which all Eastern European Bolshevik parties made way for parliamentary democracy and privatisation.

Some claim the similarities between contending Western parties are well explained by the ‘beach ice cream vendor’ analogy, which describes how two sellers are likely to behave on a crowded mile-long beach.

Most would say it’s logical that they deliberately station themselves towards the ends of the beach – at the quarter and three-quarter mile marks – thereby ensuring maximum convenient access to ice creams for swimmers.

But no. Instead, they set-up in the middle of the beach, meaning swimmers at each end must walk a full half-mile for ice creams. Both vendors seek to maximise their own sales, believing the best way of ensuring that’s done is by being in the middle of the beach.

And since each vendors is looking to the same market they’re also likely to offer similar products, those with greatest appeal.

Party leaderships fixated on winning power and all it offers – prestige, ministerial salaries, big staffs, travel perks and lucrative pensions – behave similarly. But there are other ways of demonstrating party convergence. For example, political scientist Otto Kirchheimer developed the concept of the ‘Catch-all Party’ (C-aP).

Kirchheimer, a pre-war socialist, fled Hitler’s Reich in 1933 and during the war was employed in Washington by the research and analysis division of America’s OSS – the precursor to the CIA – to work on democratisation of post-war Europe, especially Germany.

Similar work is undoubtedly now being undertaken by CIA Iraqi affairs specialists, who wish to ensure Saddam Hussein’s murderous Baathist Party never re-emerges in Baghdad.

Kirchheimer contended a C-aP had five features.

p Drastically reduced ideological fervor.

p Leadership judged on its “contribution to the efficiency of the entire social system rather than identification with goals of particular organisations”.

p Role of individual party members is largely insignificant. (Memberships decline.)

p Markedly less emphasis on class. (Labor MPs now rarely speak of the working class. Non-Labor MPs never talk about the middle class. Instead, as Liberal Premier Sir Charles Court always did, they now stress “Western Australians”, a real ‘catch-all’ phrase.

p Consciously seek-out linkages with interest and ideological groups for financial and electoral backing. (That’s why the Liberals, without union funds, have a 500 Club.)

In the early 1950s Kirchheimer noted a marked decline in policy differences between West Germany’s Christian Democratic Union and Social Democratic Party (SPD).

He argued the SPD would only gain power after transforming itself into a C-aP.

This subsequently happened and Chancellor Willy Brandt assumed power.

Interestingly, the same occurred in Australia shortly before the rise of Whitlam-led Labor, which was followed by the more successful and less socialistically oriented Hawke-Keating Governments.

To Kirchheimer a C-aP mobilises voters on policy issues, not purist ideological preference.

The days of such preference being placed ahead of policy issues are over and that’s been so for some time.

This helps explain why the Barnett-led conservatives are finding it so difficult to portray themselves as different to Gallop-led Labor.

What’s increasingly happened across Western democracies since the 1950s is that rival parties have sought to ‘catch-all’ voters to gain power.

To do that they’ve devised and stressed policy (not ideological) differences.

This is what Dr Gallop believes he’s doing by embracing the Greens Old Growth Forest policy.

How else can one explain a Labor premier’s destruction of some 1000 South West blue collar jobs and his refusal to create hundreds of North West foreign exchange-earning tourism sector jobs at Maud’s Landing?

Competing parties are now rivals, chasing the same voters.

That’s why they so often stress largely irrelevant issues such as leadership, hoping to differentiate themselves.

It’s also the reason for employing batteries of spin-doctors at taxpayers’ expense to make policies appear palatable, or else to put-off fewer voters.

The fact is that despite Colin Barnett’s poor poll showing (17 per cent) and Geoff Gallop’s relatively good ratings (54 per cent) on who’d be better premier, the difference in how they’d actually handle the premiership would be marginal.

But you can bet neither will ever publicly concede this, despite growing numbers of voters knowing it’s so.


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