People like us

7

It is often remarked that people in different political parties can seem more alike and be more comfortable with each other, than with members of their own parties. The reason is simple. Political parties are composed of no more than three kinds of people (what follows is based on Australia, but with minor variations could also be used for US and UK) – idealists, ideologues, careerists.

The careerists of both sides have little interest in policy or ideology. Such people join the Liberal Party in a natural progression, just as they might join the Melbourne Club. A brief stint as a lawyer, into politics, on to diplomacy, into lucrative seats on the boards of big companies. It’s just what people like us do, dear chap, what our families and friends do, have always done. One expects, naturally, to be a minister, but the purpose of being so, except for providing mates’ rates on government projects for friends, is of less interest than the tailor who has made one’s suit. Just give them the party platform, whatever it is, and they’ll go along with it and be sure to stick their hands up at the right times. In return the lucrative business opportunities to make serious money will emerge naturally from the contacts made.

Much the same on the Labor side. Some university training, perhaps in Law, activity in a suitable Union involving administration in some way, into politics, into diplomacy perhaps, on to Boards of medium-sized companies and statutory authorities. Friends and family will have often followed similar career trajectories. If you are smart you’ll become a minister, but apart from making decisions that will benefit causes you and your friends hold dear, just give them the party platform, tell them which faction they are in, and the hand will be raised at the right time. In return, after, or even during political life, business opportunities will arise that make poor boys from the wrong side of the tracks or the wrong side of the ocean, rich almost beyond the dreams of avarice.

The ideologues who join the Liberals do so because this is the Party that will, for purely pragmatic reasons, support them. A gaggle of true believers in one or more of Libertarianism, neoconservatism, union-bashing, fundamentalist religions, racism, climate change denial, anti vaccination, guns, anti-environmentalism, war, the rich, anti fluoridation, misogyny, anti-abortion, xenophobia, creationism, gay bashing, the 1950s, find a warm and welcoming roof over their heads in the Liberal Party. They come from small community groups and even smaller astro-turf groups. Once they would have found themselves on the very back seat of the very back row of the Back Bench, these days they find themselves as Shadow Ministers and Ministers. And where once ministers might be selected for their expertise in, say, education or health, these days the ideologues will find themselves in charge of that which they hate most – climate change deniers as environment minister for example, xenophobes in immigration, religious fundamentalists in science, union bashers in workplace relations, anti vaccers in health, creationists in education, and so on. In later life they will go back to doing what they were doing before political life, listening to shock jocks and taking part in virulent demonstrations outside abortion clinics or refugee bureaus.

The ideologues who join Labor often do so from Union backgrounds. They do so because of the chance to sing “solidarity forever” out of tune at union meetings, and to be totally supported by fellow colleagues, while having a platform to rant about their particular obsession, which may be total support for union activity regardless of any other consideration, fundamentalist religions, racism, climate change denial, anti vaccination, guns, anti-environmentalism, war, the rich, anti fluoridation, misogyny, anti-abortion, xenophobia, creationism, gay bashing, the 1950s. They rarely seek ministerial glory (and would be seen as too loopy to get it), but are much happier in the back rooms deciding who does get the ministries and what policies are followed. They can it seems block environmental action, same-sex marriage, serious climate change moves, compassionate attitudes to refugees, while supporting chaplains in schools. Later life will be the same.

The idealists in the Liberal Party hark back to the golden age of small-l liberalism, back to the time of Menzies, and believe it still forms the core of the Liberal Party. They imagine the Party as a “Broad Church”, one where many voices and points of view are welcomed, indeed encouraged, where one is free to be an individual (unlike of course the regimented group-think of Labor), where merit is recognised. There may be small-l libertarian, small-b business, and small-r religious beliefs involved. They believe, or believe they believe, in science, rationalism, humanism, and that they are the children of the Enlightenment. In spite, or rather because, of these beliefs, in government they find themselves shunted into low status soft ministries (like arts or environment or social services) or left on the back bench, where they may occasionally consider crossing the floor in relation to issues such as refugees. In later life they find themselves heading community service organisations, or becoming professors of public medicine, or practising pro bono legal work, or working for causes such as refugees or Aboriginal people.

The idealists in the Labor Party are drawn to it, moths to a flame, by the Light on the Hill, believing that the Party is still that of Curtin, Chifley, Whitlam. They come into it not via the unions but via universities and community organisations. They imagine Labor is a Broad Church where a diversity of ideas and opinions are encouraged, individuality welcomed, unlike the Liberal Party with its iron party discipline. They believe in small-s socialism, small-e environmentalism, small-a atheism. They believe, or believe they believe, in science, rationalism, humanism, and that they are the children of the Enlightenment. In spite, or rather because, of these beliefs, in government they find themselves shunted into low status soft ministries (like arts or environment or social services) or left on the back bench, where they may occasionally consider crossing the floor in relation to issues such as refugees. In later life they find themselves heading community service organisations, or becoming professors of public medicine, or practising pro bono legal work, or working for causes such as refugees or Aboriginal people.

Clearly, those within each category, irrespective of party, will have a lot in common. Labor and Liberal careerists may combine on a more or less shady business deal; Labor and Liberal ideologues opposing abortion will find themselves at the same rally or prayer meeting; Labor and Liberal idealists will find themselves signing the same petitions, joining the same university departments. Each pair may well find themselves complaining about how bad their careerist and ideologue colleagues, say, are.

What is needed, clearly, is a mechanism for converting the two parties into three.