“Left” and “Right” are two of the most commonly used political designations in this, or indeed in any, country. And you know, they actually used to mean something once. Back in revolutionary France, the “left” was opposed to the monarchy, and the “right” were supportive of its traditional structures.
In the years since then, “left” and “right” as political terms have come to mean a lot of different things. What they have come to mean in practical terms, however, is either a mark of the political naiveté of the speaker, or are used as terms of opprobrium. In actual practical political terms, they’re now effectively meaningless.
The problem arises from the way we categorise views on various issues as left or right. This view, we say, is a leftist view. This other view is a rightist view. Seems simple enough, right? A spectrum on which various points of political view can be categorised, with varying levels of moderation or of extremism.
The problem is that it is such a simplistic view of affairs that you’re bound to go wrong as soon as you start using it. People just aren’t like that.
Any given person has a mix of political, social and economic viewpoints. These are complicated, in that relatively few people hold views that are over on one side of the left/right spectrum or the other. Your view on taxes might be on the right of the spectrum, and your views on market regulation on the left of it. The issue is that there’s many more dimensions involved than a just single spectrum, and holding on to the single-spectrum view of left/right is not doing you any favours.
Few politicians think of themselves as being left or right, or even think of their parties in those terms. So why should you?
If you were to grab any politician from a political party and quiz them on their political views and principles, you’ll find that they not only don’t fit cleanly into a left/right division, but they probably don’t necessarily even match up all that well with those of their fellow party members. They have some things in common, sure, but not necessarily a whole lot.
This is further complicated by what are called “political footballs”. A “political football” is an issue that a politician or party is willing to kick in any direction whatsoever, so long as there is political capital to be gained with the people they see as their preferred voters. They’re issues that a politician or party doesn’t actually care about, so they’re almost always issues that don’t involve a lot of money. They’re for it, until they’re against it, until they’re for it again.
So, we have these political parties – loose associations of candidates who share a few (but not necessarily a lot) of common viewpoints about where society and the economy should be headed and what, exactly, the government’s role in that should be. Over time, the membership of the parties changes, and with it the political views of the party as an aggregate. Today’s party X isn’t the same as party X from ten years ago. Or twenty. Or thirty. Far from it. The parties of decades-past would scarce recognise the political views of their parties today.
That brings us to you and me: the voters.
To many voters, political parties aren’t political parties. They’re like sports teams. Fans support a team because they have always supported the team. They’re not actually interested in whether the coach is drunk, or if half the team is on prohibited drugs, or if the other half is getting into bar fights and trashing hotel rooms, or if the team manager is a racist who beats up his wife. The team is the team, and whether they do well or do badly, the fan supports their team.
Likewise, the majority of voters in any election always support the same party. It doesn’t matter if they like how the party is performing, or has performed. It doesn’t matter if they like or dislike the party leader. It doesn’t matter what position the party takes on various issues important to the voter. They keep on voting the way they always vote. Supporting the team.
However, this isn’t a sport, and it is certainly no game. This is your nation on the line. Every four years. Your economy. Your circumstances.
In Australian politics, roughly sixty percent of your voters vote “for the team”, election after election. Five percent or so leave the ballot blank, or don’t fill it in properly, or draw a little penis on it, or do something else that essentially makes them a non-voter. And, of course, between ten and twenty percent don’t even bother to show up, and most of those don’t register at all.
That leaves 15-25% which is where the real election battles are fought. But surely, you think, such a small percentage doesn’t matter that much! Well, it does.
In 2013, Australia’s (Liberal-National) Coalition swept aside the Labor party on just 3.6 percent.
3.6 percent is what the winner calls “a mandate.”
That’s just 437,506 voters that made all the difference. For this election, 1,151,189 didn’t even register, and 873,913 wasted their vote by not casting one that could be used.
Those who didn’t register, and those who made an informal vote, combined represent enough voting power to vastly change the political landscape in Australia. Combine that with even half of the 15-25% who aren’t for-the-team voters, and that’s enough voting power to completely wipe just about any party from even the safest seats, or to elevate any party to government.
This is the bit in so many kids’ shows where the mentor-figure kneels down and says “There was never anything special about [this thing]. The power was inside you all along.”
Because it is. It really is.
As a voter in a Federal Australian Election (or for that matter in a State election, or even in a Council election), you have just one job: That is, once every four years to pick the person or persons who you think represent your views best. Forget parties. Forget the false dichotomy of left and right, because those labels don’t mean a damn thing in real terms. Find the people who express the political, economic and social views that most closely align with your own, and vote for them!
It doesn’t matter what party they’re in – if you actually elect reasonable people, they can still form an effective government no matter how fragmented the party lines are. If you don’t like what they stand for, don’t vote for them, even if you have fond feelings for the party they’re in. Remember, these people are going to represent you, so choose people who actually do! Not people who promise you things. Not people who say one thing and do another.
Your vote really does count, but many of your so-called representatives have forgotten that. Maybe you have too.