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The big parties are fading

13 July 2012 756 views No Comment

THESE days, I no longer avidly follow horse racing. But every now and then, I read about an outsider that bolts to the front at long odds and, despite the best efforts of the favourites, will not be run down.

Using this analogy, many of the inner-city electorates in Australia are becoming like electoral racetracks for bolters. The latest byelection for the state seat of Melbourne, to be held on Saturday week, is a case in point. Much to the chagrin of many Liberals, the party is not even fielding a candidate. This has much to do with Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu avoiding the potential suggestion that his support is flagging after only a year in office. It’s not what most Liberal supporters want to see. They want the party of initiative and enterprise having a go in seats like these.

Labor is trailing just behind the Greens in early polling and the seat will almost certainly be determined by preferences from a party that is just three years old: namely, the Australian Sex Party.

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At the last federal election, Labor bled badly to the Greens in many inner-city electorates because it had abandoned an emissions trading scheme. Now, the Greens may be bleeding because of their failure to agree to something other than a carbon tax and their recent refusal to give the Gillard government any kind of asylum-seeker deal that would save countless lives. So where will these voters go? Not back to Labor, that’s for sure. They left the ALP years ago seeking more progressive policies. And Labor’s current bagging of the Greens is more likely to send Labor voters into the arms of emerging progressive parties like the Sex Party, rather than back to the fold.

The failure of the major parties to engage with the mindset of progressive, gay and lesbian, mixed-race generation Ys (and some unreconstructed old Whitlamites) who live in the more polluted, multicultural, inner-city electorates, is a failure of their ability to construct relevant policies.

The Coalition may feel comfortable in rural and more affluent communities and Labor may feel somewhat safe in many of the supposedly working-class seats, but the truth is that the internet is rapidly changing a lot of old voting patterns. The exchange of ideas between conservatives and progressives and even between generation Ys and ageing baby boomers online is speeding up. In the end, this medium will not favour social conservatism. As Marshall McLuhan said all those years ago, ”The medium is the message.”

If the Liberal Party wants to win back support in these seats, it must go back to being a ”liberal” party in the way Sir Robert Menzies defined it in his famous 1967 ”The revival of liberalism in Australia” speech. He said: ”We took the name ‘Liberal’ because we were determined to be a progressive party, willing to make experiments, in no sense reactionary but believing in the individual, his rights, and his enterprise, and rejecting the socialist panacea.”

But there’s not much point in using the social media of generation Y if you don’t have polices they can relate to. In the state seat of Melbourne, almost half the electorate is younger than 35. It’s a safe bet that a large percentage of these people have used recreational drugs. Drug-law reform is an issue the Liberals could accommodate quite easily within a conservative policy framework, if only they could ignore the bleating dictates of church elders – who, if they hadn’t noticed, aren’t looking all that good as social-policy advisers these days!

I recall the eminent drug expert, Alex Wodak, saying most drug-law reform tends to come from slightly-right-of-centre parties. In case younger Liberal organisers had forgotten, former Liberal minister Don Chipp and former Liberal prime minister John Gorton were both patrons of the National Organisation for Reform of Marihuana Laws in the early 1980s. The call to legalise medical marihuana is becoming stronger from baby-boomers as they enter the arthritic years. Many of them find marihuana better as an analgesic than Panadol or Nurofen, and no more harmful.

There is increasing evidence that, in their retirement, baby-boomers are returning to the drugs of their youth. The Liberals would do well to listen to their own federal backbench expert on drug issues, Mal Washer, who, if they pay him proper attention, may just win them an ”unwinnable” inner-city seat or two.

Euthanasia is another issue the Liberals could embrace via a conservative policy framework. It’s unsurprising that the Sex Party is pushing both of these issues in the Melbourne byelection, but it is taking some surprising new angles to get its point across. Instead of appealing to legislators about the rights of dying people, the Sex Party’s Melbourne candidate, Fiona Patten, is asking generation-Y voters to imagine how their parents, who hypothetically find themselves with a terminal illness, should die. Do they want them to die when the person involved and their family decides, or when the government does? It’s clever marketing. So is the 20-metre billboard the party has erected outside Flinders Street station with a photo of Patten in jeans and a T shirt. Daring, but bound to appeal to the large numbers of under-30s who live in Melbourne’s inner-city precincts.

There are plenty of other parties starting to form within our inner-city electorates. The Secular Party, the Pirate Party, the pro-biker Free Australia Party, the HEMP Party and half a dozen other activist groups that reject traditional, one-dimensional, left-right dichotomies.

Professor Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 35 books, including his memoir, My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey, and the political satire Fools’ Paradise: Life in an Altered State.

The Canberra Times, July 13, 2012

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