Have Australians become more conservative?

Interesting debate at John Quiggin on whether the election revealed a rightward shift by Australian voters. Left-inclined posters keen to deny this, but the evidence seems irrefutable. Consider two key issues: immigration and greenhouse policy. Conservatives have long been anxious about the decline of Anglo-Australia particularly since the 1970s when non-Anglo immigrants became assertive and demanded that they be recognised as part of an Australian nation that could no longer be defined as purely Anglo. Conservatives have long hoped that immigration could be a vote winner but this has often not been the case, although majorities of voters may express concern about immigration levels or the ethnic composition of new arrivals, overt anti-immigration campaigns have often been politically counterproductive as induce a counter-mobilisation among voters from anon-Anglo background. However in 1996 the Coalition had a clear advantage on immigration , even respondents to the Australian Election Survey did not rank it highly as an issue overall it exercised a significant impact on voting behaviour(see Bean & McAllister’s chapter in The Politics of Retribution). However Labor was going to lose anyway, in this respect the 1996 Australian election resembled the 2010 British election were immigration counted against labour but the party was doomed anyway. In 2010 in Australia however voters clearly preferred the Coalition on immigration and there can be no doubt that the increased salience of the immigration issue was responsible for the Coalition almost securing victory. What is curious is the total unwillingness of most observers to admit this, is this because conservative opinion-leaders are largely embarrassed by the Coalition’s immigration campaign and those on the left are fearful of being tagged as ‘elitist’ who think the population are racist? Also I think the left has preferred to blame Labor’s back down on the Emissions Trading Scheme for its political decline during 2010. On immigration voters became more conservative and this benefited the Coalition. I suggest a similar story on greenhouse, the ‘climate gate’ hysteria contributed to a shift in public opinion and this empowered greenhouse ‘sceptics; within the Coalition, hence the Coalition’s decision to oppose the ETS and the rise of Abbott as leader. Public opinion is important for explaining electoral outcomes. One reason why observers on the left in Australia sometimes struggle with this is that there is so much junk commentary from the right on public opinion, editorials in The Australian suggest that at some stage trade unionist factory workers woke up and decided for reasons of libertarian principle to become non-unionist ‘enterprise workers’. However politicians are influenced by public opinion. Recently read Mark Smith’s excellent American Business and Political Power: Public Opinion, Elections and Democracy in which he argues that shifting patterns of public policy towards business largely reflect public opinion in particular attitudes towards corporations and towards the effectiveness of government. Smith argued that the political power of business  (particularly on economy-wide issues) is largely apparent via public opinion rather than financial contributions or ‘capital strikes’ and that there is evidence that from the 1970s American business became more effective in moulding public opinion. Broader lesson the Australian left loves to produce surveys for PR purposes but has limited interest in real research on public opinion, who now remembers Class Analysis and Contemporary Australia?

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