Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 3, 2016

How to Vote Progressive in Australia (2016), edited by Dennis Altman and Sean Scalmer

How to Vote Progressive in AustraliaIt’s Sunday morning in Australia and we went to bed at midnight last night not knowing the results of yesterday’s election.  Ironically, given that the election was called to rein in some fractious independents in the upper house, it looks like we may end up with a hung parliament along with a senate even more fractious than the last.  Interesting times…

I borrowed How to Vote Progressive in Australia from the library because I was puzzled by the results I got on the ABC’s Vote Compass survey.  For the last two elections, ABC Online has offered a survey where voters respond to questions about their policy beliefs – and Vote Compass aligns those beliefs with the policy positions of the three main parties and tells the voter which party best represents their point of view.  Both times I’ve done this I’ve ended up with a party I didn’t want to vote for.  Both times I rejected the results.

The title of this collection of essays is a bit misleading: How to Vote Progressive in Australia doesn’t really help to answer the question.  But what it does do is to clarify the situation for the bemused voter who doesn’t understand why the Greens and Labor are at each other’s throats, it charts the rise of the Greens and in an especially cogent essay by Carmen Lawrence it clarifies what we might mean by ‘progressive’ anyway.

In politics, including in Australia, the much over-used word ‘progressive’ has come to describe people’s positions on a cluster of issues, the precise composition of which depends on who’s doing the talking.  But it appears to be used as shorthand for a vaguely left-wing way of looking at the world, based on the premise that it is possible to change society for the better. It’s certainly not a revolutionary agenda. (p. 78)

Lawrence goes on to quote Jonathan Rowson: most progressives want societies

  • ‘to become more equal in both opportunity and outcome’;
  • ‘to place a high, in principle, value of sharing the bounties of life’;
  • to ‘live a good life without destroying the ecological basis for that life’; and
  • to ‘care for the vulnerable, a commitment to the ‘common good’ and respect for diversity. (p.78)

Well, yes, that’s more or less what I want, and so do lots of other people.  And as Andrew Giles MP says in his essay, traditionally the Labor Party has driven the social and economic changes that have built our nation, from establishing the Age Pension to founding the National Disability Insurance Scheme.  But what he’s not quite so upfront about is that Labor has presided over increasing inequity in Australia and done nothing about it.   So as Lawrence says:

Whether the Labor Party will continue to capture the majority of the votes of those who endorse any or all of those values or whether the Greens will win them over is an open question.  (p. 79)

The essays comprise both academic analyses and earnest personal reflections from participants in the political process.  The first essay, ‘The Effect of the Institutional Settings of the ALP-Greens Relationship’ by Nicholas Barry, Stewart Jackson and Narelle Miragliotta, is excellent: despite its jargonistic title, it explains in user-friendly language why a marriage between Labor and the Greens is unlikely.  The authors argue that the similarities between the parties are not greater than their differences which lie in their historical roots, their respective bases of support and their incompatible organisational structures. Neither party has a compelling reason to consider amalgamating, and what’s more it might weaken the position of the left:

The ALP is able to reach a much broader spectrum of voters than the Greens, which has a narrower electoral base primarily consisting of inner metropolitan tertiary-educated professionals.  Moreover, the parties core constituencies will prove difficult to unite. The Greens’ base is affluent, progressive and holds values and supports policies that many in the ALP’s traditional and working class and trade union base at best do not prioritise, and at worst, reject.  The risk in amalgamation is that the new party would struggle to accommodate both constituencies, resulting in the new organisation attracting fewer votes than the combined support base of the ALP and Greens presently. (p.21)

So, these two parties are not likely to be best friends any time soon, especially not while the ALP has to divert resources to fighting off challenges in inner city urban seats.  The essays by born-again Green, ALP and micro-party supporters describing their personal journeys of disillusionment are instructive too.  For all of them, political allegiance is a question of integrity.  Yet as Carmen Lawrence points out, for most Australians disillusionment with modern politics in a globalised world has led to disdain for politicians leading either to disengagement altogether or a preference for bypassing political parties to achieve goals.  Which might be why it looks as if there is going to be a plethora of single-issue Senators in the new parliament.

All this is especially interesting in the light of last night’s election non-result.   The essay by Shaun Wilson points out that our messy politics are a global phenomenon:

The twin forces of social fragmentation and economic polarisation have driven the rapid transformation of politics in democracies, especially where access to political representation for parties of discontent is made easier by proportional voting. The shifting pattern of political representation looks similar across diverse contexts: increasing support for parties to the left of the mainstream social-democratic party, a loss of support for the established parties of the centre-left and rising support for populist right parties opposing immigration and hostile to the Islamic religion. (p.210)

Wilson is more optimistic about cooperation between the Greens and the ALP, pointing to a shared history of pragmatism. Interestingly, in view of declining union membership, he predicts a more activist role for the trade union movement, arguing that the 2007 Your Rights at Work campaign was an example of how

…unions have successfully turned their attention in these troubled times to a form of ‘political organising’ vaguely reminiscent of the early period of the Federation that produced Australian wage earners’ welfare state. (p. 213)

Wilson also suggests what might be a seismic shift in Australian politics: a weakening of ties between the union movement and the ALP such that an alliance between the unions and the Greens might form.  It makes sense, he says because union density remains strong in the public sector and the welfare sector – teachers, nurses, public servants, university lecturers (of which he is one) and these workers are potential Green constituencies.

One of the last essays (by Peter Van Olselen) looks at the question of Malcolm Turnbull as a progressive alternative within the Liberal Party.   It looks like the voters of Australia have passed judgement on that!

A most interesting book…

Editors: Dennis Altman and Sean Scalmer
Title: How to Vote Progressive in Australia, Labor or Green?
Publisher: Monash University Publishing, 2016
ISBN: 9781925377149
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: How to Vote Progressive in Australia: Labor or Green?


  1. I think that what has happened is that as the socially conservative DLP types have been reabsorbed back into the ALP (via right wing unions like the shoppies), ‘progressives’ and the people who naturally vote for them have moved out to the Greens. Personally, I don’t think there is any chance of this process being reversed. People like me who are naturally from the Socialist Left of the ALP have been protest voting via the Greens for years.


    • Good point: unless I missed it, I don’t think the book addresses protest voting.


  2. Elections almost make my head explode. I try so hard to make my vote count but it is becoming increasingly difficult. I’m beginning to wonder if I’d do just as well to throw darts at the paper and vote accordingly.


    • Ah, but making your vote count doesn’t necessarily mean your candidate wins. I’ve almost always lived in marginal seats that change hands every now and again, but even if I lived in a safe seat my vote would still count, no matter which party I voted for. When you’ve lived in a country that doesn’t have democracy, as I once did, you realise that every vote counts, no matter what the result might be.


  3. I found this review enlightening, thanks, Lisa, though I have to agree with Karenlee’s sentiments.


  4. 😄


  5. Wish I’d had time to read this before last Saturday. Honestly, I despair at the state of politics in Australia and can’t help feeling that they’re all as bad as each other! Which isn’t very helpful…


    • LOL It makes me feel like starting up my own party… I’m thinking of calling it the Just Let Me Run The Country For A Day And I’ll Fix It Party.
      Gough, as I recall it, needed a few days to do it, but of course he wasn’t a woman and probably couldn’t multi-task…

      Liked by 1 person

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