Voting trends explored

April 04, 2018

It will not surprise many that a new study of attitudes shows Australian voters are deserting the centre ground and moving to the left and right of politics. Clear evidence of this is that the Australian Conservatives are the third largest party (by membership) in Australia.

The Sydney Morning Herald editorial today says an analysis of data collected in the Australian Election Study after every federal poll since 1987 shows more voters are thinking of themselves as either ‘‘left’’ or ‘‘right’’ in political terms.

Where, in 1996, 54 per cent of voters described themselves as in the centre, in 2016 only 42 per cent did.

At the same time, they are more than ever disillusioned with politics itself. The decline of the centrist consensus suggests voters are, in effect, giving up on the idea of compromise and hardening their positions along ideological lines.

The tendency is already clear in the attitudes of some MPs who are increasingly willing to abandon or ridicule centrist positions. It goes some way to explain the exasperating, shrill negativity that has gripped Australian politics since the defeat of the Howard government in 2007.

We see it within parties. The Liberals at present are torn by ideological confusion, with progressives attempting to retain their control as an increasingly uneasy membership seeks to move the party further to the right. On the left, Labor, with longer experience of open factional discord, has built a whole edifice to contain it, but the Greens are in disarray as factions fight to control where the party stands – towards the centre or far to the left; for conservation or for socialism.

Social media and the internet play a big role here. By connecting like-minded individuals, the internet allows more extreme views to be explored more thoroughly in a sympathetic environment and worked out in greater detail. Amid the blizzard of information now available online, a hard edge is what makes views stand out and by giving them prominence may gain them currency.

That effect is increased when search engines, to ensure more clicks, raise the priority of sites that pander to a user’s known prejudices. This is justified as increasing the relevance of a search to a user’s interests.

Technology may be changing the content – but the process of politics remains the same.

To read the Sydney Morning Herald editorial in full, click here.

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