Make your own free website on

This is one of a series of older articles and excerpts from older articles put online by John Ray as a public service. The articles concerned are in general otherwise available only by special request to a University or other major library.


(Chapter from: Peter Coleman, Lee Shrubb and Vivian Smith (Eds.) (1982) Quadrant: Twenty-five years. University of Queensland Press, St. Lucia, Brisbane, pp. 268-300)

Political Parties and Australian Culture


A nation's politics cannot help but be deeply affected by the values and beliefs of its people. People's values and basic dispositions provide the goals and drive of political action. Together with circumstances and beliefs they shape the forms of political action. Politics is one of the ways in which people seek to direct the future course of events in line with their values and beliefs, to control circumstances and obtain security.

While a perspective such as this may not appear particularly startling it challenges a common assumption about the nature of Australian politics -- that our politics derives its basic form and direction from the organization of economic life in Australia. In this view our parties reflect the major groupings of interest which develop in Western industrial societies. While this "reality" is blurred by a number of factors, the engine of our politics is seen fundamentally as economic class interest.

This essay arises from some research which casts serious doubt on this conventional view. Instead, it proposes a theory which accords a much more important place to Australia's culture in influencing and forming our political life than has been customary. I was led to this theory along two roads. The main one was via an interest in voting patterns and voting behaviour, the other was via an interest in the nature of political authority in Australia. Since it will help to understand the significance of the theory I will sketch in the background first.

The Problem of Voting Behaviour

There has probably been more good research into the problem of why people vote the way they do than into any aspect of politics. To cut a long story short, one of the central findings of this research in the United States, Britain, Europe and more recently, Australia, has been that most people have loyalties to particular political parties which are more stable over time than their actual vote. These party loyalties appear to influence how voters see the issues in elections, form opinions, and provide a basic thread in their voting over time. To a significant extent these loyalties are passed from one generation to the next, though of course there are many people who develop loyalties distinct from those of their parents. Inherited or not, most people have these loyalties in varying degrees. Only about 10 per cent of voters will deny feeling closer to one party or another.

Given the fact of party loyalty the question arises, what is this loyalty based on? Why is it that some people become attached to the Labor Party, others to the Liberal Party, the Australia Party, the Communist Party (or Parties), the Australian Democrats, and so forth?

There is a conventional answer to this question - and variants of it have until recently been widely accepted among both professional political scientists and in popular folklore. "Until recently" because more recent research has suggested to the professionals that there is something wrong with the conventional wisdom. The conventional answer has been that in some way or other the parties represent different social classes -- that these classes have different interests and that these interests are reflected in the different kinds of policies the major parties support.

In this view the basic underlying forces in our political life are class interests. People differ in how they define these classes, but broadly speaking the Labor Party has been conventionally seen as the party of the "working class" and the Liberal Party the party of - what? - the "middle-class"? or perhaps the more "well-to-do", or perhaps "business". As one well-known social theorist, S. M. Lipset, said many years ago in an oft-quoted remark, "political parties are the democratic expression of the class struggle".

It is easy to say that there is "something" in this view - indeed, superficially, there appears to be quite a lot in it. A glance at a map of party representation in our capital cities shows, apparently, that the "working class" areas vote Labor and the middle class areas vote Liberal. The more mixed areas of the outer suburbs swing between Labor and Liberal. What better evidence is required? Surely this resolves the point. Moreover, when we look at the activities in the various parties they also seem to fit this picture, with unionists prominent at Labor Conferences and Councils and in Parliament, and lawyers and executives prominent in the Liberal Party. Case rests.

On closer inspection this conventional view about the nature of our political parties is not convincing. There are a number of things wrong with it. In the first place, these well-known suburban patterns of party support are quite misleading as evidence about the class bases of party support. When we look at evidence about the party preferences of individual voters quite a different picture appears. We find that the relationship between class and vote is not at all strong - whether we measure class by occupation or income or education or according to how people classify themselves.

The best evidence we have here comes from surveys of political attitudes. This evidence shows that if we wanted to predict someone's vote we would not do very well if the only information we had concerned their occupation, income or education. For example, immediately before the federal election in December 1975 one national survey organization estimated that the Liberal and National Country Parties were drawing virtually the same number of voters from skilled workers as was the Australian Labor Party. Among the semi-skilled and unskilled the Liberal and National Country Parties were attracting some 680,000 votes compared to only some 960,000 for the Australian Labor Party. If income is taken as the measure, the Liberal and National Country Parties were attracting slightly more support from those with incomes under $6000 than the Labor Party. Again, the coalition parties and the Labor Party split the votes of those with less than intermediate education equally between them. If those who vote for a party are a fair indication of whom the party represents, it is quite inaccurate to say that the Labor Party represents the lower income blue collar workers and the Liberal-NCP coalition the upper income groups. There is very little to choose between the parties. In his recent study "Stability and Change in Australian Politics", Professor Don Aitkin concluded that the relationship between a person's party loyalty and his self-assessed social class was "not at all powerful, and the correlation between accepting a working class label and identifying with the Labor Party is especially weak" (1977, p. 131).

In my book "Society and Electoral Behaviour in Australia" (1978) I investigate the relationship between occupation and voting over the period since 1946. This study shows that the relationships mentioned above are not to be attributed to the special circumstances of 1975. The evidence clearly is that there has been a long term and continuing decline in the importance of "occupational class" for voting to the point where class has almost -though not quite -- become useless as a predictor of someone's vote.

How then can we explain the very obvious patterns of party voting in the suburbs of the capital cities? Isn't the evidence I have just referred to inconsistent with actual voting in elections? The short answer is that the pattern of suburban voting is apt to deceive. Although the relationship between occupation, income and the vote is a very slight one, it is one of few such relationships whose elements vary according to area [1]. The pattern of Labor-held and Liberal-held seats in the major cities is a function of the basis on which people select their residence and the particular kind of electoral system we have - single member constituencies based on relatively small areas. If our electorates chose more than one member a rather different pattern would emerge. If the relationship of the vote to occupation and income totally disappeared -- as it seemed almost on the verge of doing in 1975 -- then even single member electorates would not preserve the traditional areas of party support. So long as a slight relationship remains, and so long as it is stronger than any other social basis for voting support (for example religion, or ethnic status) this pattern will survive - but only just.

This then is one of the crucial facts we need to be clear about if we are to understand what is happening to our party system in Australia: the kinds of people who support the Liberal and Labor Parties are becoming increasingly indistinguishable in terms of the traditional social indicators of occupation, income or education. This process appears to have been going on for many years. It has now reached the point where it is absurd to talk of the Labor Party as representing the low income and less educated sections of society and the Liberal Party the more well to do and better educated. But myths die hard.

It should be added to this picture that the traditional image of the Australian party system being class-based has probably never been well founded. A number of important features of the Australian system defy explanation in terms of any simple class model. Depending on how you define class, the Country Party has always been a bit of a problem for this model and the Democratic Labor Party even more so. The recent crop of minor parties such as the Australia Party, the Liberal Movement, and the Australian Democrats, let alone such long standing marginal groups as the Communist Parties pose problems for any attempt to explain our party system in class terms.

If class interests are "basic" why has there been such a plethora of minor party organizations over the years? How do we explain the particular lines of division which have opened up? Is there any basis on which we could have predicted the emergence of these minor parties, let alone their chances of success? Our current understanding of the nature of political parties is not adequate to enable us to predict with any degree of confidence the fate of new emerging forces such as the Australian Democrats. We do need better theories than the simple mythologies which still inform much discussion about the nature of the Australian party system.

Despite the kind of evidence I have referred to above, I suspect there will be some who will simply refuse to believe it. Even the electoral victory of the coalition parties in previously blue ribbon Labor strongholds, or the intrusion of the Labor Party into the sacrosanct Eastern Suburbs of Melbourne has done little to shake the faith of some in the old myths. Reaching for support to sustain cherished beliefs, they may point to the relationship between the trade unions and the Labor Party and perceived links between big business and coalition governments. Surely here is evidence of the true nature of our major political parties.

These facts are certainly very important for understanding the nature of our parties, and the problems they are currently facing. Yet we must assay them carefully to determine their true metal. Most assuredly they are not evidence of the class character of Australian parties. They are facts which help to explain a number of the internal tensions within the major political parties at the present time -- indeed the leaders of our major parties are continually seeking to cope with the consequences of these facts, and the minor parties which in recent years periodically break away from the major parties are another consequence of this feature of our party system. But we must see the association between these powerful organizations and our political parties in perspective.

Let me approach this point in a slightly roundabout way, to get a better view of the terrain. Political parties need resources of various kinds. Most of all they need votes. Without votes they do not survive. A significant part of their activities is therefore directed to securing votes. We can call this electoral politics. It is the process of finding the right appeals to maximize voting support. As we have seen, there seems to be increasingly few signs to guide the major parties in the "markets" where votes are to be "bought". But parties need more than votes: they need money and activists. To get off the ground they need people who care enough to devote a lot of time and energy to found them and sustain them. These people may be politicians disaffected with the major parties, as recent history shows. They may be people embedded in Church networks who care deeply about the advance of contrary ideology, as the DLP reveals. They may be economic interests who care greatly about wages and profits.

Economic interests and churches have one advantage in the formation of parties -- they have organizational continuity and access to money. They are frequent founders or backers of parties in the Western democracies. Even parties which are started by politicians have a greatly enhanced chance of survival if they can achieve the continuing support of organized interests. Obtaining or maintaining such support provides another level of politics -- let us call it organizational politics. The two levels of politics - electoral and organizational politics -- do not necessarily fit together easily. In any party the demands of politics at one level may conflict with demands at another. This is happening in Australia to a very marked degree at the present time.

The affiliation of trade unions to the Labor Party has greatly confused perceptions of the Australian party system. Wide acceptance of the mythology of the trade union movement - that trade unions are mass organizations representing a broad range of interests of their members (indeed, their basic interests) has led observers to confuse the electoral and organizational levels of politics. It is assumed that because trade union officials are prominent in the organization of the Labor Party that therefore trade union members have some special relationship to the Labor Party that it somehow or other represents their interests.

The internal distribution of formal power in the Labor Party - with final authority over policy residing in the organization (the National Conference) depends for its justification on the mythology that the trade union officials so active in party circles are but the spokesmen for the mass of the labour movement. The reality is very different. The power struggles between the trade union leaders have little to do with the interests of members. They occur far beyond the knowledge of most trade unionists. A study by Dr. Don Rawson established that most trade unionists do not want their unions to be affiliated with a political party. Around one million union members vote for the Liberal and National Country Parties. Most trade unionists think the unions have too much power. A great number of Labor Party voters are not trade unionists.

The myth of a mass popular movement represented by trade union officialdom is just that -- a myth. The reality is that one of our major parties provides excessive access to the upper echelons of one of Australia's major power groupings. It is an echelon held in deeper suspicion than any other section of Australian society -- not merely by the large majority of Australians who are not trade unionists, but by the members of trade unions themselves. But trade union officialdom is not about to let go.

It is the affiliation of trade unions to the Labor Party -- more than anything else -- which locks our party system into its present pattern. It forces business interests to seek closer links with the Liberal Party, for they are certainly not among friends in the alternative government. It deprives unions of the influence they might otherwise be able to exert over the Liberal-National Country Party governments, because they are political opponents as well as major interests with a rightful claim to be heard.

If the links between unions and Labor Party were in some way dissolved the whole pattern of our party system would change. Both major parties would be keen to seek union as well as business support. The unhealthy polarization which afflicts our politics would be mitigated. We would no longer have to pretend that the problems of relations in the workplace are the only serious issues with which Australia has to deal, and that all else must be subordinate to these.

The relative stability in the character of the interests supporting the parties at an organizational level combined with the homogenization of the voting bases of support has increased the tensions within each of the major parties. Union officials have looked askance at the influx of well educated non-unionists. Liberals have sought to accommodate migrants, Catholics and blue collar members. Because the supporting interests have no guaranteed power base within the party it has been easier for the Liberal Party to accommodate this change than the Labor Party.

The myth of the mass labour movement has fostered the notion that the Labor Party is a class party. This view has been held both by some of its strongest adherents as well as some of its most implacable opponents. It is rather a party subject to excessive influence from one kind of special interest organization. Nevertheless this interpretation of the Labor Party has encouraged the less sustainable view that the other parties must also be class parties. This has always been difficult to argue for the Liberal Party.

The interests with which the Liberal Party has been most closely associated have been employer interests. While it may at least have seemed plausible to suggest that the Labor Party was a "class" party in some sense because of the role of the trade unions, it is much less plausible to suggest that employers represent the great bulk of Liberal voters who are, in fact, employees. As employees, they are the same "class" (in one sense of that muddy term) as most Labor Party voters. Looser notions of social class have been introduced to account for the difference between the employees who vote Liberal and those who vote Labor - they are better off, better educated, "middle-class" types compared to the worse off Labor "working class" types. Yet as we have seen this distinction is of very little value in accounting for the actual distribution of party loyalties we find in the electorate today.

Some of the problems of internal management of the major parties become easily explicable once the possibility of a divergence between the concerns of the voting base and the organizational support base is recognized. It was the achievement of Gough Whitlam before 1972 that he managed to make the Labor Party appear to be an organization which could successfully present policies of the kind that appealed to the broad voting base. But his personal and leadership style was anathema to those who held to the myth of the mass working class party. The electorate didn't care too much about this, but activists from the supporting interests did - it was their power that was threatened.

The divergence of voting base and organizational support has not only been a source of tension in the Labor Party. Liberal leaders too have been concerned lest their party should be successfully represented as the party of big business. Many Liberal branch members and parliamentarians have resented the influence business leaders seem to have exerted at the top policy levels of the party over the years.

It was one of Menzies' great achievements in establishing the Liberal Party that he instituted a structure which moved business interests several paces further back from the organization. The earlier "consultative" committees of businessmen formed to raise funds for the National and United Australia Parties were replaced by party committees. These committees still were composed of leading businessmen, but they raised money directly for the party and were not in a position to attach strings. The fact that no business interest is affiliated to the Liberal Party in the way that trade unions are to the Labor Party has made it easier for Liberal leaders to concentrate on electoral politics than Labor leaders. A not infrequent complaint in Liberal circles in recent years has been that the party has been too remote from business -- a complaint which reflects the greater distance between the Liberal Party and its supporting interests.

Both parties have also been faced with the need to adjust to a major shift in power in society which has taken place in the past two decades. This is the rise of the tertiary educated professional. Like other Western industrial societies, Australia has become a society in which technical knowledge is an important basis of power. Physicists, chemists, biologists, geologists, engineers, sociologists, psychologists, economists, political scientists, teachers, all have knowledge which is conceived as essential to the functioning of advanced industrial societies. Existing power structures have not accommodated them easily. These people have no particular affection for the corporate or bureaucratic worlds -- their employers, nor for the traditional trade union leader. Politically they resent the power of other special interests in the major parties. Research has revealed that they have been the major source of recruits to the Australia Party, and probably the Liberal Movement outside South Australia. They are presently (December, 1977) testing Don Chipp's Australian Democrats to see if it meets their needs. They are the leading forces in conservation groups, consumer organizations, suburban action groups, women's organizations which are changing the face of interest politics. They have the skills necessary for effective political activity the capacity to find out, plan, prepare submissions and to publicize.

The emergence of minor parties such as the Australia Party is an expression of the failure of the major parties to satisfactorily accommodate them. The fact that the minor parties stay minor reflects their relatively few numbers in the mass electorate. They want influence, so their demand is for "participation". I consider this phenomenon at greater length in "Society and Electoral Behaviour" (Kemp 1978, Chapter 9 and Postscript).

Minor party activity is not, however, to be satisfactorily explained solely in terms of the emergence of a new and influential section of the electorate. It is doubtful if this is an adequate explanation for the rapid rise of the Australian Democrats; it does not appear to explain the emergence of the Progress Party. Moreover the differentiation of the supporting organizations of the major parties from the voting base leaves us with another problem -if the supporters of the major parties look increasingly alike, on what basis do voters become loyal to one party rather than another?

If our interest is in projecting the emergence of future minor parties from the major parties, what are the significant lines of division in the major parties which might conceivably give rise to such organizations? If we abandon the notion of class interests as the driving force of our political system, what are we to replace it with? How are we to understand the place of political parties in our society?

I do not propose to attempt to answer these questions in detail. In the remainder of this article I simply want to sketch the outlines of a theory which seems to me to be of some value in making sense of our party system, and to indicate some evidence which suggests that the theory may indeed have some merit.

Theories about party support have tended to emphasize voters' location in the social structure --- their social class position, the religious, ethnic or associational networks to which they belong. The assumption has been that "interests" are formed according to one's position in the social structure, and that party policies tend to favour some "interests" rather than others. This has always been a difficult approach to work through.

What determines these interests? To the extent that they are supposed to be "objective" interests they depend on dubious assertion of knowledge about what policies will most benefit certain groups in the community. To the extent that people themselves are permitted to assess their own interests, what they see as their interests presumably depends on what their values are, as well as the character of their present situation. The circumstances which affect their capacity to realize their values may be unrelated to their position in the social structure.

It has commonly been assumed, though it is not at all obvious, that Labor policies favouring government intervention have been in the interests of those in blue collar occupations, while Liberal policies minimizing intervention have favoured the better-off or the entrepreneurs. In present circumstances the interests of most employees are presumably in policies which actually operate to restore stability to the economy with low unemployment and low inflation.

The notion that high profits might go along with rapid economic growth and rapid increases in real wages raises the heretical idea that perhaps there are policies which at one and the same time benefit both employers and employees. Since there are vested interests whose power rests on an assertion of the opposite point of view it is certain that this heresy will be strongly resisted. Only the people, it seems, like to hear talk about common interests. After all, if there were common interests in this respect, what a criticism this is of our present arrangements for crystallizing issues. Let us banish these uncomfortable and disturbing thoughts, for the moment at least.

Moreover Labor has not been more consistently interventionist than Liberal-NCP governments. In recent history Labor was somewhat keener to follow IAC recommendations for a freeing of international trade. Labor has also -- for obvious reasons -- been inclined to be rather less interventionist than Liberal-NCP governments in trade union affairs. It is open to argument whether this policy of laissez-faire in relation to trade unions has actually been in the interests of union members or employees more generally. There is some evidence that most unionists favour a more interventionist approach by government in this area.

The assumption of much of the emphasis on "interests" is that voters in a particular social structural position have distinctive interests which, so far as they are concerned, also override any other concerns they may have. These assumptions have never been satisfactorily supported and have been denied by the behaviour of vast numbers of people who act in ways not predictable according to their position in the social structure. The weakness of explanations of political partisanship in terms of social structure leads to the search for other factors which might provide better explanations. But if not social structure, then what?

There is an older view of political parties which still survives in some quarters. (t is the view proposed by Edmund Burke that parties are distinguished from each other by their principles. Observers in this cynical age have not failed to note that those who talk most about principles in politics are the minor parties and their minority position seems to show the fate of those who persist in placing principles before compromise. The major parties -- it is noted compromise with astonishing readiness when to do so increases their support. Edmund Burke's dictum has long since been consigned to the rubbish bin by those who view themselves as realists in political matters.

The "realists" have not had things their own way. The main opponents of their interpretation have been the major parties themselves. Our major parties claim to be motivated by - if not principles - then philosophies. There always seem to be groups of party members insisting that their parties should behave in accordance with their philosophies. Malcolm Fraser has long been a puzzle to journalists who find him simultaneously one of the most pragmatic and one of the most philosophically inclined of our prime ministers.

The Labor Party has shown a remarkably unpragmatic reluctance to throw over "democratic socialism" despite the urgings from the sidelines, while the Liberal Party is probably giving more attention to its philosophy at the present time than at any other period in the last quarter century. The Federal Executive of the Liberal Party has even established a sub-committee specifically concerned with philosophy. In academic circles there is actually growing interest in the ideas which have influenced Liberal Party policy over the years. Parties, both major and minor, have stubbornly resisted the notion that they are there simply to reconcile conflicting interests or to push policies on behalf of the powerful. They cling to ideas despite all the guffaws of the realists.

The realists of course have an answer to this. The ideas are simply attempts to dress up sordid interests in respectable garments. They are rationalizations of economic interests. They are the smokescreens which parties use to conceal their aggressive campaigns for votes. They are confidence boosters to lift the morale of politicians who would otherwise have to face the truth about their unpleasant line of work. To talk seriously about ideas is to turn Marx on his head and reinstate Hegel, and so forth. Yet despite the razzings people still persist in linking ideas to politics. Perhaps we should take a closer look.

Parties and the Culture

In late 1974, working with a colleague in the Political Science Department at Melbourne University, Dr Graham Little, I organized a scientific survey of the Melbourne population. The main objective of the research was to explore the attitudes of Melbournians (whom we hoped might not be too untypical of Australians generally) to political authority.

Over the years there has been a great deal of writing about Australians and their attitudes to authority, and about the sources of these attitudes. The survey included a number of items designed to explore general Australian values, norms and beliefs to see where attitudes to authority fitted into the broader culture. Noting the apparently different structures of authority within our main political parties one interest was to see whether these differences reflected differences in the attitudes of the general population. It was not a primary intention to explore the sources of party support, but once the analysis was under way it began to look as if the results had considerable meaning for understanding the nature of Australian political parties.

Through the results of the survey it was possible to get glimpses of the usually invisible cultural landscape of Australia. Though there has been a large body of impressionistic writing about Australian culture - about the dominant values and beliefs of Australians -- there is astonishingly little evidence about the extent to which particular ideas or values are accepted and by whom. It is not even known whether it makes sense to talk of one single Australian culture on which there is a consensus or whether there are different culture streams. Are there particular isolated subcultures outside the main consensus, and if so what are they?

It seems plausible to suggest that what Australians believe about the world, and what they value in this world -- and beyond it -- will affect their stances towards the appeals of the various parties. Yet apart from personal impressions - often dogmatic but impressions nevertheless -- we have known very little about the actual pattern of these beliefs and values in the electorate. Successful political leaders presumably develop "gut-feelings" about these cultural formations, but this is the domain in which politics has been an "art" rather than a "science".

Historians and social commentators have written about the egalitarianism of Australians, or about the "myth" of egalitarianism, and have traced back to this aspect of Australian culture significant features of our national institutions. Others have focused on nationalism and racism, collectivism and individualism. In a famous comment, Keith Hancock sought to summarize his view of a fundamental Australian approach to politics: "To the Australian", he wrote, "the state means collective power at the service of individualistic rights."

This then is the prevailing ideology of Australian democracy - the sentiment of justice, the claim of right, the conception of equality, and the appeal to government as the instrument of self-realization.

The earlier British commentator and scholar, Lord Bryce, saw a somewhat different Australia - a land in which the pursuit of material interest was further advanced than anywhere else. Conservatives and liberals in Australia have always emphasized the individualism of Australians, and so forth. What we have lacked is a sure foundation of research which we could use to specify and assess these generalizations.

The Melbourne authority survey did not aim to provide a comprehensive picture of the main Australian values and beliefs. At best it provides us with an imperfect glimpse of a cultural landscape obscured by the mists of measurement error and misdirected items. Despite these limitations however, it suggests what may be some of the major features of Australian culture. Table 1 lists a selection of the items from the survey and shows the percentage of people agreeing.

One thing stands out very clearly. There is an Australian consensus on a number of matters relating to social relations, the nature of the individual, the role of government and the role of political leadership [2]. This consensus attracts support from the adherents of both our major political groupings. Being a consensus, both the major political groupings must operate inside it, if they are not to run electoral risks.

Table 1 Elements of an Australian Consensus

(Each statement followed by the percent agreeing)

Social Equality:

"Just because a man is high up socially it doesn't mean he knows any better what is good for the country"...71
"People from good families who have been to good schools will naturally make better leaders".....................19
"You have always got to watch out for those who think they are better than everyone else"...........................69


"People's talents are pretty much the same"..........................................15
"Every person should have the right to become rich if he has the ability" ....... 87
"The only way to really get much improvement in conditions in Australia is to tax the rich more heavily"........18
"The main thing that determines a person's success or failure in life is how hard he works at it"....................85
"By and large it is good fortune rather than anything to do with the individual that determines how well he does in life" ............ 24
"Most of the changes for good in this world depend on the work of a few exceptional men"...........................69


"It will always be necessary to have a few strong able people actually running everything"...........................81
"Leaders are not really important. People can learn to live together and work together on their own"............11
"If a politician feels deeply about something in politics he can't be expected to watch out for other people's feelings all the time"...................66


"It is not really the government's responsibility to make sure that everyone has a good standard of living"........31
"The government should give a person work if he can't find another job"........................................................66
"Governments should not go ahead with any major policy until there has been thorough public discussion with as many people as possible taking part"....... 83
"I think if we really thought about it our form of government could he very greatly improved".........................75
"Public discussion on most issues is confusing and does very little good" .................... 34
"Most political conflicts are unnecessary. If people would only get together and consider things reasonably, they would soon find out they are largely agreed with each other"............................64
"What we need now is a common cause that all Australians can get behind and work for together"................78


"There are always enemies of our way of life trying to undermine us"..........................................................75
"Most of those worries about subversion by communists and others are now things of the past"..................29

Other People

"The main trouble with democracy is that most people really don't know what is best for them"................66
"Human nature is fundamentally cooperative" ............................ 81
"If you don't watch yourself people will take advantage of you" .................... 70

A closer inspection of the items listed in the table suggests some important facts about the contents of this consensus. Australians are - as has usually been thought - socially egalitarian. They do not believe that birth or family convey special entitlements to a leading role in society. This social egalitarianism is shared by most Liberal and Labor voters.

The research suggests however, that Australians draw a clear distinction between social egalitarianism and material egalitarianism. They believe that everyone should have the right to become rich and they disagree that taxing the rich more heavily is the way to improve conditions. Moreover they do not carry their egalitarianism over into their assessment of individual abilities. Australians believe that people are born with unequal abilities and that they should have the right to realize their abilities. It is just that those with abilities, who use these abilities to get rich, should not thereby think they are better than everyone else.

It emerges very clearly from the study that there is a significant individualist theme in the Australian culture. Conservatives and liberals have long believed this and capitalized on it. Much of the writing on Australian culture ignores it in favour of an emphasis on egalitarianism, racism or collectivism. As I have just noted, Australians perceive people as being different in their talents and abilities and as having the right to use these to improve their material condition. More than that, Australians still believe that hard work by the individual is very important to success. The "puritan ethic" is alive and well and living in Australia. Australians do not resent success - they detest the airs and graces of some of those who are successful.

The individualism we found has another dimension as well. Australians generally believe that it is the outstanding individual who is a significant source of social progress. Indeed, so strong is this belief that a huge majority accept that ultimately a few strong and able people are necessary to run everything. It seems obvious that this theme in the Australian culture presents real problems for a political party -- such as the Labor Party -- whose stated philosophy seems to lead in a materially and organizationally egalitarian direction. Conversely, it seems to fit very well with the appeal of the Liberal and Country Parties.

No wonder Labor's appeal has so frequently seemed to be a variant of "Watch what I do, not what I say", and that the actual operation of Labor movements has tended to elevate individuals to positiohs of authority in a remarkably similar way to liberal and conservative political organizations. It must be emphasized again that these views are held by a majority of Labor Party supporters as well as Liberal and Country Party supporters, and it seems very probable that accommodation to them (in light of circumstances) is a sine qua non of success in electoral politics.

There are other aspects of the content of the Australian consensus which can be noted briefly. Other feelings confirm that individual achievement and social egalitarianism sit alongside the populist belief that ultimately the people must control the government. The strong leader is accepted and even desired - but he errs if he appears to be out of touch with the people. A leader such as Gough Whitlam scored for a while on account of apparent strength and competence, but in taking as his reference groups the press gallery and academe he missed badly on this requirement. Malcolm Fraser has regularly appeared in pubs, factories and mines where he can talk to the people. Either being a man of the people or consulting with the people are demanded by the culture which erected some of the most thorough-going democratic institutions in the world in the nineteenth century.

While few think that our governmental system is incapable of real improvement there is basic support for the constitutional order.

We identifed at least one cloud over this happy and orderly land. A consensus accepted the perception that there are always people trying to undermine our way of life, and refused to accept that all those worries about communist subversion were things of the past. Further, there are clearly racist and nationalist themes in the culture, though they did not command the breadth of adherence as those ideas which have been discussed above.

The culture contains its contradictions, and it seems very likely that these would raise problems for political parties. To the extent that people hold conflicting values or beliefs they will not be satisfied with policies which promote one set at the expense of others. This spells danger for any government. If the contradiction concerns central values or beliefs whose satisfaction or recognition is actively sought, and if it is impossible simultaneously to satisfy each -- then it may ultimately spell danger for the system as a whole. A workable political process would seem to demand some degree of coherence in the values and beliefs which motivate political activity. Politicians who did not seek to resolve such contradictions would be unwisely careless of their longer term interests.

One such possible contradiction concerns the role of government. The study confirmed the conventional view that Australians give a vital role to government - not only in helping the needy but in securing their general standard of living. In itself this does not conflict necessarily with the elements in the culture mentioned above - in fact it is a vindication of Hancock's impression that to Australians the state means collective power at the service of individual rights. But it is also evident that certain extensions of governmental activity can conflict very sharply with some of the other values identified, particularly the value of individual achievement.

To the extent that the state takes on an active role of redistributing income around the community - not necessarily to the poor but to those activities deemed by decision makers "worthwhile", there will be a tendency for the demands of the state on the individual to increase, both through taxes and regulations. This in turn can reduce the possibilities of individual achievement. Activities by government instrumentalities such as the Arbitration Commission which compress wage and salary relativities may also have this effect. In the light of this, it is not at all surprising that taxes and wages have been two of the major sources of discord in the present crisis - this is the "hip pocket nerve" for which Australians have been noted.

If people's expectations of government have increased then there is a real risk of a serious contradiction between the values of Australians. The Australian Democrats have drawn support particularly from those who find recent trends in taxes and wages a major affront to their values. If the phenomenon we are observing stems from a cultural contradiction, then its solution must ultimately be at the cultural level.

If expectations of government have run ahead of what people will accept in the event, then the solution would seem to be to scale down those expectations. This at least seems a more feasible solution than assaulting the individualist theme in the culture, which has many ramifications and seems likely to be deeply entrenched.

I would certainly not make the claim that the few findings discussed here give anything like a complete view of the main cultural values and beliefs. The research instrument employed has some analogy with the telescope of Galileo which didn't see very far and what it did see it didn't see very clearly. Nevertheless, we do seem to have glimpsed some of the cultural terrain and it seems to make sense in terms of what we know of Australian politics. In passing, it seems that the Liberal-National Country Party coalition is better equipped to traverse this terrain than the Labor Party, which is burdened with ideas which directly challenge consensus values and beliefs and which has the misfortune to be rather too closely associated with what are still perceived as significant threats to the Australian way of life.

In order to explore further the significance of the culture for the political parties it would seem necessary to go beyond the consensus. To demonstrate that large majorities hold certain views is useful if our objective is to define some of the general constraints on political parties. But our interest is also in finding out what supports different parties, as well as in demonstrating what is common among them. Here we need to know the way in which these consensus values and beliefs are linked to each other in the electorate -- which ones people put together in which packages. We would also need to know whether, in constructing these packages, values, norms and beliefs are drawn in from outside the consensus. It would seem likely that it is particular clusterings of values, norms and beliefs which give deeper meaning to certain appeals and approaches to politics.

If people are to be motivated to cooperate together, it seems plausible to suggest that there must be some elements in their perception of their situation which link them to their partners and differentiate them from those in other organizations. As we saw above, the conventional view has tended to emphasize "interests" of one kind or another, supposedly related to position in the social structure. The main trouble with this view is that it doesn't account for the patterns of party loyalties and support we actually observe.

The alternative view I am now proposing in explaining political partisanship is not a person's location in the social structure, but his location in the culture. Provided he can make a link between his values, norms and beliefs and one of the political parties he will tend to give his loyalty to that party, regardless of occupation, income or education. It may be that a person's position in the social structure results in some value he holds being underindulged. In such a case his cultural location plus his social structural location will produce an assessment of his "interests". But it may equally be the case that the circumstances leading him to emphasize in action particular among these values, norms and beliefs have little to do with his location in the economic structure of society. In such cases his social structural location will be a poor predictor of his political partisanship, while his cultural location will be a much better predictor.

In referring to "culture" I am, of course, referring to something which is conceived as being much more stable than attitudes on the political questions of the day, or towards the current political leaders. Values and beliefs which may be termed cultural are thought of as being rather more deeply held than the attitudes which are typically explored in public opinion surveys. They are consequently thought of as rather more difficult to change. Attitudes on current matters are thought of as being a response to perceptions of passing events in the light of a person's more basic values and beliefs.

The claim that a person's cultural location is important in determining the direction of his party support asserts that quite apart from a person's attitudes on current political matters, if we know that person's basic values and beliefs we will be able to make a fair fist of predicting which party he will support. Indeed, if we know how deeply he feels these values and beliefs are being questioned, we can venture a reasonable guess as to whether he is a party activist.

There are some a priori grounds for thinking that such a theory about the sources of support for political parties may be useful. Such a focus takes seriously a dimension of politics emphasized by activists and which has tended to be taken lightly by observers and scholars. It takes considerable motivation and commitment to establish an organization. This commitment is surely likely to have links with the basic values and beliefs which give meaning to life for an individual. More generally, organizations seem to have a special relation to values.

A leading organizational theorist, James Q. Wilson, has noted the phenomenon that societies tend to form organizations in waves, and that these waves tend to coincide with periods when values are being questioned. The organization is a device to mobilize resources to either defend or advance particular values. Wilson's concern is much broader than political parties. Recent comparative studies of party support in Western nations indicate that religion is apparently a more powerful basis of party support than class in nations where there are both religious and class divisions. The close linkage of religion with explicit sets of ideas may be a factor in this. Certainly the history of this century shows the powerful mobilizing force of coherent sets of ideas developed into ideologies.

Whether or not the pattern of Australian culture bears any particular relationship to the form of our party system can only be determined by close study of the real world of party support. The first results of research into this matter offer striking confirmation of the view being proposed. Various techniques are available to observe and describe the patterns of values and beliefs in the population. These are quite technical and require careful evaluation. At present only some preliminary results are available.

A number of clusterings of values, norms and beliefs have been tentatively identified. These vary greatly in the proportion of the population they encompass. Some, such as social egalitarianism or individual achievement encompass most of the population. Others fall outside the consensus and embrace relatively few. One of these has been tentatively labelled "left-egalitarianism" - it is comprised of those who believe that the rich should be taxed more heavily, that the working man doesn't get his fair share of what he produces, that the unions should fight harder for workers' rights. Only about 5 per cent of the population accept such a position and it clearly falls outside the consensus.

Other identified positions are a variant of the individualist position which takes a rather more limited view of the appropriate role for government than the general population, and seems to emphasize primarily the importance of the individual looking after and advancing himself - without any general responsibility on the part of government for his well being. Yet another set of beliefs and values focuses on the Crown and traditional religious beliefs.

One useful way to think of the culture revealed by this approach is via the metaphor of the landscape, which I have used before. It is a landscape which has large mountains representing the consensus clusterings of values, norms and beliefs. Around these are smaller hills and ridges, some growing out of the consensus features, others off to one side. Each feature represents a cultural formation which seems to have particular meaning for the individuals located on its peak. Now imagine individuals located at various points on this landscape. Location on some of these formations seems to predispose people to give loyalty to the Liberal Party, while other locations predispose people towards Labor. An individual's cultural location is his notional position in relation to these cultural formations. It is possible, having described this landscape to devise a single measure which indicates the position of each person on it. This is a measure of a person's "cultural location". Such a measure is the cultural equivalent of a person's place in the social structure - say his "class position".

I have mentioned that social class position has become almost useless as an explanation of why someone might vote for one party or another. The same cannot be said for cultural position. Cultural position turns out to be a powerful factor in accounting for the direction of a person's party loyalty. Indeed, in the analyses so far undertaken, cultural location is a more powerful explanatory factor than social class has been at any time since satisfactory data has been available in Australia.

I shall be making a more extensive and technical account of this research in another place, but for those to whom statistics are useful in indicating the strength of the relationship discovered, the correlation between party loyalty and cultural location in a preliminary analysis was 0.44. This is of course completely obscured in the suburban voting patterns because values are not systematically related to where people live in our cities.

The relationship discovered between voters' values and beliefs and their party loyalty does not mean that if we know their cultural location we can predict the party they support with certainty. With better measures of cultural location it would doubtless be possible to do better, but even then other factors would have to be taken into account. Among these would be the political preferences of their family, the salience of politics to them, the preferences of their immediate social context, the extent to which their values and beliefs could be linked to one or other of the existing parties. But while cultural location is far from a complete explanation this finding opens the way to some fascinating speculation about the nature of our party system.

One thought provoked by the cultural patterns so far discerned is that each minor formation seems to bear a relationship to the appeals of a minor party, which either presently exists or has been formed in the past. For example the "left-egalitarian" formation has a close link with the extreme left minor parties which have been formed. Preliminary observations suggest that there may be links between other minor parties and the minor clusterings identified. One labelled "materialist individualism" seems suspiciously close to the Progress Party appeals. Others also seem to have their organizational expressions. We are now in the realm of speculation.

Perhaps each of the formations on the cultural landscape can, under appropriate conditions, give rise to political organization. In general terms those conditions seem likely to be ones in which the values and beliefs which define the formation are threatened. The potential appeal of any new organization established to defend or advance that outlook is presumably limited by the size of the formation on which it is formed. Hypothetically, if we could identify exhaustively the cultural formations in Australia, we would be able to have a stab at predicting the kinds of circumstances under which they might give rise to organizations of various kinds.

One issue of interest concerns the relationship between these cultural formations and the social structure. There seems to be a very weak relationship between the consensus values and the social structure. Some of the minor formations, however, look as if they might have more specific social structural locations as well. This becomes relevant when we consider the implications of this cultural pattern for the major parties.

To the extent that the major parties provide privileged access for persons located centrally in one of the minor clusters, to that extent is the party likely to find itself with narrowing appeal and electoral problems. The Liberal Party, for example, has to be alert that it does not give excessive influence to those who hold to an extreme conservative social-political position. The Labor Party has suffered particularly from this process. The "left-egalitarian" position seems particularly to have a foothold in the trade union movement. It has both supported the formation and continued existence of the Communist Parties, as well as influencing the content of the trade union contribution to internal Labor Party debates. Because of the affiliation of the trade unions to the Labor Party this small minority position exerts a quite disproportionate influence on its general stance, constantly threatening to take it outside the consensus and undermining its electoral appeal. There is also the risk that those shut out from access will up and off to form their own organization.

The argument advanced here is not that party politics is "really" ideology. Ideologies tend to develop among groups suffering acute discomfort and seeking both an explanation of their woes and solution to their problems. Ideologies develop in times of crisis in a society, or among sections of society who are conscious that their values and beliefs are being assaulted by change.

Efforts to symbolize and articulate values and beliefs - and programmes of action - were much more common during the Depression of the l930s than during the relative calm of the fifties and early sixties. In such settled times ideology is found only on the fringes - the extremes of the radical "right" and the radical "left". In such times established political forces - having found (through trial and error) a clientele large enough to provide the support they need - have little reason to seek to articulate the basic values and beliefs of their supporters. Enough that these are intuitively grasped and that policies satisfy them. The major parties are still constrained by the culture within which they operate, but they will tend to take it for granted.

As the culture moves through time, events and circumstances bump against particular views of the world, producing discomfort and frequently organizational activity, for those whose views are challenged. Frequently the activity which is provoked takes the form of party political activity, for the authority of the state is a useful instrument in the protection and advancement of one's own views.

Often the cultural formations which conflict with change have meaning for relatively small sections of the electorate. Stirred to action and even ideologizing by events, they find themselves unable to recruit the breadth of support necessary to make a realistic bid for electoral success. On occasion, however, circumstances produce friction with the great consensus formations -- there is a widespread sense of values not being realized, a demand that these values be reaffirmed and policies presented which will protect them. The ups and downs of the cycle of economic activity typically produce such circumstances, as do wars and natural catastrophes.

A Changing Culture?

An assumption of the argument developed here is that there is some degree of permanence to culture - or if not permanence, then reasonable continuity. Such a notion is widely accepted. Some version of individualism, for example, is seen as having been a continuing theme in Western culture over the centuries, distinguishing it from the cultures of other civilizations. The content of the consensus discovered by the research discussed above looks suspiciously like the values of the gold-fields - all equal in the enterprise of getting rich.

Obviously culture has to come from somewhere - where do values and beliefs originate, how do they become a part of the culture, what produces cultural change? If the Australian culture is changing, why, and in what respects? What is the process by which new values and beliefs enter the culture and old ones depart? Who is susceptible to change - who is adopting the new cultural elements, and why? Who is resistant, and why?

The "crisis of values" has become such a cliche that for the moment we will accept its reality as a working assumption. Australian politics at the moment - and the patterns and content of party political activity- might be seen to reflect that "crisis" in a number of respects. The concern with party philosophy in the major parties would be one expression of it; the emergence of minor parties recruiting from those located in the new cultural formations another; the pattern of tensions within and internal management problems of the existing parties yet another.

Established organizations finding themselves on a landscape with unfamiliar features are feeling their way - and stumbling occasionally in the process. The task of the major party organizations, if they wish to survive, is to find a framework of meaning within which the new cultural elements can be subsumed. This is an urgent task for political leadership which wants to maintain the unity of party organizations. That they should succeed is also important for the effective functioning of the society as a whole. It is not certain that success is possible.

During times of rapid change even the major political parties may be forced to bring values and beliefs previously taken for granted to the level of active discussion. This may be because major values or beliefs suddenly seem to be receiving less than adequate satisfaction. The discontent arising from economic recessions typically has this character. Such discontent can be resolved simply by the "right" policies, so long as values remain unaltered. But basic values may also come to the fore in political debate because the culture is itself shifting and new values and beliefs are arising to challenge the old. When values come into conflict, no policy solution may be acceptable to the opposed positions. It is possible in such situations that no coherent philosophical position can be developed to embrace the incompatible positions. There will be a sense of loss of direction - of confusion, of dissatisfaction with the existing organizations.

In such a situation a constructive response from the existing parties is to search for ways of resolving the conflict of values. This may mean raising the development of party philosophy to the level of conscious enterprise. To the extent that different people hold incompatible positions, sustained conflict may be likely. But it is also possible that the same individuals hold conflicting values without recognizing it, feeling instead a sense of confusion and malaise. In this case the effort to demonstrate the incompatibility and suggest an acceptable solution can be a positive one, because it may be possible to suggest a reconciliation or working solution.

It would seem that both kinds of cultural conflict are occurring in Australia at the present time. I have already mentioned the potential incompatibility between the belief in an expanded role for government and the value of individual achievement. Another is between economic growth and preservation of the existing ecological balance. Yet another is between the value and belief in the leadership of the few and the active participation of the many. These contradictions are the stuff of ideological politics. Yet if the political realm is to play a positive role in helping the society to adjust to these changes it must seek a satisfactory adjustment of these values, and if none is possible, then attempt to adjust the culture itself.

At present, active participation is a value principally of the tertiary educated professionals for whom it is the solution to a perceived lack of power. The experience of such people in organizations drawing on a broader membership is likely to be that the value of strong and effective leadership is still firmly entrenched. A typical scenario -- probably being experienced by the Australian Democrats at the moment - is that those who hold the consensus values find it difficult to operate within a highly participative structure.

The incompatibility between the value of continued material achievement and preservation of the existing ecological balance probably exists to some extent within the same people as well as being a conflict between individuals. Those who are strongly emphasizing the value of preserving the existing ecological situation are clearly feeling considerable threat from the consensus value and the typical response of ideology has emerged.

The incompatibility between the desire for greater emphasis on the role of the state and the value of individual and material achievement is again probably widely experienced by the same individuals. It is in this context that party philosophizing and rational debate about the relationship holds some hope of a constructive resolution. Among people who do not share the consensus value in an active role for government, who strongly emphasize individual material achievement, and whose values are consequently under severe threat, there has been a great increase in philosophizing activity, and the Progress Party appears to be an expression of this.

The way in which the culture expresses itself in political activity is influenced not only by the stream of events through which it passes on its journey through time. It is also influenced by the institutions established to channel political activity - the electoral system, the party organizations (and their ties to existing interests), and indeed, the role structure and technology of the economic order.

When the functioning of the workplace divides people into beneficiaries and losers under existing values we may have "class conflict". But economic recessions which affect both employers and employees may as well create alliances between managers and workers in search of a solution as conflict. The voting support for the Liberal/National Country Party coalition in 1975 had something of the character of such an alliance.

The events or circumstances which arouse intense political emotions today have little to do with class conflicts. Environmentalism, right to life, women's issues, consumerism, energy, conservation, participation relate to other aspects of the social and economic order. While activists may strain to borrow the tried and familiar (if tired) rhetoric of class conflict, the support they mobilize is not mobilized on a class basis. "Class conflict" is but one expression of the interaction of culture and circumstance. Politics is about the meaning of circumstances. The basis of meaning is culture, not class. Party politics in Australia at the present time is straining to give recognition to that fact.


1. A comparison across fifteen Western industrial countries of the relationship between social structure and party loyalties is reported in Rose, 1974, p. 17. On 1967 data, occupation in Australia accounted for 8.9 per cent of the variance in party support, religion 1.9 per cent. Since then the relationships between social structure and party support appear to have declined further. There was, even then, a smaller relationship between social structure and party support in Australia than in eleven of the fifteen countries examined.

2. I have treated percentages of 66 per cent for or against an item as an arbitrary point defining a "consensus" on the item.


Aitkin, D., Stability and Change in Australian Politics. Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1977.

Kemp, D., Society and Electoral Behaviour in Australia. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1978.

Rose, R., (ed.), Electoral Behaviour: A Comparative Handbook. New York: Free Press, 1974.


It should be noted that the "1974 Melbourne authority survey" mentioned above was substantially based on a previous paper as under:

Ray, J.J. (1971) An "Attitude to Authority" scale. Australian Psychologist, 6, 31-50.

Back to List of excerpted references

Go to Index page for this site

Go to John Ray's "Tongue Tied" blog (Backup here or here)
Go to John Ray's "Dissecting Leftism" blog (Backup here or here)
Go to John Ray's "Australian Politics" blog (Backup here or here)
Go to John Ray's "Gun Watch" blog (Backup here or here)
Go to John Ray's "Education Watch" blog (Backup here or here)
Go to John Ray's "Socialized Medicine" blog (Backup here or here)
Go to John Ray's "Political Correctness Watch" blog (Backup here or here)
Go to John Ray's "Greenie Watch" blog (Backup here or here)
Go to John Ray's "Food & Health Skeptic" blog (Backup here or here)
Go to John Ray's "Eye on Britain" blog (Backup here or here)
Go to John Ray's "Leftists as Elitists" blog (Not now regularly updated -- Backup here or here)
Go to John Ray's "Marx & Engels in their own words" blog (Not now regularly updated -- Backup here or here)
Go to John Ray's "A scripture blog" (Not now regularly updated -- Backup here or here)
Go to John Ray's recipe blog (Not now regularly updated -- Backup here or here)
Go to John Ray's "Some memoirs" (Occasionally updated -- Backup here)

Go to John Ray's Main academic menu
Go to Menu of recent writings
Go to John Ray's basic home page
Go to John Ray's pictorial Home Page (Backup here)
Go to Selected pictures from John Ray's blogs (Backup here)
Go to Another picture page (Best with broadband)