Edging out the wedge

Opinion Article

2007 August, 18

If we tear this country in half we can pick up the bigger half 

- Pat  Buchanan to Richard Nixon 

Triangulate, create a third position, not just in between the old positions of  the two parties but above them as well. Identify a new course that  accommodates the need the Republicans address but does it in a way that is  uniquely yours 

- Dick Morris to Bill Clinton 

In addressing the other party's issues, a 'me too' campaign never works. To  be successful, a candidate cannot just mimic his opponent's rhetoric or  programs; rather, he has to invent a new range of solutions to the problems  historically associated with the other party. In the 1996 campaign, Clinton  did not merely parrot Republican proposals, he sought to defuse the pressure  for GOP programs by using Democratic means to achieve Republican goals. - Dick Morris 

It was Malcolm McGregor, writing in the lead-up to and during the course  of the 1996 election campaign that ended in John Howard's landslide victory  over Paul Keating, who first introduced "wedge politics" into the lexicon of  Australian politics. Nowadays every galah in every pet shop talks about wedge politics. We see a wedge in everything, even where there isn't one. 

To my mind McGregor was the only Australian commentator who  understood what was going on in that election. He understood what the  Liberals' strategists and pollsters had learned from their internship with the  Republican Party in the US about how to break up that great rainbow  coalition of voters who would otherwise be attracted to the Democrats in the  US and to Labor in Australia. 

It was during that election on Radio National's Late Night Live that I first  heard broadcaster Phillip Adams discuss with an American political  commentator that other Stateside innovation, the dog whistle: the  transmission of high-frequency signals that only certain sections of the public  attuned to those signals can hear, with the aim of dividing constituencies and  detaching voters from one's opponents.

Fear, resentment, envy and prejudice are the fuel of dog whistling, but in a  democracy that sees itself as advanced and tolerant, this fuel cannot be  explicitly employed; it must be done indirectly and with appropriate subtlety.  The whistler must show himself to be at arm's length from the ugly  manifestation of conflict that the whistles may incite, reinforce or exacerbate. 

Australian federal politics lost its innocence in 1996 and the full armoury of  political combat developed in the US was introduced to Australia. I gave the  first public analysis of this reality in my address to The Sydney Institute in  the course of that election, where I pointed out the hidden subtext to the  Liberal Party's apparently inclusive slogan "For all of us".

Columnist Gerard Henderson has pointed out that much of what is said to be  wedge politics is in fact traditional politics, hallowed through long practice. 

There is much truth in this, but politics also evolves and the US, that  hothouse of political competition, has produced much innovation in political  methods that has influenced politics across the world. Fear, resentment, envy  and prejudice have ever been the stuff of democratic contest, long before  people spoke of wedge politics. 

Traditional politics was mostly class based. Richard Nixon accepted aide Pat  Buchanan's advice to "tear the country in half" at the beginning of an era of  new cleavages based on race, culture, sexual identity and so on. 

The New Left's legacy of identity politics and political correctness from the  1960s eventually degenerated into absurd self-parody in the '80s and turned  the Left into a fat, juicy, ripe target for cultural and electoral backlash, a  target harpooned with glee by the political Right time and time again. 

The power of wedge politics does not just come from whatever Machiavellian deception and malicious psychology the proponent may  employ. It also comes from the fact that the policy being pushed by the  proponent is often correct and accepted by the electorate. 

And those wedged are placed in an excruciatingly difficult position because  their objections to the underlying psychology of the wedge can easily be  taken as objections to the substantive policy. Over the past 10 years the Left  has consistently fallen into this trap. 

After Howard's first budget, McGregor explained how the rainbow coalition  had played into the hands of the Government's strategy from 1996: 

"As a bonus, the other ingredient of successful wedge issue politics, an  unpopular enemy, has duly emerged. Demonstrations of enraged unionists, hygienically challenged Trotskyite students and militant Aborigines have  conveniently provided an element of villainy to reinforce the laager mentality  of the silent majority. 

"Behind their synthetic horror at the street agitation, the Liberals would be  delighted at the images beamed into mainstream living rooms last week. 

"As Aboriginal activist Michael Mansell denounced the budget as assisting  farmers and miners at the expense of Aborigines, the belly laughs down at  Liberal Party headquarters must have gone on tear-inducing crescendos.  They might offer to buy him some air time during the Lindsay by-election." 

This haplessness has marked the Left's response to wedge politics during the  past decade. 

Asylum-seekers were inflated into a target by progressives who allowed a  principled stand on detention to be indistinguishable from opposition to any  effective response to people-smuggling. The target was fattened, ready for  harpooning long before the Tampa came over the horizon. You add  righteousness to principle and you inflate the target. 

Worse than the Left's strategic naivete and failure to distinguish between the  attitudinal and psychological faults of the wedge issues employed by the  Right - as opposed to their policy merit - is that its vertiginous outrage has  led it to actually believe the policy to be wrong because it is associated with  wedge politics. 

So sending police in to restore order to communities and to investigate abuse  in indigenous communities is opposed as wrong policy when it is patently the  first correct policy step. 

The inability to separate policy from motivation and to support the former  while understanding the latter is the mistake that the Left routinely makes in  response to wedging from the Right. So they are seen by punters as opposing  commonsense policy. 

The political leadership of the Left, after 11 long years, is bitterly aware of  this problem and hardheads such as Wayne Swan have been alive to it from  day one, but have been unable to control the broader non-parliamentary Left. 

It is naive of Aboriginal leaders opposed to the Northern Territory  intervention to expect the ALP to "take a principled stand". Kevin Rudd and  Swan will not be cutting their throats for black fellas.

I have come to accept that wedge politics is now part of Australian political  life. To the extent that wedge politics employs prejudice and harms the fabric  of our polity - an allegation I have made in the past - it is up to political  leaders and commentators to expose it. 

Prominent federal Labor MP Craig Emerson sought to educate his side of the  political divide in an insightful analysis in 2003 when he called for a "wedge  watch". 

However, this is not so easy. Separating policy from underpinning  psychology and attitude is difficult, and those on the defensive always risk  being made "Willie Horton's running mate", just as the hapless Democrat  contender Michael Dukakis was saddled with the black felon Horton by Lee Atwater in the infamous 1988 US presidential election won by George Bush  Sr. 

Rudd is a more accomplished disciple of Mark Latham's guru Dick Morris.  Rudd responds to Howard's every attempt to drive the wedge by adopting a  "me too" stance, no matter how opposed he, his party or parts of his  constituency might be to the policy at issue. Rudd is employing to the letter  the advice of Morris, Bill Clinton's most important adviser: don't fight your enemy on his strong ground, identify with his strengths and say catechismically, "I'm with John!" 

The great innovation of Morris in that crucial period advising Clinton  between the 1994 midterm congressional elections (a landslide defeat for the  Democrats at the hands of Newt Gingrich's New Republicans) and his victory  in 1996 was what he called triangulation. Triangulation involves parties  stepping towards ground traditionally occupied by their opponents. 

Rather than just splitting the difference, triangulation seeks to take over  ground traditionally associated with one's opponents and to do it in a better  and more balanced way than one's opponents would. 

The originators of triangulation were the Hawke and Keating governments in  Australia since 1983. Having adopted the neo-liberal paradigm of rational  economics, Hawke and Keating continued to triangulate the Coalition by  stepping to the right on economic policy. 

They forced their opponents to move further to the right and scare the horses  back towards Labor. Fightback was the product of this long successful  strategy.

Clinton and Tony Blair's New Labour came later. Triangulation was devised  by Hawke and Keating even before it was named by Morris. 

The question remaining after the ascendancy of triangulating social  democratic governments across the West was whether parties of the Right  could triangulate their opponents on the Left, or whether their only weapon  was the wedge. 

At the beginning of the election campaign in 1996, Howard showed an  isolated example of how the Right can indeed triangulate the Left. 

He chose an issue that was the traditional strength of the Labor Party: the  environment. The first and lasting image of that campaign was the image of  Howard in mufti receiving effusive endorsements from Alec Marr of the  Wilderness Society and Jim Downey of the Australian Conservation  Foundation in the lush Tasmanian forests, announcing the then Opposition's  $1 billion Natural Heritage Fund. 

The environmentalists understandably wanted to start a bidding war  butwhatever Labor tried to do in response, Howard had taken its ground and  the image resonated throughout the campaign. 

In the US, Karl Rove presented George W. Bush as a "compassionate  conservative" and his No Child Left Behind education policy - aimed at the  needs of America's most disadvantaged communities - was a second example  of how the Right could triangulate the Left to electoral advantage. 

In the remaining months of this parliamentary term Howard stands knee-deep  in a neap and tepid tide. The tide has receded on his long ascendancy, but it  has not utterly gone out. 

The public was served one of the country's most handsome budgets this year,  but it did not change its primary voting intentions. 

The Government has committed $1.8billion to the disabled and their carers - the largest investment in history - and it has not profited. 

Perhaps Howard's predicament is best captured by the paradox involved in  the Northern Territory intervention in that 70 per cent of the country supports  the policy but it has had no effect on their voting intentions. This can be  interpreted as an unfortunate but understandable lack of interest on the part of the mainstream in minority issues such as disabilities or indigenous affairs:  this is how members of the Government probably interpret things.

I do not think this interpretation is right. There was overwhelming support  for the budget - a priority issue directly affecting mainstream voters - and yet  the same phenomenon was at play: the votes were not moving. Which of  these three policy issues - the budget, the disabilities investment and the Aboriginal intervention - most colours and characterises Howard and the  Government he leads? 

I think the Australian people see the Government as too mean and lacking in  spirit when it comes to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. There is  no largeness, no vista, no poetry. The Government's strategists know only  one button when it comes to black fellas, and it is a harsh one. This harsh button yielded much electoral return in the past but it is now seriously  depleted. 

Seventy per cent of the country agrees with the tough love business but I  think Australians of good will also harbour Aboriginal footballer Michael  Long's forlorn and simple question from his walk from Melbourne to  Canberra: Where is the love? 

Based on those things that are Caesar's, there is no reason for Howard to be  tossed out at the next federal poll: there's plenty of bread in the country. But  man does not live by bread alone.

Edging out the wedge