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Political hipsters

There was conservative glee yesterday, because Kevin Rudd went to the Northern Territory and announced that he supports special treatment in tax and economic policy to boost development there. This is a policy that belongs to Australian conservatives: the IPA is a long-time supporter, Tony Abbott had a thought-bubble about it, and Gina Rinehart is a big fan, to the extent that she included it in her famous poem. ("The world's poor need our resources: do not leave them to our fate / Our nation needs special economic zones and wiser government, before it is too late" is its final couplet!)

So this is being seized on as a recognition by the ALP that, despite the scare campaigns and the high-octane rhetoric, Tony Abbott and the Coalition are actually right about policy issues. There was a similar sort of reaction when Kevin announced his new refugee policy - in fact, every time in the last four years the government has made its policy harsher - and when he announced the faux-termination of the carbon tax. The Spectator ran an editorial to this effect, which I'm not going to link, because I'd have to find it and that would involve visiting The Spectator's website and some things, dearest readers, are a bridge too far.

Anyway. All these things happened, and they are basically concessions by Labor to, if not the wisdom, then at the very least the electoral appeal of Coalition policy in some areas. In that respect, what happened yesterday is much like what happened when the Coalition conceded to Labor over carbon tax compensation, and DisabilityCare, and most recently over schools funding. The parties, especially in the immediate leadup to an election, try to make themselves small targets: do not worry, people of Australia, we will not raise the GST or roll back the NDIS or pull out of school funding agreements - those things are off the table, so you are free to vote on the basis of the size of the deficit or your preferred broadband policy. Both the ALP and the Coalition do their best to fence off the campaign to issues they think they can win (and also to tear down the other party's fences) in order to maximise their electoral prospects.

(I wrote, quite some time ago, that I think this is a bad thing. I'm not sure how much of that I still agree with; certainly the characterisation of the Tea Party is pretty generous.)

One fairly natural reaction to this phenomenon is to lament the cartel behaviour of the parties: they're all the same, there's no real choice, won't somebody rescue us from this cabal. That's totally understandable, and often it's probably a fair summary of the situation. But it does miss something quite important about the parties.

The Coalition now thinks DisabilityCare is an excellent and fair reform. There was not a peep about it for eleven years of Coalition government. Kevin now says a special economic zone could be sensible and effective. It obviously did not crop up during his two and a half year stint in office. Tony Abbott now claims to be on a "unity ticket" with Labor over school funding. The new formula is maybe not quite the polar opposite of what the Coalition did in office, but it's pretty close, and of course the whole thing was unnecessary and dumb up until about a month back.

The parties have the same policies now. But on each of those issues, one party had it before it was cool, and the other never demonstrated any interest until it was just about a proven winner. Political parties are hipsters on some issues and depressingly mainstream on others.

How the issues break down between those categories reveals a lot about a party. The Liberal Party is a hipster for shrinking deficits, cutting taxes, fostering the private sector, eliminating red tape, providing generous middle class welfare and cracking down on refugees. The Labor Party is a hipster for state education, trade unions and workers' rights, state healthcare and the welfare state.

That's important, because a lot of things happen during the term of a government which aren't and can't be mentioned during an election campaign. I think there's a bit of a myth that it's "best" to be a swinging voter, or at least an open-to-swinging voter, who decides how to vote each election on the basis of the policy promises on offer at the time. That's not always a bad idea, but it's not necessarily the right thing. Disability insurance and schools funding reform were totally absent at the 2007 election and not really on the radar in 2010. And yet people care deeply about both of those things. And only the ALP would ever have brought those issues onto the agenda, even if the Coalition is now onside. Workplace deregulation, a la WorkChoices, is not on the agenda at this election. But a lot of people think it's a good idea: and only the Coalition will ever pursue policy like that.

When you vote, you're choosing your hipster. Political parties which form governments do a lot more than design and implement one specific set of policies. They take the policy discussion in a certain direction - they deploy the resources of the public service and the agenda-setting position of government to drive politics and government towards their own philosophical and political priorities. If you care only about the specific points of agreement that exist at this election - only about DisabilityCare, or only about a Northern Territory economic zone (is there anyone who cares about that?) - then fine. But if you think not just that disability insurance or economic deregulation is a specific thing we should do, but the kind of thing we should be doing, then there is a genuine choice between the two parties -- despite their own best efforts to hide it.