With 9 days to go until the results of Australia’s consultation on same-sex marriage are released, Australian politics seems more divided than ever. Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s tweet that Macklemore’s performance of ‘Same Love’ at the AFL championships was too politicised is but one example of how divisive this campaign has been. Australia seems to be on the verge of political crisis, with deep cleavages separating the political left and right, with little hope of reconciliation.
Data from the Australian Election Survey has mapped how Australian citizens’ ideological positions have changed since 1996, asking voters to rank themselves on a scale of 0 (extremely left wing) – 10 (extremely right wing). In the past 20 years Australians have in general become slightly more left wing, but the striking change has been in the variation from the median voter, indicating increasingly polarised political positions (Mansillo & Evershed, 2014).
When the standard deviation of political position from the median voter is low, this means the spread of political views is smaller, and the population less politically polarised. By mapping the standard deviation of political position over time, it is clear that the Australian public is becoming increasingly more polarised.
But what about political parties? Are they responding to this split in voter ideology? According to the voters themselves, yes. Data on voters’ perceptions of political parties shows a polarisation of party ideology in the eyes of citizens. Over the past twenty years, Australians think the Liberal and National party (currently in government as a Lib-Nat coalition) have become more right wing, while the Labor party and the Greens have become more left wing (McAllister & Cameron, 2016).
Indeed the Australian public are frustrated that their parties occupy opposite ends of the political spectrum. A survey carried out by the Guardian of 1,830 Australian voters found that 71% agreed with the statement “I wish both sides of politics would try to meet each other in the middle more often”, and only 37% felt there was no substantial difference between the Liberal and Labor policies (Murphy, 2017).
What does this mean for the parties themselves? In reality, very little. Political parties in Australia are occupying the same political space as they always have. Data from Political Compass, which maps the position of political parties in major western democracies, shows that the Australian Labor, Liberal and National parties have not only not made any major changes in their political position over the last ten years, but also occupy a objectively similar political space.
Labor, the Liberals and the Nationals are all firmly in the economically right-wing, socially authoritarian section of the political map, both in 2007 and 2016. (Political Compass, 2016)
So where has this discrepancy between parties’ perceived and actual political positions come from? Paul Kelly, editor at large of The Australian newspaper and expert in Australian politics over the last 40 years considers modernisation of political engagement and participation to blame for these rifts in political opinion. Kelly sees the rise of the media and social media, and the increasing polarisation of both to be at the heart of political opinion formation (Kelly, 2015).
Research by academics Toril Aalberg and James Curran have found that deregulation of news outlets has led to increasingly polarised news coverage, not only in terms of coverage but in terms of audience. In the US, those with a university education are more likely to be up to date with the news than those without a degree, and television broadcasters are often only viewed by those of a particular political persuasion. Fox News, a notoriously right-wing outlet in the US, attracts an audience of which only 6% identify as left-wing. This ‘news gap’ creates a large discrepancy between the information accessed by different people, and leads to large differences in perception of the current political climate (Phillips, 2016).
While most people still use traditional methods (television and newspapers) to access the news, increasingly people are bypassing these outlets altogether, and are using social media to form their opinions on current affairs. This only exacerbates the news gap. In what has been dubbed the rise of the ‘Daily Me’, voters are seeing a very particular, politically partisan, portion of the news. Social media algorithms determine what people see according to what the outlet thinks they want to see. The average Facebook user sees only 6% of available news story, and this 6% is decided by Facebook in line with the reader’s demographic and their internet history (Filloux, 2015). According to research from Goldsmith’s, University of London, young women are faced with information that provokes empathy – crime, health and social justice issues – whereas young men are fed articles on technology, gaming and sport (Phillips, 2016).
This has led to a potential voters occupying ‘bubbles’ of political information. Research carried out by statistician Emma Pierson on tweets around the Ferguson shooting in the US last year, found that there were two main spheres of discussion, and that the two opposing sides rarely communicated their views with each other (BBC, 2014). This is not altogether surprising – that people surround themselves with likeminded users – but the extent of the polarisation is quite striking.
Consequently, Australian voters are seeing a predetermined, very narrow section of reality. Their already partisan positions are polarised by information that only ever confirms their point of view. In the era of fake news, it is concerning that nationwide opinion on party stances can have been distorted in such a manner. Social media has been praised by political scientists for engaging those often ostracised by mainstream politics: by removing traditional barriers to accessing political information, social media now competes with political parties as the primary link between parliamentary representatives and voters (Bekafigo & McBride, 2013).
The role of social media in political engagement is unchartered territory, and while it has the potential to be a positive influence on political equality, it has exacerbated a culture of ignorance with unforeseen vigour. When Tony Abbott decided to use twitter to make his views on same-sex marriage clear, he was one of millions worldwide who, every day, contribute to the polarisation of political opinion, and in Australia in particular, the perceived polarisation of party position.
- BBC. (2014, December 5). #BBCtrending: Ferguson exposes Twitter’s racial and social divisions analysed . Retrieved from BBC Trending: http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-trending-30333247
- Bekafigo, M., & McBride, A. (2013). Who Tweets About Politics? Political Participation of Twitter Users During the 2011 Gubernatorial Elections. Social Science Computer Review, 31(5).
- Filloux, F. (2015, April 6). Jumping In bed with Facebook: Smart or desperate? Retrieved from Monday Note: https://mondaynote.com/jumping-in-bed-with-facebook-smart- or-desperate-936f95e3322
- Kelly, P. (2015, June 18). Is Australian Politics in Crisis? (T. Switzer, Interviewer).
- Mansillo, L., & Evershed, N. (2014, August 7). Australian politics becoming more polarised.
- Retrieved from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2014/aug/07/australian-politics- becoming-more-polarised
- McAllister, I., & Cameron, S. (2016). Trends in Australian Political Opinion. Australian National University, School of Politics and International Relations. Australian National University.
- Murphy, K. (2017, July 17). Guardian Essential poll finds most voters sick of Australia’s polarised politics. Retrieved from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2017/jul/18/guardian-essential-poll- finds-most-voters-sick-of-australias-polarised-politics
- Phillips, A. (2016, February 9). Social media is changing the face of politics – and it isn’t good news. Retrieved from The Conversation: http://theconversation.com/social-media- is-changing-the-face-of-politics-and-its-not-good-news-54266
- Political Compass. (2016). The Political Compass. Retrieved from The Political Compass: politicalcompass.org
-  Tony Abbott’s declaration that ‘Footy fans shouldn’t be subjected to a politicised grand final. Sport is sport!’ can be found here: https://twitter.com/TonyAbbottMHR/status/912900163991162880