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Politics and the power of ideas: speech at the Federal Young Liberal Convention:\nManly Pacific Hotel, Sydney: 21 January 2006.

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Speech by

The Minister for Foreign Affairs

The Hon Alexander Downer MP

At the

Federal Young Liberal Convention

Politics and the Power of Ideas

Manly Pacific Hotel, Sydney

21 January 2006

(check against delivery)

EMBARGOED UNTIL 8.30 pm 21/01/2006

Thankyou for inviting me to speak at the Federal Young Liberal


It is a great honour for any political leader to address the youth

of his or her Party and it is certainly no exception in my instance


Congratulations on putting this Convention together.

On behalf of the Howard Government, I thankyou for your

continuing efforts and contributions towards this great Party.

Your efforts are immensely valued both in Canberra and in the

State Divisions.

No one takes your work for granted and we hope that you will

continue your valuable contributions.

Tonight I would like to talk about Politics and the Power of


It is a topic that I am very passionate about and it is a topic that

goes to the heart of the success of the Howard Government.


My contention is that in today’s political climate, the quality of

ideas is what wins people over more than anything else, and this

Government is streets ahead of the federal Labor Party in this


Let me explain.

The decline of party identification

Forty years ago, the decision-making process for most voters

was quite different from what it is today.

Back in the 1960s people identified closely with one party or

another and this basically determined the way a person voted.

Consider some of the results from the first national survey of

political behaviour conducted by Professor Don Aitkin in 1967:

95% of the electorate identified themselves with a political party

and of those that identified with one of the major parties, 93%

voted for that party.

Sixty six percent of people never changed their vote in any

election. (Aitkin, 1977).


These are quite staggering figures and reveal remarkable

political stability.

Professor Aitkin described the political behaviour at the time as

bearing an “astonishing resemblance” to that in America and

Britain and noted that:

“… [in these countries] most voters were likely to vote for

the same party from one election to another. Even when

issues were dramatically altered or a famous local

politician was replaced by a tyro, or economic disaster was

visited upon a district, the pattern of party voting was very

likely to stay the same.”

Now compare this situation with today’s political behaviour.

Party identification, while still apparent, has declined steadily

and the affiliations are weaker.

The number of people who identify with a party has dropped to

86% with 16% saying they have no identification.

Moreover, the number with very strong allegiances to one party

or another has dropped to 20% (from 33% in 1967) while those

with weak allegiances have increased.


The number of people who always vote the same way is now

only 47%. (McAllister, 2005 cited in Sydney Morning Herald;

McAllister, 1997, Bean, 2005)

In a country where elections are won or lost by a single

percentage point, these are stark changes in political behaviour

and have profound implications.

Election results now swing wildly, as we have seen in state and

territory elections; seats once considered ‘safe’ can no longer be

counted as being so; and the contest is more open and less


Professor Aitkin’s statement, reflecting on politics in the 60s,

that people’s voting behaviour would stay the same even when

issues were dramatically altered is no longer the case.

Today, the ideas and issues count.

There are a number of factors that explain this change in

political behaviour.

Perhaps the most significant is what I call the de-classification

of society.


In the past, society could be quite accurately classified into

working class and middle class and this became the dominant

cleavage in politics with the blue-collar workers supporting the

Labor Party and the white-collar workers supporting the

conservative parties.

Today, this pattern is no longer so stark: classifications of

working class and middle class are less meaningful as the nature

of work has changed and everyone has become more affluent.

Moreover, the Labor Party has now abandoned its traditional

working class base to focus on the inner city, bourgeois left.

Other major political cleavages are also less stark today than in

the past.

Religious affiliation plays only a small role in voting behaviour

whereas there was quite strong alignment between Catholics and

Labor and Protestants and Liberals in the 1960s.

Regional issues are also less important to voters driven by a

greater movement of people between states and regions and

national integration of communications networks (Kemp, 1978)


In this political climate where political and other affiliations are

weak or non-existent, other factors become more prominent in

determining electoral results and political success.

The two most important are the quality of politicians,

particularly the leader, and the quality of ideas.

There has been a lot of discussion about the quality of the

Liberal parliamentarians compared with Labor parliamentarians

since the last election.

When our newest intake of backbenchers is of such high calibre

and from such a huge cross-section of the community, then we

know we are doing well in this area.

Less has been said, however, about the quality of ideas and this

is what I wish to concentrate on today.

The quality of ideas has been the key strength of the Howard


In an age of weak political affiliations, we have provided a

reason for people to vote for us.

We have developed core ideas or organising principles upon

which we govern….


…..and we are true to these principles in the implementation of

policy, even if they are unpopular.

This is the thing that most distinguishes us from the Labor Party.

Whereas we have developed core ideas upon which we govern

and remain true to these ideas, the Labor party either lacks ideas,

has weak ideas or has ideas that are not adhered to in policy


A firm set of ideas

The big ideas or organising principles of the federal Liberal

party cover every portfolio.

Let me touch on a few and explain why they matter.

In my portfolio of foreign affairs, the over-riding imperative is

of course the national interest, both in security and economic


The key idea or organising principle, however, that guides this

imperative and guides our policy is the concept that liberal


markets and democracy are the best mechanisms for addressing

global problems.

This principle is firmly rooted in traditional Liberal party values.

It is also proven by evidence: all experience indicates that liberal

democratic regimes are better at creating wealth, alleviating

poverty, respecting human rights and promoting freedom.

It is also often claimed that no two liberal democracies have

gone to war with each other.

Our approach to the Middle East, for example, is firmly guided

by this organising principle.

We strongly believe that the problems of the Middle East will be

all the more difficult to solve while there are no liberal markets

and the public are denied indefinitely access to the ballot box.

Hence, our continued involvement in Iraq.

The Australian Government was immensely proud to be part of

the Coalition of the Willing that removed the Saddam Hussein

regime that terrorised its own people and posed a threat to the



It is equally proud to continue to be part of the reconstruction

efforts and to support the Iraqi people in its transition to

democracy and in its efforts to provide its own security.

Iraq has now held three elections, the latest to elect a

government under their newly approved Constitution.

The turnout at the general election last December, in the face of

terrorist threats, was a remarkable 70% - a figure far higher than

that received by many established democracies.

Iraqi’s want democracy and freedom just like anybody else and

Australia will continue to support them.

Closer to home, our organising principles equally apply.

One of the most dramatic changes in our lifetime has been the

democtratisation of Indonesia.

Indonesia is the largest country in South East Asia, the largest

Islamic nation in the world and is now one of the largest



It has been a stunning transformation from dictatorship to

thriving democracy over a period of less than ten years.

Australia has put its heart and soul into supporting this

transformation and into supporting the democratically elected


Our contribution to the Tsunami is just one manifestation of this.

Our alliances are also driven by those who share our views on

liberal markets and democracy.

Hence, our strong alliance with the United States and our

intimate ties with Great Britain, Japan and other democracies.

Today, our organising principle for foreign affairs has received

broad acceptance in the Australian community and it would be

easy to suggest that this is the only ‘idea’ or principle that could

reasonably be adopted.

It must be remembered however, that just a few years ago there

was a strong view that democracy and economic liberalism were

western concepts that would not be accepted, and should not be

promoted, outside the Western world, particularly in the Middle

East or in Islamic countries.


Promoting democracy was bad enough; promoting economic

liberalism as a method of solving global problems was

frequently seen as fundamentalist.

It should also be remembered that our organising principle is not

shared by the Labor Party.

If it was, they would not be continually advocating that we cut

and run from Iraq…

…And they would not be implicitly or explicitly sneering at the

United States at every opportunity.

Their organising principle, as much as it can be determined, is

that Australia is a little country which should keep its head

down and from time to time take positions of convenience and

which would appeal to the bourgeois left.

You will have noticed that whenever Australia is criticised by

another country, the ALP invariably takes up their cause.

This is part of Labor’s “chip on your shoulder” foreign policy.

They lack self confidence in what they call “Little Australia”.


In foreign affairs, we are streets ahead in the battle of ideas.

Our principles are morally sound and coherent.

Even if the community doesn’t like every decision we make, it

knows what we stand for.

We have given the electorate a reason to support us and we will

continue to work hard to keep that support.

We are equally strong in the battle of ideas in other portfolios.

In education, for example, the overarching ideas are the support

of choice and higher standards.

Through the leadership of Dr Kemp and then Dr Nelson, the

government has actively enacted policies to promote these ideas.

Voluntary Student Unionism, an issue close to many of your

hearts, is a good example of such a policy.

We support VSU because students should have choice about

whether they wish to join a student union and whether they wish

to pay for a myriad of non-academic services.


The idea of choice clearly governs our schools policy.

Perhaps the most significant policy in this area was the abolition

in 1996 of Labor’s New Schools Policy - a policy which

severely restricted the establishment of new non-government


Since the abolition of this policy, over 300 new low fee schools

have started, two-thirds of which would not have been able to

establish under Labor’s policy.

The entire funding system for non-government schools has also

been restructured so that parents are not penalised through the

withdrawal of public funding when they invest more of their

own money in their children’s education.

State schools have additionally received record funding each

year with increases averaging 6% per annum.

The next frontier in support of our principle of choice should be

to allow parents greater choice over state schools, via the

relaxing of the school zone rules and through the creation of

more selective schools.


Selective schools - state schools that select students on the basis

of their academic achievement - are reasonably common in

NSW but almost non-existent elsewhere.

Yet, they are highly sought-after by parents and produce

outstanding results.

In NSW, about 15,000 students apply each year for the 3500

places in the 28 selective schools.

The only two selective schools in Victoria topped the list of

schools for academic performance over the last five years.

Selective schools provide real choice, particulary for those that

cannot afford the high fees that characterise most of the other

top performing schools.

Selective state schools do not need to be purely academically

selective; schools could specialise in music, or languages or in

science and take students on that basis.

The federal government has already started to do this through

the commitment to create 24 technical colleges catering to year

11 and 12 students.


Of course, selective schools are the antithesis of what the

Australian Labor Party believe in.

Choice and high standards are an anathema to the ALP as we

saw at the last election with Labor’s “hit list” schools policy.

Consequently, no other state apart from NSW and Victoria offer

selective schools and neither of the Labor Governments of these

two states have plans for expansion.

Choice also forms a key organising principle in our health


It drives our decision to strongly support private health


In welfare policy, our central idea is that welfare should only be

a safety net and that getting welfare recipients back to work is

best for them and the broader community.

Consequently, we introduced the work-for-the-dole scheme and

are currently rolling out the welfare-to-work package which

creates greater incentives for people to get a job.


Again, this central idea is clear and well understood by the


Labor, by contrast, has traditionally held the idea that welfare is

good and moral, but now is less certain.

Its current position is at best equivocal and at worst, non-existent.

This is weak and unattractive to the public.

In economic management, we strongly believe in economic

growth as essential to delivering jobs, greater prosperity and

better community services.

We have no problem with people making money and

acknowledge that many of those who have made money have

risked their house or other assets in order to do so.

We encourage them and we support policies that encourage

business activity and further economic growth.

Again, where is Labor? What is their organising principle?

Do they support economic growth or not?


They say they do, but have they opposed every major economic

reform initiative that the Howard Government has introduced

over the last 10 years.

I could go on.

In each case, there is a firm set of organising principles that

provides a reason for the public to support us, and this is a key

part of our success to date.

Winning the young person’s vote

This focus on ideas is particulalry important in attracting the

young person’s vote - a group that has even lower party

identification than the general population. (Bean, 2005)

There was once a time when it was conventional wisdom that

young people were more likely to vote for left or center-left

parties while older people were more likely to vote for center-right or conservative parties.

This is no longer the case.


In the last federal election, 43% of the under 25s, and 50% of

those aged between 25 and 30 supported the Coalition parties.

Support for the Liberal Party among the 25-30 year old bracket

was higher than the over 30s bracket and was particularly high

amongst men - 62%. (Bean, 2005).

The Labor Party and many Baby Boomers still think that young

people today are the same as they were when they were young -

ideological, pacifist, and always seeking state solutions to

problems (if not seeking outright socialism or Marxism).

I don’t believe that the majority of young people are like that


Young people today are far more pragmatic and don’t want the

state intervening in their lives.

They see personal freedom as a given.

They want to listen to their own music, to make money, to

invest in their future.

This personal freedom extends to their politics.


They are even less affiliated to political parties than the rest of

the population and form their opinions based on the merits of

the ideas.

Quality ideas are what counts and that is where the Liberal Party

is doing well.


My final observations are that while the federal Liberal Party is

winning the battle of ideas today, we can never be complacent.

We must continually work on our ideas and refine them as

appropriate to maintain their relevance and appeal.

At the state level, the Party will prosper as it engages more

vigourously in the battle of ideas.

We will not win state elections just by claiming to be better


We must continue to define what we stand for, develop our

organising principles and give people a reason to vote for us.



And this brings me right back to you, the Young Liberals and

this Convention.

You are a key part of our Party in both articulating our ideas and

selling them to the public as well as in idea formulation.

Thankyou again for your contributions to the Party and I wish

you well for the remainder of the Convention.