Wedge Politics and Welfare Reform in Australia

By Wilson, Shaun; Turnbull, Nick | The Australian Journal of Politics and History, September 2001 | Go to article overview

Wedge Politics and Welfare Reform in Australia


Wilson, Shaun, Turnbull, Nick, The Australian Journal of Politics and History


Introduction

Media speculation about the Howard Government adopting the tactics of "wedge politics" has drawn attention to divisive strategies used by political parties to attract support for their policies. Although wedge politics has entered the political language at a journalistic level, the concept is yet to receive detailed attention in Australian political science. The purpose of this paper is to give systematic treatment to the tactics of wedge politics and indicate how such tactics have emerged in the politics of welfare reform in Australia between 1996 and 2000. Welfare reform, especially in English-speaking democracies, has produced a far-reaching shift in the paradigm of social support ("mutual obligation", for instance). In Australia, these changes have restricted new migrants' access to social welfare and instituted tougher restrictions on the provision of unemployment benefits. Given the contentious nature of the changes and the potential for voter alienation, the Howard Government's tactics for sustaining support for a reform agenda provide a rich basis for investigating the use of wedge politics in Australia. By developing the concept of wedge politics more systematically, we are able to provide insight into its success and limitations as a political tactic.

Defining Wedge Politics: Social Cleavages, Resentments and Political Tactics

The term "wedge politics" is commonly attributed to the tactics refined by Ronald Reagan's political adviser, Lee Atwater, who introduced a more divisive and aggressive form of campaigning to contemporary American politics.(2) These tactics involved targeting unpopular or stigmatised social issues or groups as a way of defining "mainstream politics" and linking political opponents to their support of these issues or groups. By doing so, the tactics of wedge politics deliberately aim at undermining the support base of key political opponents in an attempt to gain political ascendancy or to control the political agenda. In racially and socially polarised America, the climate for pursuing wedge tactics has been particularly favourable for the Republican Party.(3) Elsewhere, too, social and economic divisions have created new opportunities for political tacticians to harness resentment towards minorities as a means of extracting political advantage. While the tactics of "divide and rule" in politics are not new,(4) wedge politics, we argue, represents a more calculated and sophisticated means of achieving similar ends.

In Australia, journalists and politicians have accused the Howard Government, which came to power in 1996, of pursuing wedge politics with particular effect in race politics, immigration and social welfare.(5) However, political science is yet to pay systematic attention to wedge politics or give it firmer conceptual groundings. There are obvious reasons for this. It is difficult to attach specific tactical motives to political decisions without knowing the details of political strategy, which is seldom given accurate or detailed publicity. Equally, the practice of wedge politics is refuted by merely pointing to the popularity of the issues and policies in question.(6) But attention to the ongoing development of political tactics such as wedge politics promises to provide important insights into the realities of contemporary politics, which has arguably become more hard-nosed and poll-driven with implications for policy development.

Before we can make an assessment about whether welfare reform under the Howard Government is an example of wedge politics in action, it is necessary to provide some conceptual grounding for the use of the term. First and foremost, we take wedge politics to be a calculated political tactic aimed at using divisive social issues to gain political support, weaken opponents and strengthen control over the political agenda. This tactic is sharpened by awareness of issues and groups that attract resentment or antipathy in the wider electorate, which show up in party polling, focus groups, media monitoring and in mass communications such as talk-back radio.

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