Keywords in Australian Politics

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Keywords in Australian Politics is much more than a dictionary. It outlines the main meanings of over one hundred words essential to understanding contemporary Australian politics. Political language is often used without explanation in the media, public debate, textbooks and lectures. Here at last is a book that provides Australians with the necessary information to use these terms with confidence in public discussion and debate, from the dinner party to the end-of-semester essay. This book defines each keyword, highlights links between different keywords, outlines the main debates concerning each keyword and indicates how they came to be part of Australian political language. Although the book is arranged alphabetically, systematic cross-referencing allows readers to follow their own trails of enquiry. This book is essential reading for everyone who wants to understand Australian political culture and ideas.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780521672832
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Publication date: 10/16/2006
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 217
  • Product dimensions: 5.39 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.55 (d)

Meet the Author

Dr Rodney Smith is a senior lecturer in the Discipline of Government and International Relations and the Graduate School of Government at the University of Sydney. He is the author of Australian Political Culture (2001) and The New South Wales State Election 1999 (2000), as well as a number of articles and chapters on Australian politics. He edited three editions of the popular textbook Politics in Australia between 1989 and 1997.

Dr Ariadne Vromen is a lecturer in Government at the University of Sydney. Her co-authored book, Powerscape (2005), presents a new approach to the study of Australian politics. She has published articles in The Australian Journal of Political Science, City and Community, Contemporary Politics, Third Sector Review and The Journal of Youth Studies.

Dr Ian Cook teaches and researches political theory, politics and the internet and Australian politics at Murdoch University. He is the author of three books - Reading Mill (1998), Liberalism in Australia (1999) and Government and Democracy in Australia (2004) - as well as a number of articles in journals such as Prometheus, Social Alternatives, and the Australian Journal of Political Science.

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Cambridge University Press
052167283X - Keywords in Australian Politics - by Rodney Smith, Ariadne Vromen and Ian Cook





Accusations of a failure of accountability are regularly made against Australian governments and the political process more generally. At its core, accountability is a type of power relationship in which some actors can require other actors to provide information explaining and justifying their actions. Accountability may also entail sanctions and rectification if the actions are not explained adequately. The fact that one actor has the right to demand an account from another is enough in itself to define their relationship as one of formal accountability. In practice, however, deciding whether accountability is real or not requires judgements about the comprehensiveness of the information provided by the formally accountable actors and the strength of the sanctions and rectifying measures imposed on them when their actions are not adequately justified.

   In democracies, the key questions about accountability have centred on how elected representatives and non-elected public officials can be kept accountable to citizens for their actions. The long-standing answer to these questions in Westminster-stylesystems such as Australia has involved a chain of accountability in which junior public servants within the bureaucratic hierarchy are accountable to more senior public servants, those senior public servants are accountable to government ministers, who are in turn accountable to parliament, whose members are accountable to citizens.

   Accountability has close links with the ideas of responsibility and responsible government. Although some academics distinguish between accountability and responsibility, the two terms are often used interchangeably in Australian political debate. Those who argue that the two words refer to different things usually view responsibility as centring on an actor’s internally held values, including a sense of professional ethics or duty, while reserving accountability for externally imposed requirements on actors to disclose information and justify their actions. Understood this way, the two ideas can be seen sometimes to produce competing demands on government officials. Accountability mechanisms, for example, may force public servants to disclose information about government practices that they feel they have no ethical or professional obligation to reveal. On the other hand, public servants may feel a responsibility to the public to reveal government information despite the absence of an external body requiring that they do so.

   From the 1960s, recognition that the traditional Westminster chain of accountability was not working terribly effectively in Australia led to the establishment of new legislative measures and bodies that were independent of the executive and designed to improve the accountability of public sector agencies. These measures and bodies – sometimes labelled the new administrative law – include ombudsmen, various administrative appeals tribunals, and freedom of information legislation. Ombudsmen investigate complaints made by the public about the actions of government officials and recommend changes to bureaucratic practice. Administrative appeals tribunals review specific administrative decisions affecting citizens to determine whether they comply with relevant laws. Freedom of information laws allow citizens, advocacy groups and the media access to some government documents that would otherwise be hidden from public view.

   The exposure of serious government corruption in the 1980s led some states to introduce anti-corruption bodies, whose work is often seen as helping to ensure public sector accountability (see also ethics). In addition, the economic rationalist thinking that has dominated Australian public policy debate since the late 1980s has demanded that government bureaucracies become more accountable for the ways in which they spend public money. As a result, those agencies are now required to be more transparent in their financial reporting and must also publish information on a range of performance measures. The task of ensuring this financial and performance accountability falls largely on auditors-general, whose roles have expanded in the past two decades.

   The development of these new accountability measures has not diminished debate about government accountability in Australia. Some debate centres on whether the new accountability measures diminish the role and power of elected parliaments in controlling executives. Issues also surround the form of accountability that should be required of statutory authorities such as the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, which are expected to be independent of the government of the day but accountable to the public. Other questions concern whether the private businesses and third sector organisations that undertake functions outsourced by governments following economic rationalist policies can be held to the same standards of accountability as the government agencies they have replaced. Recent Senate inquiries into issues such as border security have focussed on the unclear place in the Westminster chain of accountability of the growing bands of ministerial advisers. Finally, while no recent Australian political figures have argued that accountability is unimportant, some have complained that increased accountability measures impede the efficient delivery of government programs.

Introductory reading

Richard Mulgan and John Uhr, ‘Accountability and Governance’, in Glyn Davis and Patrick Weller (eds), Are You Being Served? State, Citizens and Governance, Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 2001, pp. 152–74.

Further reading

   Warwick Funell, Government by Fiat: The Retreat from Responsibility, Sydney: UNSW Press, 2001.

   Richard Mulgan, Accountability: An Ever Expanding Concept?, Canberra: Australian National University, 2000.


(advocate, advocated, advocates)

Advocacy is a strategy that involves a group speaking or acting on behalf of those less capable of speaking up to or approaching government. For example, community service organisations often seek to advocate proposals for reforms to reduce and prevent poverty and inequality (see equality). They speak on behalf of the poor and the homeless, which are groups within society who do not usually have the political resources to act collectively and lobby governments.

   Advocacy is a well-established strategy used by third sector organisations to influence government policy-making for marginalised groups in Australian society. One of the most well-known advocacy organisations is the Australian Council for Social Services (ACOSS). ACOSS is the peak council for community welfare organisations in Australia; on its website it promotes itself as ‘the principal voice of low income and disadvantaged people in social and economic policy matters’. In the 1950s ACOSS was central to the establishment of communication mechanisms between the community welfare sector and government, and has continued to play an important role along with the state-based social service councils. ACOSS has always had a limited resource base as the people it represents, the unemployed and those in poverty, do not have the resources to fund advocacy. As a result successive Commonwealth governments have provided funding to ACOSS for undertaking advocacy work, and to many other peak representative organisations. Governments and advocacy groups often used to consider that it was important for governments to enable disadvantaged groups to participate in the formulation and implementation of policy that will affect their lives.

   Advocacy groups have had to adapt their role as policy advocates. In the past the role of these types of organisations was primarily to appeal on behalf of disadvantaged people, based on social or moral values; now these organisations are expected to be able to present persuasive arguments based on evidence-based research and rationality. This expectation is particularly seen through the government-led shift away from the large-scale funding of various representative organisations that took place during the 1970s and towards the establishment of new government-sponsored, consultative mechanisms that foster individual participation, not group-based representation. Therefore there has been a decline in funding in Australia for traditional advocacy organisations. This has also coincided with a broader debate, led by private sector funded think tanks, about the involvement of the general community and third sector organisations in public policy-making.

Introductory reading

Michael Hogan, ‘Advocacy and democratic governance’, in Adam Farrar and Jane Inglis (eds), Keeping it Together: State and Civil Society in Australia, Sydney: Pluto Press, 1996, pp. 155–81.

Further reading

Philip Mendes, Australia’s Welfare Wars: The Players, the Politics and the Ideologies, Sydney: UNSW Press, 2003.

   Marian Sawer, ‘Governing for the mainstream: Implications for community representation’, Australian Journal of Public Administration 61 (2002), pp. 39–49.

Affirmative action

Affirmative action is a policy process that provides access to institutions for people of a minority group who have traditionally been discriminated against. The idea of affirmative action is to create a more equal society by providing access to education, employment, health care, or welfare.

   In employment situations affirmative action requires that institutions increase hiring and promotion of candidates of particular groups, such as women or Indigenous Australians. There are also related policy processes on equal employment opportunity (EEO) and anti-discrimination law. For example, anti-discrimination laws in most Australian states mandate that all employers and supervisors must generally treat all their employees and job applicants fairly. In particular, they must not treat them unfairly, or harass them, because of their: sex (including pregnancy and transgender status); race, colour, ethnic or ethno-religious background, descent or nationality; marital status; disability (including past, present or anticipated physical, intellectual or psychiatric disability, learning disorders, or any organism capable of causing disease, for example, HIV); homosexuality (male or female, actual or presumed); age (including not enforcing a retirement age); or carers’ responsibilities. Organisations often now have EEO officers to ensure that correct employment practices are being followed with regard to discrimination. Public sector organisations are generally required to have EEO plans in place to show how they provide equal opportunity for all in their hiring practices.

   Affirmative action strategies tend to fall within an organisation’s general approach to implementing EEO. That is, a strategy is put in place that levels the playing field for groups identified as disadvantaged. For example, an employer may run special training or recruitment programs for groups such as Indigenous Australians. Affirmative action strategies like this help give previously disadvantaged groups the skills and confidence to allow them to compete on equal terms with everyone else. In politics affirmative action is used in some political parties, such as the Australian Labor Party, to ensure that more women are preselected for winnable seats and thus that there will be more women in parliaments.

   Affirmative action as a policy strategy is often criticised for singling out particular groups such as women or people with disabilities for special treatment. This criticism takes two directions. In one, it is suggested that singling out one group and treating them differently undermines customary employment by merit. In the other, the criticism is that a group’s difference from mainstream society is actually emphasised rather than de-emphasised by a focussed affirmative action strategy. Some even argue that it is patronising to groups in society, especially women, to give them special treatment through affirmative action.

Introductory reading

Chilla Bulbeck, ‘Australian Feminism: The End Of “the Universal Woman”?’, in Paul Boreham, Geoffrey Stokes and Richard Hall (eds), The Politics of Australian Society: Political Issues for the New Century, second edition, Sydney: Pearson Education, 2004.

Further reading

   Carol Bacchi, ‘Affirmative Action for Men: “A Test of Common Sense”?’, Just Policy 36 (2005), pp. 5–10.

   Julie O’Brien, ‘Affirmative Action, Special Measures and the Sex Discrimination Act’, University of New South Wales Law Journal 27 (2004), pp. 840–48.

Agenda setting

Agenda setting is the dominant explanation of the relationship between the media and its audience in liberal democracies such as Australia (see also democracy). This set of theories suggests that news does not change basic political attitudes, but that it does influence some types of beliefs and attitudes. News media is portrayed as influencing and shaping what people believe to be significant problems in the nation or in society. Thus the media sets the agenda for broader public and policy debates.

   In this view, the media becomes the ‘gatekeeper’: making judgements about which issues to report (and which not to), as well as about the placement and prominence to be given to the issues selected for inclusion in newspapers and radio and television news bulletins. Over time some public issues will receive more frequent and more prominent coverage than others, and some will be altogether ignored. The consumers of media over time will believe that some policy issues are more important than others because of the media’s agenda setting effects. This idea can be traced back to Walter Lippmann’s classic 1922 study Public Opinion, in which he portrayed the media as able to paint those ‘pictures in our heads’ that we have of the outside world of politics.

   One problem with the agenda setting approach is that it does not fully recognise that society and public opinion will also influence the media agenda, and that agenda setting can be a two-way, rather than just a one-way process. That is, news is a commercial, money-making venture and journalists and editors with a keen eye on ratings and sales will continually assess which news will interest their particular audience and attempt to give the public the news coverage it wants. For example, producers and journalists from Australian current affairs shows on commercial television (such as A Current Affair or Today Tonight) argue that when they follow particular stories they are responding to what their viewers want.

   Recent developments in agenda setting theory have tried to develop the model. The theory now focusses on how both news media and public opinion influence the priorities of policy makers. Thus the media agenda can directly shape both public perceptions and government policy agendas. Agenda setting theory also recognises that both media and public opinion agendas are influenced by events that happen in the real world. Furthermore, people’s judgements about the importance of issues are influenced by their personal experiences, information that they get from other people in their lives such as family, friends and workmates, as well as from the more distant media. In this view of agenda setting, the media affects its audience but its stories are filtered through people’s other sources of information and events, which form their established frameworks for understanding politics. This view recognises that people go through individualised processes of political socialisation that shape how they think and feel about politics. Nevertheless, the media still has a very powerful role in that it provides our window into the political and policy-making world.

Introductory reading

Ian Ward, ‘Media Power’, in John Summers, Dennis Woodward and Andrew Parkin (eds), Government, Politics, Power and Policy in Australia, seventh edition, Sydney: Pearson Education, 2002, pp. 401–14.

Further reading

David Protess and Maxwell McCombs (eds), Agenda Setting: Readings on Media, Public Opinion, and Policymaking, Hillsdale: Erlbaum, 1991.

   Ian Ward, Politics of the Media, Melbourne: Macmillan, 1995.


(aspirational, aspirations)

To aspire is to have an ambition to achieve an elevated or worthy goal. The word aspiration carries with it the idea of movement in a socially desirable direction. Aspiration took on political significance in Australia from the late 1990s, when it was increasingly used by political leaders and media commentators to describe the outlook of voters seeking to secure upward social mobility for themselves and their children through educational attainment, employment advancement, property ownership and higher disposable incomes. These voters are generally seen as concentrated in the mortgage belts of outer suburbs of capital cities, in electorates that had once supported Labor but now solidly vote Liberal. The recent federal electoral successes of the Liberal Party are widely interpreted as being partly due to successful Liberal appeals to aspirational voters. For this reason, aspirational Liberal voters are sometimes called ‘Howard’s battlers’.

© Cambridge University Press
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Table of Contents

1. Introduction: why and how you should use this book; 2. Alphabetical list of keywords (and their variants) in this book; 3. 101 Keywords in Australian politics; 4. Index.

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