A picture tells a thousand words”, anonymous. “Every picture tells a story”, also anonymous, also a Rod Stewart album.

Last week’s column on the major shift in Australian politics and life, from binary to ternary, raised a few questions, such as where did the name ‘ternary’ come from and how did I come to that notion. First answer - easy, computer theory. Second answer - bit harder, but it gets to the heart of this column’s main interest: design and politics.

Like many, I am constantly disappointed in the quality of political journalism in this country, its limited horizons, its right bias and, more than anything, its complete lack of understanding of the importance of design.

I have had a couple of goes at trying to ameliorate the situation with graphics and colour, described below. To summarise in a word, I called it ‘ternary’.

The ternary diagram

Firstly, the two-dimensional world of left and right is now so passé that we need a new paradigm, and diagram. My idea was to draw the ideas of the triple bottom line - as described by its inventor John Elkington in the 1997 book Cannibals with Forks as social, physical, and financial. Or equity, economy, environment. Or people, planet, and profit. Or now, most commonly, environmental, social and financial, (sometimes governance, that gives rise to the ugly TLA* of ESG).

As an architect I know that the key to design is space, is space has three dimensions. We know only too well that the section and elevation are as important as the plan. Design is no longer done in two dimensions, if it ever was. The digital drafting revolution, of AutoCad and Vectorworks has morphed into BIM-based Revit and ArchiCad. Even rank amateurs can think in 3D with SketchUp.

So I propose a diagram with three axes, in three dimensions, allowing us to plot of the position of any party, politician, or commentator.

The original single linear axis is based on economics: right wing ‘dries’ wanting small government and lower taxes; and left wing ‘wets’ wanting greater government intervention and spending. But one dimension is wholly inadequate in describing our current political complexities.

Let's have a second one to describe social issue, from progressive to conservative, focusing on a government’s role in social support. These are very different attributes to economics and can be contradictory to each other. It's possible, for instance, to be economically dry but socially progressive. Hello Teals. Or socially regressive, but economically progressive, come on down PHON.

Then there is a third axis derived from climate concerns: supporting environmental protection with renewables and innovation; or promoting fossil fuels and business as usual. Again, you can see much more complexity than one dimension economics: one could be an economic dry but pro climate action and social action on housing, welcome to Senator Pocock and the Teals. Or be environmental vandals and economically wet, as the COALition, arguing for government intervention for gas and coal.

Secondly, political journalism may be colourful in language, but is black and white in outlook. Hero or villain. Shining white or darkest black. Our commentators are stuck in the binary.

The centre parties have blue for the Liberals, red for Labor (oddly, in the USA the Democrats are blue and Republicans red), but the two-tone ‘football game’, played here and the USA, was never a useful descriptor, even less so now. What a shame that the otherwise excellent Antony Green chose to render the independents in grey on his charts. It’s a lot more ‘colourful’ than that.

We now have ‘teal’ - Liberal Blue with green, (although Turquoise sounds richer, and Cyan is the more correct combination). Clive Palmer’s yellow and Kylea Tink’s pink. The left maybe green, but what colour is the right? The Nationals are colour deficient.

In an earlier ToT, I suggested that, if the Greens represented one end of the social, ecological, and financial axes, then the Nationals are their opposite, and should be coloured accordingly in CRIMSON, the opposite to green on a colour wheel. It’s an extreme red that is representative of the right’s unalloyed anger, a badge of their intemperate nature in public debate and is the coloration of farmer's necks and Barnaby's face.

We now have a much fuller colour chart to describe our more diverse and complicated political stance, but are red and blue listening? One third of Australia voted NOT red, NOT blue at the last election. They won only 16 seats, but you watch what happens next time.

Why ternary?

How to sum up three dimensions in a word? Ternary. It’s an unusual, unsettling word, rather like our times. There is so much change we feel a little discombobulated. For instance, the media: we once had ‘free-to-air’. Then ‘pay-per-view’. Now there’s the intenet, and don’t the two old players hate it. Remarkably, more people watched the coronation on Twitter than on TV. Internet the slayer.

This month’s hot topic is housing. And ternary is here too. Once a binary of ‘owners and renters’, it’s now a ternary of: property developers (with two or more houses); purchasers with mortgages; and the long-forgotten renters in the private market or public housing.

No longer are there two types of housing: homes and high-rises - now we have ‘low + close’ projects, infill housing that is low in rise, but compact for density.

And buried in the detail of last week’s budget was a possible third ternary (not a tautology) on housing delivery. As well as private development and public housing we now have the ‘build-to-rent’ model, intended to be a combination of the two.

There will be a lot more on private market renters, ‘low + closehousing and build-to-rent in next week’s ToT column.

TLA* = Three Letter Acronym. OK pedants, it’s not an acronym, but it is self-describing.

Tone Wheeler is an architect / the views expressed are his.

Short pieces are published every Friday in A&D Another Thing.

Longer columns are Tone on Tuesday, published then.

You can contact TW at [email protected]