I often bang on incessantly about the dubious sustainability of the twin support bases of the Coalition – the social conservative, big government demographic on the one hand and the socially progressive, smallish government demographic on the other. While neither of these two groups are particularly large in the broader electoral scheme of things, they not only make up the financial and membership base of the Coalition, but the two groups have more to disagree about on politics than they have in common.
Trying to balance the interests of these virtually opposing demographics proved to be a bit of a nightmare for the Howard government –One Nation really started the ball rolling, the politics of Tampa set it like concrete.
Like most demographics in Australia, they’re never really consolidated into the one geographic space, so any vote movement they cause on an electorate-by-electorate basis tends to be washed out by larger things. However, the social conservative base of the Coalition generally has a large showing in some rural and regional seats, while the socially progressive end of the spectrum has a relatively large showing in some of the inner metro seats – particularly those in Sydney. There are certainly dollops of each demographic in any seat you care to name – especially socially conservative voters in the outer suburbs, but it’s relatively rare for a seat to be dominated, or even moderately gripped by either demographic.
Yet there are a few seats where the densities of these political constituencies are high enough to demonstrate the rather large problems the Coalition has with its opposing ideological and political bases.
Today we’ll have a bit of a squiz at the inner metro group that makes up – for lack of a better term – the Liberal Party left flank.
Over the last few elections, whenever Howard ramped up the culture war rhetoric for his regional and outer suburban constituency – a bit of race and refo baiting here, a bit of poofter bashing there – his inner city base often went a bit feral. But any attempt to then appease those small L liberals and get them back on side, simply had the effect of making the social conservatives all shirty.
The trouble for the Coalition was and remains trying to balance these opposing bases when it’s really a bit of a no win game. If we remember back to the last election, after a couple of weeks of trying to shore up the conservatives with the usual culture war spiel, the Coalition then hastily proposed a referendum for recognising Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islanders in the constitution during the dying days of the 2007 election campaign.
Every time the Coalition played to their conservative base, the small L liberal base moved away from them – but every time the Coalition threw the small L liberals a bone, the regions got antsy.
Party polling in North Sydney for 3 elections in a row has showed Hockey to either be in trouble or facing severe swings against him at some point in the lead up to each election (which probably explains why he always looks a little nervous as elections approach). Thankfully for Hockey, the full wrath of his small L liberal constituency never quite eventuated at the ballot box in the same levels it was threatening in the pre-election polling – but, like a number of other seats, it has consistently moved against him.
North Sydney isn’t the only seat to do so – let’s have a look at 5 inner metro seats with large small L liberal constituencies, where the two party preferred vote has been moving toward the ALP over time. We’ll also throw Bennelong into the mix to begin with since it was once a seat similar to the others, but has slowly changed to become a bit of hybrid seat in recent years by both electoral redistribution and generic demographic change.
The two things that really stand out with these seats (apart from their movement to the ALP) are, firstly, their Blue Ribbon Liberal Party leadership status – the party has historically generated leaders, Cabinet members and large amounts of campaign finance from them (which makes one wonder just what the Libs are doing putting Michael Johnson in Ryan – but that’s a bewilderment for another day).
The other thing that stands out is how all of them apart from Ryan swung to Labor in 2004 when Latham was ALP leader. Ryan swung to the Coalition because QLDers didn’t much like anything about Latham at all – but the rest of these inner metro seats actually moved toward Labor, bucking the national trend.
There is a slight problem in the chart though, and that comes from the way One Nation added strange distortions to the two party preferred vote across Australia, including these seats – so if we run the same chart again but simply exclude the 1998 election, we get:
Look at the members that these seats have produced – Howard, Ruddock, Nelson, Hockey, John Moore (we’ll ignore Johnson) and Turnbull. The Liberal Party heartland is on a collision course with its own party, and the wreckage could start at the next election.
But what makes these seats what they are?
Some of you are wondering why I’m doing the Seat of the Day series since it’s clogging up the blog – but there is a method to the madness (apart from having a accessible demographic profile on every electorate in the country)
Using the stats from the Seat of the Day series, we can have a squiz at what demographic issues make these seats tick – what demographic variables they share.
For starters, they share a similar income distribution compared to Australia as a whole, and share similar levels of Centerlink payments compared to the rest of the nation.
Interestingly Berowra and Ryan are twins, while Bradfield, North Sydney and Wentworth are near identical triplets. What they all have in common though is lower levels than the Australian average of positive incomes up to $1000 a week, and much higher levels of higher income earners. They also share lower levels of government transfer payments, which is to be expected with a large skew toward high income earners.
The Liberal Party has historically relied on high income earners in their heartland seats making large political donations to fund their political campaigns and party activity. With these seats moving against them, that must put some of this campaign finance in jeopardy as time goes on.
These seats also share a few things in common on the industry and occupation level.
They tend to have more professionals employed in IT, financial services, medicine, science and other technology industries than the national average, and have fewer people employed in manufacturing, or working in trades and labour intensive occupations.
They essentially contain a very educated, very modern industrial and employment profile hooked in to a very globalised world.
It’s hardly surprising then, that they haven’t taken kindly to culture war nonsense that not only requires nuance and complexity to be left at the door, but generally revolves around the peddling of stereotypes that aren’t compatible with the observable reality of the world they experience on a daily basis.
One thing these seats don’t have in common though is anything resembling a shared age distribution.
So the slow vote change hardly appears to be driven by changing age compositions under 45 (after 45 they simply track the Australian average).
Neither do they share similar levels of the proportion of the electorate having a non-english speaking background – which is an interesting little tidbit.
But the big thing these electorates all have in common – and one which goes some way to explaining their politics – is the results they produced on the Republican referendum some 10 years ago.
All of them voted Yes on the Republic – some by substantial margins – and even North Sydney, Bradfield and Wentworth voted Yes on that gawd awful Preamble.
Compared to the national average – these seats were in a league of their own.
The Liberals are slowly losing their inner city base – where those wealthy, socially progressive, modern, globalised citizens that for so long have been the financial and leadership foundation of the Liberal Party itself, are slowly deserting them.
The big danger for the Liberal Party is whether the trend toward Labor in these seats was dampened by Liberal government incumbency. If so, then North Sydney and Ryan are in danger at the coming election with Berowra to follow at the next and Bradfield becoming marginal. Malcolm Turnbull is probably the best chance the Coalition have at preventing these seats from becoming electoral toss-ups in the coming years. He should hold onto Wentworth simply because of his position and prominence as Leader of the Opposition, while his small L liberal credentials – assuming he can take the party with him somewhat – are the best bulwark they’ve got with this demographic trend that’s running against them.
But if the Coalition continues to play to conservative ‘values voters’ and miscellaneous bigots, as they’ve done since 1998, they will put in danger this bag of blue ribbon seats that has historically provided more financial power and leadership development for the Liberal Party than has nearly all of their outer suburban seats combined.
But while this inner metro demographic needs its socially progressive view of the world accommodated, the consequences of doing that are equally dire for the Coalition in the regions – not only in terms of vote trend to Labor, but also to Independents.
We’ll take a look at the problem of the Liberal Party right flank a little later.
It’s also worth mentioning that what is currently happening with this demographic at the national level has already happened on a much broader scale with the Coalition in Qld at the State level – but to the point where even the outer suburbs got fed up with the political and social backwardness of the Coalition playing to their ultra conservative base.
In terms of whether it has been the Greens or the ALP that have been gaining at the expense of the Liberal Party in these seats, sometimes in some seats it’s the Greens and other times in some seats it’s the ALP. The following chart shows the general direction of the substitution from Liberal to ALP/Greens over time.