census data

May 15, 2009

Gen Blue – Coalition Mortality and Electoral Decline

The near conclusion of the long running saga called the Coalition's Demographic Train Wreck. After spending the last year and a half ferre

Possum Comitatus — Editor of Pollytics

Possum Comitatus

Editor of Pollytics

The near conclusion of the long running saga called the Coalition’s Demographic Train Wreck.

After spending the last year and a half ferreting out every bit of 2007 election polling I could get my hands on, I think we might have – finally – a good set of estimates for the two party preferred vote at the 2007 election by age cohort. Most pollsters have broad brush age cohorts that are over 15 years wide, but none alone have sample sizes large enough to justify breaking down the age results into smaller chunks. But now, we can look a little deeper.

Most of the data for this didn’t come from just the usual suspects (although the usual suspects were certainly helpful), but from a mix of major pollster data, unpublished polling and exit polling that was undertaken by a surprisingly large number of groups either very, very close to election day, or in the case of exit polling – after election day itself. So thank you to all who willingly (or often grudgingly!) contributed to this – you know who you are.

The most difficult part was sorting the 50-60’s from the 60’s and over, and those three cohorts contain the largest uncertainty. We can’t really give a margin of error for it because of the mathematics used to derive it ( in most cases I didn’t have access to respondent level data, but had age cohorts bundled into 5 and ten year groups)– but it’s fair to say that the over 60’s may be a point undercooked for Labor while the 50-60’s may be a point overcooked. But the results below are, by far, the highest probability result. Another reason I’m confident in the figures is that if you weight these results by the age breakdown of the electoral roll, the ALP two party preferred comes out at a national 52.8% – which is only 0.1% off the actual election result.

The most interesting thing about the result is the way the two party preferred numbers work in terms of the actual size of the voting populations in each age cohort. What really stands out is the way the Coalition avoided suffering a complete wipe out in 2007 singularly because of the level of support they enjoy in Generation Blue – that group of people born before 1947. The chart below has the ALP two party preferred vote by age cohort, as well as the proportion of the electoral roll that each of those cohorts make up.


You know you’re a political tragic if you looked at that chart and went “Faark me dead!”. The consequences of it are pretty profound. To tweak the gravitas of it even further – the average ALP two party preferred vote among the under 60’s was an astonishing 56%. Sit on that thought for a moment and ponder.

Generation Blue are an interesting lot – their relative love affair with the conservative side of politics isn’t merely something that has come with age, but appears to have been a long term pattern of electoral behaviour.

Using public Newspoll data going back to 1987, much of it unearthed from the dungeons of the Newspoll database by Ian Watson, if we look at the size of the Coalition primary vote by periods of birth, we can see that those born before 1947 have had a large partisan lean toward the Coalition:


Those 2007 figures for the cohorts born after 1947 are a few points skewed to Labor, as it looks like some of the data was apparently taken before The Narrowing happened (and remember, don’t let that blip in 1998 fool you, that was the One Nation effect where preferences in that age cohort flowed back very strongly to the Coalition). That said, using non-Newspoll figures, Gen Blue had a Coalition primary vote at the last election in the low to mid 50’s. It’s also worth noting that the old story about people getting more conservative in their vote as they get older doesn’t hold true. Rather than a gradual increase, there seems to be a small “one off” structural jump that occurs in a person’s late 20’s early 30’s and from there the vote merely wanders around.

As a specific cohort, the pre-1947 group have been between 6 and 16 points more favourable to the Coalition primary vote than the average of all other demographics that have come after them, and Generation Blue has done this for at least the last 8 elections.

In 2007, the youngest members of Generation Blue had just turned 60, and combined they made up over 26% of the electoral roll. We can actually see their composition by looking at a basic age distribution chart using the 2006 Census data:


Unfortunately for Generation Blue – and the Coalition, it must be said – these folks are now running into the pointy end of human mortality. To highlight how quickly the political demographics can change, we can chart Australian mortality rates using the latest ABS Life Tables:


On the left is the probability that a person of a given age will die in the next 12 months. As you can see, after 60 the mortality rates start increasing, after 75 they climb dramatically.

This brings about a quite rapid political realignment that we are just starting to see. In 2006, Generation Blue made up 24.5% of the Australian population aged 20 or over. In 2011 that proportion will reduce to 19.5% from mortality alone. By 2016 it’s down to 14% and by 2021 it will be sitting around 9.5% – and that’s using the assumption of zero immigration. So the real figures will actually manifest as a sharper decline because of the age distribution of Australia immigration that will further water down their overall population proportion.

But Possum, what does all this mean for the Coalition vote”, I hear you ask – and what a mighty fine question that is! 😀

To highlight the impact of Gen Blue mortality on the Coalition two party preferred, let’s take a squiz at a couple of hypothetical situations and model them out.

Firstly, let us assume that in 2006 there was an election (coinciding with the census data) and Gen Blue voted 57/43 like they did in the actual 2007 election. Let us also assume that everybody else in Australia outside of Gen Blue voted 50/50. Let us also say that for hypothetical elections in 2011, 2016 and 2021 – Gen Blue continues to vote 57/43 while the rest of the population votes 50/50. This what what the results look like:


As we can see, natural attrition from the mortality rate alone knocks around half a point of two party preferred vote off the Coalitions end result every 5 years. Yet, the rest of the country doesn’t actually vote 50/50. So let’s run two more models where firstly, the rest of the country votes 53/47 to the ALP (which is close to the 1998 and 2001 results), and another where they vote 56/44 to the ALP as they did in the 2007 election.


By 2011, if the country votes exactly the same way they did in 2007, the election result will be, at best, 53.5/46.5 to the ALP. “At best” for the Coalition because, remember, this ignores Australian migration where the vote of migrants heavily favours the ALP.

Taking migration into account, we should expect that in the 2010 election, the ALP should generically have around a 0.5% two party preferred head start on their 2007 election result.

By 2016 the ALP will have a generic head start of around 1.3% in their two party preferred – but taking into account migration projections, that will actually be closer to 2 percentage points in real terms.

This creates a great deal of political grief for the Coalition – for without reforming their political ideology to be more reflective of the views and values of people currently under 60 in Australia, their only real chance to stay in the game in the short term is to start stuffing around with the electoral roll, reducing the number of younger voters turning out to the ballot box – something we witnessed in the final term of the Howard government. Yet they are no longer in a position to do that, suffering as they are from the legislative impotency of the Opposition benches.

But that style of franchise bastardry does little more than play around the fringes, the reality of demographic change is close to swamping the efficacy of any further attempts in the future to manipulate the roll.

To prevent the Coalition from facing a generation or more in the political wilderness, not only do the turgid old dinosaurs like the Bronwyn Bishops, the Kevin Andrews and the Tony Abbotts of the world need to be removed from the public face of the Liberal Party, but the views they represent – views which have only minority support among those under 60 – need to be isolated from the Liberal Party mainstream platforms.

The problem with having a political party where the membership is mostly over 60, is that the political party itself starts to represent little more than the views of those over 60. That’s all good and well while there are plenty of them around – but when their numbers start to fade, and when the views they pursue are alien to the large majority of those outside of that cohort – the road to irrelevance is pretty much charted.

For decades the Liberal Party has ridden on the coat tails of the ballot box premium that Generation Blue has provided them, allowing them to effectively ignore the fact that on most issues they have often been on the wrong side of public opinion as seen through the eyes of those born after World War 2. Without pivoting towards some form of modernity, and doing it pretty quickly, they will be up shit creek without an electoral paddle in a sinking demographic canoe – to really strangle a metaphor to death.

The problem, of course, becomes one of trying to break the institutional grip that Labor has on younger demographics. They have to hope that Labor doesn’t posses a voter premium among Boomers and Gen X and Y that the Liberals did with Gen Blue – for if Labor does hold an unbreakable premium there of 6 to 8 two party preferred points, then the next Liberal Party Prime Minister is probably still in high school.

Unfortunately for the Liberal Party – Labor probably does.

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66 thoughts on “Gen Blue – Coalition Mortality and Electoral Decline

  1. The Grey Vote: Ageing and Cohort Succession – Pollytics

    […] One of the themes we regularly explore here on the blog is the notion of the Coalition’s Demographic Train Wreck – how historically the Coalition have received a premium level of voteshare from the generation born before World War 2 (that we call Gen Blue), how that vote has delivered them electoral benefits for over 30 years – but it hasn’t been replaced in the following generations, leading to a structural decline in the Coalitions vote as this older generation continues to become a smaller proportion of the total electorate. Our most recent piece on this can be seen over here. […]

  2. How voter enrolment changes election outcomes – Pollytics

    […] age, of the ALP TPP vote at the last election. You can find the gory details of how it was created over at the top of the Gen Blue post where we first used it (and it’s worth a read if you missed […]

  3. Andrew Norton » Blog Archive » What will stop Liberal demographic decline?

    […] commenter Robert asked about my views on Scott Steel’s demographic political analysis. Using 2007 polling data, Steel finds what several others – including me, Andrew Leigh, and Ian […]

  4. Friendless

    EnergyPedant @36, I am an example of a leftie who hates unions. To me, Labor is not at all the party I’d like to have in power, it’s just better than the Liberals. Labor is a one-issue party, and does not adequately represent the left except in the case of labor unions. The turning point came for me during the electricity strikes in Queensland in the 80s, when I lived in Gladstone and realised that this was not just some remote group of people making life difficult, this was warfare between the unions and the people. Strong-arm union tactics used on my wife in the 90s only made me more resolute. Queensland teachers are on strike today and I have nothing but contempt for their tactics – they’re affecting me much more than they’re affecting the government. The sooner there’s an alternative progressive party in Australia, the happier I’ll be.

  5. zoomster

    I’m not even talking tertiary education – education beyond the age of 15.
    As a teacher, my observation would be that critical thinking doesn’t ‘click’ (it may be taught!) before Year 10 (so traditional leaving age).
    I know it’s a bit much to condemn a whole generation as fuzzy thinkers but (again) my observation is that people who left school at 15 have limited critical thinking skills.

  6. David Bagnall

    My experiences were almost identical to those of Gail at post 60. I confirm that conscription, Vietnam and “reds under the bed” were over-riding influences.
    Zoomster (post number 55) points out a lot of the co-incidental changes that were happening which contributed to this shift (increasing tertiary Ed), but even conservative University student populations were radicalised by conscription and Vitenam. There was social change as well (rock ‘n Roll, feminism, Green politics) but conscription and Vietnam were catalysts for changing Australia’s 20 year olds for ever.

  7. Gail Tuft

    @Thomas Pain #53
    The issue of conscription and the Vietnam war was a huge influence of those born after 1947 and subject to conscription at 20 when the age of majority was 21 would affect this generation directly. I was born in 1949 and grew up in a comfortable environment in a comfortable, liberal-type suburb, going to a comfortable well provided school. I have been Labor/Progressive in my views since I was old enough to vote. The turning point in my political opinions (before I was old enough to vote) was conscription, the Vietnam war and the “reds-under-the-bed” fear politics of my teen years.

  8. john humphreys99

    The blue, green & red lines seem to have a soft upward trend. From just eye-balling it, it appears to be about +3% for those groups over 20 years.

    And of course, none of us know which new memes are going to capture the imagination in the coming years, or how the ALP will perform in the medium-long term.

    I note that J.S. Mill was criticising conservatives from a classical liberal (not social democratic) perspective. I agree with him. Unfortunately, conservatives (both left & right) dominate politics because it’s such an easy position to take. Challenging the status quo is always a political challenge.

  9. EnergyPedant

    Thanks to those who answered on my Union-ALP query.

    As a general trend do people in their formative years react against or for the government? Is the most impact felt from good or bad government policy?

    E.g. Someone earlier commented about Vietnam and conscription being a much bigger issue for people around conscriptable age than the older generation.

  10. Mark Lever

    Fine, fine work Possum.

    Confirms what I’ve felt intuitively for some time. For the sake of a competitive political system I do hope there’s enough neurons left in what passes for the collective brains trust of the Coalition to really absorb and ponder the implications of this.

    Anyone involved in selling or marketing knows that brand preferences become hard wired as you get older and the older the customer the harder it is to get them to change behaviour. Politics, I suspect, is no different.

    The Coalition do need a really big brand makeover and everything I’ve seen lately confirms that they just don’t get it. Banging on about “worst since Whitlam” etc etc won’t cut it with anyone still of working age. People born in the 1930s and 1940s cut their political teeth in the Menzies era when the ALP = reds under beds etc etc. Born in the 1950s, you grew up with the swinging 60s, Vietnam and “It’s Time”. And chances are you loved Gough.

    As others have commented, the real opportunity here is being seized by the Greens, as in Fremantle. In a few years time the political landscape is likely to see the ALP firmly astride the centre and under attack both from the Left (ie Greens) and Right (ie Coalition) but with no viable alternative government. Troubling.

  11. David Sanderson

    This is a fantastic analysis. Thanks Possum – you have taken psephology beyond Anthony Green nerdiness and made it really sexy (in a good way, not a Cronulla Sharks-type way).

  12. zoomster

    I’d say it was largely an educational thing.
    In the fifties, when most of this cohort was leaving school etc, jobs were easy to get.
    This had two effects: firstly, it encouraged people to leave school early, meaning that they left with a very basic education. Secondly, it instilled in them the idea that it’s easy to get work – look at how well they did, despite their lack of education!
    From my observations, there is a lot of difference between someone today in their late fifties and someone in their late sixties, far more than between late forties and late fifties.
    The lack of higher education in this cohort means that they’re fuzzy thinkers (generalising, of course). They thus base a lot of their decision making on emotional triggers and are very rigid in their thinking. I find that it’s common, when arguing with someone in this age group, for them to evade following an argument through to its conclusion – they will simply shift the goal posts.
    Like all people, they see their own education as good (noone wants to admit to being uneducated) so anything that isn’t what they did at school is not (my mother argues that her education is better than mine because she can recite slabs of poetry by heart and knows how to parse a sentence).
    Their relatively easy run in life (I know SOME of them were in the Depression and most went through the war, but the war in Australia wasn’t that harsh) means that they genuinely can’t understand those who are doing it tough.
    They also tend to be insular – when migrants first came to Australia, they were like men from Mars. My mother can clearly remember the first time she tasted – in her twenties – that exotic, cheesecake.
    So fear campaigns work well this cohort. They react emotionally and then bunker down and ignore opposing arguments.

  13. Gusface


    slightly off subject but:

    I dont give a ratsarse who andrew C is

  14. Thomas Paine

    The only significant thing I can think of that would cause a sea change in attitude around and after 1947 would be the introduction of TV in 1956.

    People born after 1947 would be just entering high school as TV started to become common place in 1958-59 and later. High shool is that place were the kids start to develop their intellectual bent I imagine…but I’m no expert on this, just tossing ideas.

    TV has a powerful influence on kids popular culture and high school is where teenagers want to belong to the popular group. The likes of Johnny O’Keefe, Elvis, The Beatles and Rolling Stones…etc were taking off in the late fifties early 60s on Aussie TV and radio. TV also makes the world smaller and brings youngsters and teenagers in their formative into contact with the rest of the world’s cultures and FACTS.

    I think experience tells us the more knowledgeable and familiar you are with something the less you fear it and the more able you are able to empathise with it.

    It would be interesting if it were the result of TV (now also internet, world travel) and the way it shrinks the world and (maybe) leads to a less harsh more left political philosophy as it would mean the change is permanent.

    The people born before 1947 are the last of a kind who formed their world and political views pre TV, those born after would be more likely to be Labor voters. That would mean of course that the Liberal Party is becoming less and less representative as time goes on.

    The big problem for them then is that Labor has taken the center of politics forcing them to the right. The Greens have the left and pick up any leaks from Labor. And the some of the hard core Liberals are still banging on about their traditional (Howard values).

    Also guess work and assumption….but I am sure people would have examined all this type of stuff a hundred times over.

  15. barney langford

    It also explains coalition policy of the Howard years.

  16. Singha

    Thanks everybody who took some trouble to answer my questions. It has been very educational. I wonder if David Richards is on the money when he suggests that the Greens may well be the natural alternative to the ALP’s positioning itself on the right – which leaves the Lib/Nats room only on the far, far right.

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