Bernard Salt

WITH A FAR BROADER SEG­MENT OF THE VOT­ING POP­U­LA­TION UP FOR GRABS, NEXT MONTH’S FED­ERAL ELEC­TION CAM­PAIGN WILL BE PITCHED FAIRLY AND SQUARELY AT MID­DLE AUS­TRALIA.

The Australian - The Deal - - Contents - BY BERNARD SALT

To win next month’s fed­eral elec­tion, party lead­ers will need to con­nect with a much broader seg­ment of the pop­u­la­tion than in 2010.

AT THE 2010 FED­ERAL ELEC­TION, 10 seats were won by a mar­gin of less than 2 per cent. Each seat con­tained about 100,000 vot­ers. So, in re­al­ity, one­mil­lion vot­ers de­cided the na­tion’s govern­ment.

This time around, La­bor must hold all of its seats. It holds or ef­fec­tively con­trols 28 seats by a mar­gin of less than 6 per cent, in­clud­ing the Greens’ Melbourne (by 5.9 per cent) and An­drew Wilkie’s seat of Deni­son in Ho­bart (by 1.2 per cent). Be­fore the re­turn of Kevin Rudd to the prime min­is­ter­ship, all of th­ese seats would have been re­garded as po­ten­tially winnable by the Coali­tion.

The elec­torates in ques­tion con­tain 3.2 mil­lion vot­ers (and four mil­lion res­i­dents), or three times the num­ber that de­cided the out­come of the last elec­tion. In hind­sight, the 2010 elec­tion should have been man­aged as a tar­geted cam­paign by both sides; the 2013 elec­tion must be man­aged as a more pop­u­lar cam­paign.

Af­ter all, it is pos­si­ble for one mil­lion vot­ers to be quite dif­fer­ent from mid­dle Aus­tralia; it is not pos­si­ble for three mil­lion vot­ers to be that dif­fer­ent. This time around, the PrimeMin­is­ter and the Op­po­si­tion Leader must con­nect with aver­age Aus­tralians, rather than ap­peal to a seg­ment of the mar­ket.

This means wear­ing a re­as­sur­ing blue tie and us­ing folksy, in­stead of bu­reau­cratic, lan­guage. It means the pro­jec­tion of fam­ily val­ues: church and chil­dren would go down well, and con­cern for com­mon stres­sors such as mort­gage pres­sures, the frus­tra­tions of com­mut­ing and job se­cu­rity con­cerns. All this, plus pork-barrel in­fra­struc­ture al­lo­ca­tions to shore up spe­cific elec­torates, is prob­a­bly also a worth­while strat­egy.

While the 28 elec­torates in ag­gre­gate re­flect mid­dle Aus­tralia, they nev­er­the­less fall into five clus­ters, each with its de­mo­graphic and cul­tural nu­ances:

• Funky city cen­tre (4): Deni­son (Ho­bart),

Grayn­dler (Syd­ney), Melbourne and Perth.

• Sea-change (6): Co­rangamite (Vic­to­ria), Brand (WA) and Dobell, Eden-Monaro, Page and Robert­son (all NSW).

• Sub­ur­ban edge (4): Syd­ney’s Green­way and Lind­say, Melbourne’s La Trobe and Bris­bane’s Blair.

• Es­tab­lished suburbia (12): Melbourne’s Chisholm and Deakin; Syd­ney’s Banks, Kings­ford-Smith, Parramatta and Reid; Bris­bane’s Lil­ley, Moreton, Ox­ley, Petrie and Rankin; and Fremantle in WA. • Other (2): in­clud­ing Capri­cor­nia (Mackay-Bowen basin) and Lin­giari (non-Dar­win North­ern Ter­ri­tory)

City-cen­tre com­mu­ni­ties are dom­i­nated by car-less sin­gles and cou­ples with higher than aver­age ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion qual­i­fi­ca­tions who are pro­gres­sive in their think­ing. It is no sur­prise that pro­gres­sive Greens and in­de­pen­dent can­di­dates would flour­ish in this ge­og­ra­phy. Poli­cies pitched to cli­mate change, tech­nol­ogy (the National Broad­band Net­work), gay mar­riage and busi­ness reg­u­la­tion should all strike a chord.

The sea-change ar­eas are of­ten a grab-bag of farm­ing, com­mut­ing and re­tire­ment com­mu­ni­ties. Co­rangamite, for ex­am­ple, in­cludes re­tirees at Queen­scliff, com­muters in Torquay and farm­ers in Co­lac, al­though most of­ten the ris­ing and most pow­er­ful force is the com­muters since there are too few jobs in th­ese lo­ca­tions. Site-spe­cific prom­ises of high­way up­grades, as well as more gen­er­ous re­tiree con­ces­sions and an up­grade to the lo­cal hos­pi­tal, will go down well.

The sub­ur­ban edge em­braces the ex­trem­i­ties of city liv­ing and mostly com­prises ne­w­hous­ing es­tates on the out­skirts of Syd­ney, Melbourne and Bris­bane. Prom­ises of rail­way de­vel­op­ment or ex­ten­sions, such as the North­West Rail Link from Parramatta deep into Green­way, might shore up this front. Also rel­e­vant in

this ge­og­ra­phy is the is­sue of mort­gage stress. Any down­ward shift in in­ter­est rates should be claimed as a div­i­dend of pru­dent eco­nomic man­age­ment; any up­ward shift should be framed as ev­i­dence of a need for change.

The bulk of the at-risk seats are in mid­dle or es­tab­lished suburbia: Melbourne’s east; Bris­bane’s north and south, Syd­ney’s south and west, and coastal Perth. A dozen seats sit­ting squarely in the mid­dle ring of Aus­tralia’s largest cities will be the big­gest bat­tle­ground in the elec­tion.

Mid­dle Aus­tralia does in­deed com­prise a smat­ter­ing of in­ner-city trendies, of edged welling bat­tlers and of sea-chang­ing re­tirees and com­muters. But the bulk of mid­dle Aus­tralia lives in mid­dle sub­ur­ban places such as Mitcham (Deakin), Peakhurst (Banks), Sun­ny­bank (Moreton) and Fremantle. Peo­ple in th­ese places tend to be in a re­la­tion­ship, to have kids, are pay­ing off a mort­gage, and gen­er­ally work in an unglam­orous man­u­fac­tur­ing or ser­vice-in­dus­try job. They tend to be in the mid­dle stages of the life cy­cle: nei­ther young nor old, nei­ther rich nor poor, they are the epitome of the aver­age Aussie.

I sus­pect th­ese vot­ers worry about mat­ters such as con­ges­tion, the cost of liv­ing, se­cu­rity and per­haps the qual­ity of lo­cal schools and hos­pi­tals. In John Howard’s pre-boom Aus­tralia, the res­i­dents of elec­torates like this were filled with con­fi­dent as­pi­ra­tion, with an ethic of work­ing hard to re­coup a just re­ward.

Since the global fi­nan­cial cri­sis, mid­dle Aus­tralia has shifted in its think­ing. There is now a greater cau­tion, a timid­ity, an un­cer­tainty, about what the fu­ture might hold. The hung par­lia­ment fed into this con­cern. The long elec­tion cam­paign (an­nounced in Jan­uary) and con­tin­ued lead­er­ship spec­u­la­tion height­ened anx­i­ety. Per­haps what mid­dle Aus­tralia in key elec­torates re­ally wants is lead­er­ship, vi­sion, con­fi­dence and above all a nar­ra­tive for the na­tion’s short- and medium-term fu­ture.

Ours is a proud and vi­tal na­tion with abun­dant space, re­sources and en­ergy. Its fu­ture lies in an abil­ity to ac­com­mo­date the ris­ing force of Asia, to but­tress Western sta­bil­ity and pros­per­ity in the re­gion, and to pro­ject a fair, sus­tain­able and con­nected global com­mu­nity into the fu­ture. Or some such big-pic­ture words, com­bined with tar­geted poli­cies and prom­ises, make up the shtick that will most likely re­tain or win over th­ese key seats.

What­ever the out­come, the dif­fer­ence fromthe 2010 elec­tion is that a far greater seg­ment of the pop­u­la­tion is in play. The leader who con­nects best with mid­dle Aus­tralia will tri­umph. Bernard Salt is The Aus­tralian’s so­cial

edi­tor (saltb@theaus­tralian.com.au).

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