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.
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