Coalition’s problem with young and old
Turnbull targets baby boomers and millennials
The 90,000 people who joined the electoral roll to vote in the same-sex marriage postal survey have delivered a golden opportunity for politicians to reengage young people in the political process — but they represent a huge challenge for Malcolm Turnbull.
The 90,000 people who joined the electoral roll to vote in the samesex marriage postal survey have delivered a golden opportunity for politicians to re-engage young people in the political process and fix “our broken democracy” — but they represent a huge challenge for Malcolm Turnbull.
The Prime Minister faces a conflicting task of securing older Coalition voters, those 55 and over, and younger voters under 35, particularly women, who deserted the government at last year’s election. New Liberal research shows the next election will be decided by the balance of older voters, “boomers”, against younger voters, “millenials”, in marginal seats and seats the Coalition lost last year.
Aware of the collapse of the younger vote at the 2016 election, Mr Turnbull has changed his recent media strategy by appearing more in chatty FM radio interviews talking about Game of Thrones and his support for samesex marriage.
Preliminary research for the Menzies Research Centre, a Liberal think tank, has found there was a collapse of female votes for the Coalition last year, Mr Turnbull attracted fewer millennial votes last year than Tony Abbott did in 2010 and 2013, and 12 of the 17 seats lost by the Liberals were in “boomer constituencies”.
The research paper, obtained by The Weekend Australian, notes: “Liberals are rightly concerned about our falling support base among millennials, but are in danger of forgetting that our support at the last election also fell significantly in the age cohorts straddling retirement, particularly women. Stark generation differences in values and expectations will make it increasingly difficult to straddle the political divide between millennials and boomers for the foreseeable future.”
The paper makes clear the current geographic and policy separation of the two age cohorts favours the Coalition because of the rising number of boomers, who now outnumber younger voters for the first time and will increase their lead as the population ages.
“The Coalition holds twothirds of the 93 electorates in which baby boomer voters outnumber or equal millennial voters. Of the 57 electorates in which millennials outnumber baby boomers, three out of four are held by Labor,” the paper says. “While the Coalition retains a dominant market share in boomer electorates, it is under considerable threat.”
The seats with more boomers than millenials that the Liberals lost last year were: Mayo and Hindmarsh in South Australia; Braddon, Bass and Lyons in Tasmania; Eden-Monaro, Dobell, Paterson, Macquarie and Barton in NSW; and Longman in Queensland. The Liberals also lost Murray to the Nationals. The only seat won from Labor, Chisholm in Victoria, was a “boomer” electorate.
The Liberal marginal seats now under threat where millenials outnumber boomers include Dickson in Queensland, the seat of Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, now the leading conservative in the cabinet, which is held by only a 1.6 per cent margin. Adding to that threat is the arrival on the electoral roll of 90,000 new voters for the same-sex survey, who are believed to be overwhelming young and most likely to vote ALP or Greens.
While the new voters are a threat to the Coalition, Liberal senator Linda Reynolds, chairwoman of the joint standing committee of electoral matters, sees the newly enrolled voters as a “light at the end of the tunnel”.
“For our democracy to continue to function effectively, we have to find a way to re-engage Australians in the big discussions and debates in our community, and to ensure their voices are heard and transform the nature of democracy to meet public expectations,” Senator Reynolds said.
“I do believe there is light at the end of the tunnel, and I see it in the postal survey on marriage equality. The public debate surrounding the vote shows that while younger Australians may be disengaged from traditional political processes and have scant regard for democracy, they are still engaged with and care about political issues.”
The Menzies Research Centre believes the political challenge for the Coalition is to review its policies “to measure the impact on boomer voters”. “The key point is this: the most important battles of the next elections will be fought in boomer electorates, not millennial electorates,” the paper says. “The voters the Liberal Party needs to convince are more likely to be Rolling Stones fans than hipsters.”
The research found suburbs in inner cities with large immigrant populations had large populations of millennials, while outer suburban, rural and region areas were “boomer territory”.
“In Chippendale and Redfern (Sydney), millennials outnumber boomers by five to one; in Lithgow (Blue Mountains outside Sydney), there are twice as many boomers as millennials,” the centre found.
In the past 30 years, the high point for young voters supporting the Coalition was the election of John Howard in 1996, with 59 per cent of males and 47 per cent of females under 24 voting for the Coalition. At the same election 57 per cent of males and 65 per cent of females over 65 voted for the Coalition. Last year, the Turnbullled Coalition got 35 per cent and 26 per cent of males and females respectively under 24. This was steady for males compared with the Abbott Coalition victory in 2013 but down 10 per cent for females. For women between 25 and 34, the Coalition vote fell 16 per cent and for women aged between 45 and 54 it fell 15 per cent.
Last weekend at the Sydney Swans Australian football match at the Sydney Cricket Ground, Malcolm Turnbull caused a minor social media storm by being photographed holding his granddaughter Alice in one hand and a beer in the other, while kissing her on the head.
Some “crazy trolls” criticised him, but Pauline Hanson and Greens senator Sarah HansonYoung defended him, and the latter noted: “If anything, this has made the Prime Minister look a bit more personable to the public.”
During the week, as Turnbull appeared more frequently in interviews on FM radio with various tag teams with nicknames, the “crazy trolls” were lambasted as the Liberal leader expounded again on Game of Thrones and demonstrated he had a more accurate grasp of the characters and titles than Bill Shorten.
Appearances on morning television programs revolved around similar discussions and observations, with extensive talk about his (and his wife Lucy Turnbull’s) support for same-sex marriage.
In parliament, however, Turnbull wanted to talk about little other than energy policy and keeping down family power bills until the final question time of the week, which was extended so that ministers could talk about vaccinations — no jab, no pay — and cashless welfare cards, deporting bikie criminals and drug busts.
It was a Jekyll-and-Hyde performance depending on whether he was talking to young mums at home on TV and millennials on radio, brutalising “Blackout Bill” Shorten on energy, or listening to worried Coalition MPs reflecting family concerns.
But it was not haphazard, none of it. The Prime Minister’s advisers are alarmed at the loss of the female vote at the election last year compared with 2013; they are alarmed at the huge loss of support from the millennials, voters under 35; and aware of growing concern on the backbench about the bread-and-butter concerns of families, pensioners and retirees.
As a result of the millennial desertion at the election last year, there has been a conscious effort by Turnbull — who should naturally appeal to young, tech-savvy and liberal voters — to cultivate social media and the nooks and crannies of narrow broadcasting.
The evidence of the female and young desertion is clear: between the Tony Abbott-led Coalition at the 2013 election and the Turnbull-led Coalition last year, the vote among women aged 18 to 24 fell 10 percentage points to 26 per cent; for women aged 25 to 34, it fell 16 points to just 24 per cent.
The female rout also was noticeable among older women: in the 55-64 age group it fell 15 points to 34; and in the 65-plus group it fell four points to 52 per cent.
Alarm about the loss of the female vote — worse than Abbott’s performance in 2010 and 2013, when he was said to “have a problem with women” — and the youth vote has been accentuated by the knowledge that more than 90,000 people have registered to vote for the first time because of the same-sex marriage postal survey. They largely have been recruited by the ALP, the Greens and GetUp! and are expected to vote overwhelmingly for the Yes case, and later for Labor or the Greens.
Liberal senator Linda Reynolds, who co-chairs the joint standing committee on electoral matters, concedes most of these new entrants are probably young and less likely to be Coalition supporters. But as the head of a bipartisan committee, she is pleased by the idea of a single-issue plebiscite exciting enough interest to re-engage younger people with the political system and democracy.
“It is also clear that over the course of the last decade public confidence in our democracy and the politicians they elect to represent them is declining,” Reynolds tells Inquirer.
“I do believe there is light at the end of the tunnel, and I see it in the postal survey on marriage equali- ty. The public debate surrounding the vote shows that while younger Australians may be disengaged from traditional political processes and have scant regard for democracy, they are still engaged with and care about political issues.”
But, depending on where they live, about 100,000 voters can change the outcome of an election. So Turnbull’s response has been to appeal to millennial voters and women through soft radio and TV appearances as well as a more subtle social media campaign.
Yet there is rising concern within the Liberal Party and among MPs that too much time and effort is being directed at the young voters, who admittedly deserted the Coalition in droves last year, at the expense of the Coalition’s longest serving, truest supporters, who have delivered election victories time and again — those aged 55 and older.
In 1996 the cohort aged 65 and older delivered the strongest support for John Howard — and continued to do so in every election under Howard, including the one he lost in 2007. It was the strongest cohort for Abbott against Julia Gillard in 2010, in Abbott’s victory in 2013, and again last year.
A preliminary research paper for the Liberal-backed Menzies Research Centre has broken down the areas of support for the Coalition, the age groups, the policy drivers and, most significantly, which electorates they live in.
Some of the key findings of the study are: the number of voters aged 60 or older has grown by 1.1 million since 2007 and at the 2013 election the percentage of baby boomer voters overtook those aged under 34 for the first time; the Coalition holds twothirds of the 93 electorates in which baby boomers outnumber or equal millennials; of the 57 seats in which millennials outnumber baby boomers, three-quarters are held by Labor; and of the 17 seats lost by the Liberals at last year’s election, 12 were baby boomer constituencies.
What’s more, the Liberals lost a baby boomer constituency — Murray — to the Nationals and the only Liberal win from the ALP was Chisholm, where boomers outnumber millennials. Most of the 20 Coalition-held seats vulnerable to a swing of 4 per cent are boomer constituencies and so are the 14 Labor-held seats that could be won by the Coalition with a similar swing against the ALP.
Peter Dutton’s seat of Dickson, held on a knife-edge and under threat from third-party campaigns, is finely balanced but in favour of millennials 27.2 per cent to 25.4 per cent.
For Dutton, the leading conservative in the cabinet and a potential party leader, the big middle — 47 per cent — includes women aged between 45 and 54 who are upset about superannuation and pension changes at the election last year.
“The most important battles will be fought in the boomer electorates, not the millennial electorates,” the Menzies Research Centre says.
The real political challenge for the Coalition is to recapture the lost boomer voters — those over 55 who deserted the Coalition at the election last year.
Despite heroic claims last year that only tiny percentage of people would be affected by superannuation changes, the analysis of the votes shows that the super changes, which were retrospective, affected many voters besides those aged over 65 with large superannuation savings; men aged between 45 and 64 were frightened by the changes, and women who feared their security would be threatened by pension and superannuation changes were particularly inclined to abandon Turnbull.
The Menzies paper recognises there is a growing schism between the top and bottom age cohorts, where the older voters are concerned about conserving their wealth and assets for retirement, while young voters want the opportunity to create their own wealth.
Moral issues also provide grounds for stark differences between the generations.
Same-sex marriage is proving a lightning rod of difference just as Britain’s blunt choice to leave the EU revealed stark geographic and generational differences.
Here Turnbull is likely to lift his personal standing on the single issue of same-sex marriage, something that may help to improve his standing as preferred prime minister against Shorten.
However, it will not build a bridge to the conservative Liberal supporters who have remained loyal to the Coalition as a cohort but have also demonstrated a willingness to leave the Coalition tent for One Nation, Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives and even the Labor Party if they feel their cultural and social values are being disregarded and their financial interests damaged.
There are signs Turnbull recognises that not dancing with the one that brought you could lead to utter humiliation at the next election.
The Coalition has started to concentrate on energy prices for households as well as tax cuts for small business, while issues that resonate in key electorates, such as drug abuse, welfare waste, crime and security, are starting to be recognised in question time. Turnbull didn’t do an FM interview yesterday and went to a rugby league function last night.
There is concern within the Liberal Party that too much effort is being directed at young voters at the expense of the Coalition’s longest serving, truest supporters
Moana Kidd, left, with Monique and grandson Bronx, 10, at Warner in Brisbane’s north
Hindmarsh voter Elizabeth Cwiklinska, 66, and urges the Coalition to understand that a retired aged-care older female voters nurse, migrated from Poland in 1989; she describes herself as a ‘frustrated’ swinging need to feel there is support for them to preserve wealth for a dignified retirement voter