Nation divided wedges ALP
No national political party can give its opponent a 29-seat head start in a House of Representatives covering 151 electorates. Unless Labor does something about its failure to communicate with voters in Queensland generally and the WA non-metropolitan districts specifically, that’s just what will continue to happen.
With the dust all but settled on last month’s Federal election, we can pick over a fractured nation and how WA and Queensland make that fracture an electoral bonus for the LNP/CLP/Liberals/ Nationals broad coalition.
Put together the 23 LNP seats in Queensland and six non-metropolitan Liberal seats in WA and the Coalition starts with a notional 29-seat advantage.
Get this: Labor holds just one non-metropolitan seat in Queensland, Blair, based around Ipswich — itself really part of the greater south-east Queensland conurbation. In WA all five non-metropolitan seats are held by the Liberals.
Former national journalist and keen-eyed mapper of trends and voting habits George Megalogenis points out Labor would have emerged the winner if the May 18 contest was confined to NSW, Victoria and the ACT. “Labor would have governed comfortably with 48 seats against the Coalition’s 37,” he says.
“Add the two poorest States, South Australia and Tasmania, and the Northern Territory, and the Labor advantage over the Coalition extends to 14 seats — 57 versus 43 with a crossbench of five. More than two-thirds of the country — 105 of the 151 seats in the Federal Parliament — is covered here.”
Megalogenis says the Labor majority in this two-thirds of the country was stopped dead because the other one-third — WA and Queensland — has
voted staunchly conservative for almost all the past 60 years.
Labor’s history in Queensland is that of a party which, on average, would only manage one in three seats (twice the ALP held on to just one or two electorates). It is now beginning to look like that losing average is slipping to a new low of one in four.
Megalogenis says even though the demography of Australia leans centre-left (seen in that dominance by the ALP in those 105 of the 151 national seats), Labor has to find a path to victory that defies this easily mapped tendency.
Labor believed it had more paths to victory because of the predominance of narrowly held Coalition seats in the east coast capitals of Brisbane and Melbourne as well as Perth on the other side of the country.
“(Labor) did not see the resentment a capitals-first approach would create in the fringes of the cities and in the regions,” he says.
“But let’s assume it worked. Labor’s metropolitan majority would have been no more unifying for the nation than the Coalition’s Queensland-first gamble.”
Using Megalogenis’ calculations and thesis, it is clear both sides were playing with fire as they actually increased the already existing urban/non-urban and lower-income/higher-income polarisation across Australia.
“Labor lost a winnable election because it couldn’t expand its majority in Victoria,” he says.
“The Coalition restored its governing majority thanks to a blowout in Queensland. The Australian Electoral Commission sorts the political map 55/45 between the cities and the regions. Of the 82 seats in the capitals, Labor won 49 and the Liberals 30. Of the 69 in the regions, the Coalition won 47 and Labor just 19. In each zone, there were three independents.”
These numbers tell the story. Add to this geographic analysis the internal splits which bifurcated what had been traditional Labor-voting electorates.
Carmela Chivers, a political economist at the Grattan Institute, pulled apart the swing towards and against Labor in 4500 polling booths using two-party preferred results.
She charted voting changes with three social class measures: income, education and the distance from the nearest CBD.
Chivers found the poor, the isolated and the little educated were more likely to switch votes to the Coalition while any swing to Labor was confined to “the privileged residents of the inner cities”. Dividing voters into five groups by income, she found the richest one-fifth swung to Labor while every other one-fifth proportion shifted towards the Coalition, including the lowest-income group.
Chivers’ analysis pinpointed the largest swing as being in the second-poorest quintile (“lower middle class”), where 2.4 per cent shifted to the Coalition.
All this shows how clever the Coalition was in gambling on a Queensland-first strategy, using Bill Shorten’s entrenched unpopularity to unlock permission for every claim and attack line, backed with an equally laser-sharp campaign in WA. It also shows why both sides will be tempted to further polarise the country in 2022.
Nothing suggests things will get better any time soon.
Illustration: Don Lindsay