The Poorest Electorates


Since last week’s debacle over the proposed merger of the Liberal and National Parties in Queensland, Labor has revelled in the conservatives’ dysfunction. And why not? The meltdown has been spectacular.

The Prime Minister humiliated Mark Vaile, his Deputy and Nationals leader, by declaring the only merger he would tolerate was the Nationals joining the Liberals en bloc completely forsaking their identity. Peter Beattie and Queensland Labor look set for a rail’s run back into office next year, based on continued Coalition disunity.

But lost amid the great political sport is the more serious issue that Federal Labor refuses to address: that the rural vote could, after many decades, once again be its own, if it were willing to alter its awkward policy balance, which currently embraces social liberalism and economic rationalism.



A couple of weeks ago, The Big Issue the magazine sold on the street by vendors who are homeless or unemployed published a list of the nation’s 20 poorest electorates. They are Braddon and Lyons in Tasmania; Grey, Wakefield and Port Adelaide in South Australia; Cowper, Gwydir, New England, Page, Parkes, Lyne, Richmond and Eden Monaro in NSW; Mallee and Bendigo in Victoria; Wide Bay in Queensland; O’Connor in Western Australia; and Hinkler, Maranoa and Capricornia in Queensland. All these electorates have rates of poverty between 12 and 15 percent.

But only Richmond, Port Adelaide, Capricornia, Lyons and Bendigo are represented by Labor; while New England’s member is the socially conservative, economic protectionist Independent, Tony Windsor. The other 14 electorates are represented by Coalition MPs, whose Government continues to pursue policies that widen the wealth gap in Australia and favour large agribusiness over family farms. Indeed, Vaile and his Deputy, Warren Truss, each hold seats on the list Lyne and Wide Bay respectively.

The other striking factor is that, with the exception of Port Adelaide, these poverty-stricken seats are either rural or regional the sorts of places that have historically been devastated by tariff reductions, privatisations and cuts to government services. Like the low-income heartlands of the United States that author Thomas Frank [link: ] writes about States such as Kansas, Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama they should be hospitable to a message about better wages and government services.

But they suffered markedly under Paul Keating’s reign as Treasurer and Prime Minister, which may have made them susceptible to John Howard’s ‘relaxed and comfortable’ rhetoric in 1996, when he implied that he would ease the pace, and pain, of economic reform.

Given Howard’s acceleration of neo-liberal economics in the past decade, however, especially with the GST and the sale of Telstra, why has rural Australia and the poorest parts of it, at that continued to support the Coalition? Perhaps the answer lies in two reasons.

First, Labor still courts the corporate sector at the expense of the lower middle class and the remnant working class, whose jobs are most vulnerable to the threat from low-wage countries. If Labor acts on Keating’s advice expressed most recently in George Megalogenis’s book, The Longest Decade and boasts about its record in ‘opening up the economy’ during the 1980s and 1990s, it will certainly enjoy the applause from the corporate boardrooms. But in the outback and regional centres voters will hear, to paraphrase the former US presidential candidate Ross Perot, the ‘giant sucking sound’ of local jobs being shipped overseas.

Most Labor strategists now agree that during the 1996 election campaign, whenever Keating trumpeted his policy trilogy of ‘APEC, Mabo and the republic,’ he lost the votes of tens of thousands of Australians who considered these either boutique or job-threatening issues in a time of increasingly financial insecurity and high mortgage rates.

Second, Labor continues to align itself with socially liberal policies recently, for instance, taking a strong stand against Health Minister Tony Abbott in favour of the RU486 abortion pill. Whatever the merits of Labor’s position on this issue, to many voters outside the major cosmopolitan centres, it seems an extension of the fashionable politics that defined Keating.

It is worth remembering that a huge chunk of the 900,000 votes that Pauline Hanson and One Nation attracted in 1998 were disenfranchised Labor votes in regional Australia. They shared Hanson’s economic complaint she never really had an economic policy about the damage that neo-liberal economics was inflicting on the rural economy.

Addressing the National Press Club after the October 1998 election, former Liberal Party Director Lynton Crosby estimated 67 per cent of One Nation supporters had previously been Coalition voters while 33 per cent were formerly Labor supporters. Research by Unions NSW (formerly the NSW Labor Council) suggested the figure for Labor supporters might have been closer to 40 per cent. Certainly at the 1998 Queensland State election, One Nation’s message of economic populism was helping it to victory in one-time Labor strongholds, such as Ipswich West.

But by 2001, by exploiting the cultural gap between these voters and Labor, Howard wooed not only his own supporters back but also those who were originally Labor voters. One Nation at the turn of the century played the same role the Democratic Labor Party played 40 years earlier; it became a bridge for disenchanted and betrayed Labor voters to cross to the Right-wing Parties.

The Federal Government’s hardline industrial relations legislation may chip away at its support in the bush. The headlines about a two cents-an-hour wage rise especially considering we no longer even have currency as small as two cents at Spotlight stores in Coffs Harbour in the heart of the Nationals seat of Cowper, will highlight the disproportionate impact that a liberalised labour market will have on the bush. But Labor will have to subdue its socially liberal instincts and rediscover populism if it is to reclaim such territory.

* * *

This Queen’s Birthday long weekend brings the annual ritual of the NSW Labor Conference at the Sydney Town Hall. Facing its most difficult election in at least a decade, I expect the factions will batten down the hatches and put on a show of unity for Morris Iemma’s first and perhaps only Conference as leader. (I suspect he will use his speech to reinforce many of this week’s Budget announcements, especially its funding for 1500 new teachers and its 14 per cent boost to public transport funding.)

But what most delegates come for is the ritual Right-Left stoush, not over any policy difference they no longer exist in any substantial form but over the administration of the Party. It is almost always over pre-selections.

An interesting factoid here: just before the 2003 election, almost a dozen State MPs were endorsed by the Party’s Central Committee, not by a vote of the rank and file. These included Auburn, Penrith, Heffron, Drummoyne and Parramatta. Four years on, rank and file ballots were called in several of these seats and the sitting MPs were endorsed unopposed.

There are two ways of interpreting this situation. Either the MPs who sidestepped Party democracy in 2002-2003 have been so successful in wooing their branch members they are now unbeatable; or the rank and file is so depleted that there are no members willing to run and force the MPs to a genuine test of support.

Last year, the Conference heard details of a report into the NSW Branch membership that found that while the ALP recruits about 2500 new members a year, it also loses 2500 members. Instead of i
ncreasing its membership from 22,000 to 45,000 between 2000 and 2005 as was the target membership had slumped to 16,000, most of whom were people who professed not to work for a living, thereby paying the concessional membership.

Somehow I doubt we’ll get an update this year on this sorry state of affairs.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.