28 August 2015
by Laura Tingle
Despite reform talk and older voters, Canning might shock
In Sydney on Wednesday, business leaders, trade unionists and the welfare sector were discussing policy issues that they don't think our politicians are talking about.
Treasurer Joe Hockey, after opening the National Reform Summit talking about how it was consumers not governments that were determining the future of the economy, went off to talk about the Republic. In turn, all his colleagues were furious because he hadn't talked to them about that first and were furious that this talk was a "distraction" from the government's message that he should be talking about.
Except none of his colleagues seemed to be talking about the message ("jobs, growth, community safety") either. Christopher Pyne was talking about himself.
The Prime Minister was in the Torres Strait turning indigenous affairs into another issue redolent with national security and defence overtones. The late Eddie Mabo was a "warrior". There were medals for overlooked indigenous serviceman. Tony Abbott said he would talk to the national security committee of cabinet next week about a US request for Australia to join bombing Syria, even though it seems a bit of a fait accompli since he says he's already talked to Barrack Obama about it.
Senior sources in the government insist that this was (once again) an engineered request in which we asked the Americans to ask us. The prime minister insists the matter was raised with him by the President. These two statements are, of course, not mutually exclusive. It all depends who is talking to who of course and when. Presidents and prime ministers talk once. But Defence officials talk all the time, before and after their leaders call each other from Air Force One.
As this column mentioned a couple of weeks ago that senior sources were then saying Defence had been telling the Prime Minister's office to stop saying the Americans had been asking for help because it was not true.
Anyhow, at some point the prime minister might even choose to talk to the rest of us about why this is a good idea and in Australia's national interest, given his own colourful earlier assessment of what was going on in Syria was "baddies versus baddies".
But it's pretty hard to see the government, after having a talk about it, saying no, don't you think?
Over in Canning, where a by-election is just three weeks away, the government wanted to talk about its candidate, Andrew Hastie, (have we mentioned he used to be an SAS officer) and about "anti-Western Australian taxes".
But there wasn't so much that was apparent about jobs, growth and community safety. All in all, it has been a week of talk that has seemed to only confirm the frustration of the participants at the National Reform Summit with politicians. The neck and neck race in Canning, with polls suggesting a 10 per cent swing against the government, suggests voters are equally frustrated. A factor that may prove crucial to the outcome is the make up of the electorate.
The Australian Electoral Commission says half of the 112,809 voters enrolled are aged 50 or above, and a a striking feature of recent public national polling has been that the plus 55s are the only group where there has been a (slim and diminishing) Coalition majority.
Political folklore will tell you older voters have long been the Coalition's heartland. Much of John Howard's politics was designed to reward and appease that base. Hence the obscene largesse showered on it in his final years in office, including removing many of them from the tax system and throwing around un-means-tested benefits. Combined with a drenching of entitlement rhetoric, this has helped create the budgetary nightmare that has stumped both sides of politics and created the pre-conditions for this week's summit.
The ageing of the Australian population is not just a budgetary problem of course, but potentially a political one. The more older voters, you might think, the more the natural advantage to conservative politics.
Labor's Mark Butler –previously a minister for ageing – has released a book this week on the subject: Advanced Australia: The politics of Ageing. Butler reviews the two schools of political science on an ageing electorate : broadly, the life cycle theory versus the cohort theory.
The life cycle theory suggests we all get more fiscally conservative and authoritarian as we get older. Butler says he has never seen persuasive evidence to back this.
The cohort theory says people are essentially politicised early in life and (mostly) stick to those views. He quotes research by the University of NSW's Ian Watson which analysed Newspoll data over nine federal elections from 1987 to 2010 which found that in the seven elections from 1993 to 2010, the primary voting preference for the Coalition was an average of 8.75 per cent higher among over sixties than the overall population and, in the three elections from 2004 to 2010, the average gap exceeded 10 per cent.
"The consistency of that premium for the Coalition, at first blush, would appear to support the life cycle theory and presage a shift in the Baby Boomer vote the same way," he says.
But the same data shows the Baby Boomers – as opposed to the pre-Boomers – have their own ideas and "the huge advantage that the Coalition enjoyed from the 55 to 59 year old cohort(which exceeded 10 per cent in the 1993 and 1996 elections ) also disappeared as the Baby Boomers took that territory".
Butler cheerily notes that the analysis suggests that in fact "the Coalition has a serious structural challenge in coming years".
"For decades, it has been able to rely upon a substantial advantage in support from the pre-Boomer generations, to the point where it has become folklore that the Coalition has a lock on 'the older vote' in Australia.
"At the very least, it seems that the older vote will be up for grabs between the two major parties.
The Baby Boomers backed Whitlam during their youth, and Hawke and Keating during their peak working and child-rearing phases of life, he says.
"A strong Labor agenda for the Baby Boomers' third age has the potential to turn what has been a longstanding electoral weakness for labor into a substantial advantage," he argues. Not that this will necessarily help in Canning where 15 per cent of voters are over 70 and definitely pre boomers.
But for the reform optimists, the spectre of a transformation under way among older voters may hold the promise of more voters who remember the grand reform days of the 1980s, if not fondly, with respect.