Disaster in the heartland

When I was a young psephologist, back in the 1970s and ’80s, there was no doubt about where the core strength of the Liberal Party lay. Its outer metropolitan seats were usually marginal (north-western Sydney was an exception); its rural seats often had some residual Labor strength or were vulnerable to the Country (later National) Party. The heartland was the inner middle and upper-middle class suburbs, particularly in Melbourne and Sydney.

That covered seats like Bennelong, Bradfield, Mackellar, North Sydney, Warringah and Wentworth in Sydney; Balaclava (later Goldstein), Higgins and Kooyong in Melbourne; Ryan in Brisbane, Curtin in Perth and Boothby in Adelaide. Reading off Malcolm Mackerras’s guide to the 1980 election, every one of those was held with a margin of more than 13%.

The 1984 redistribution added Menzies (in Melbourne) to the roster and also shifted Tangney (in Perth) into safe territory. Flinders on the Mornington Peninsula and Mayo (created 1984) in the Adelaide Hills fitted the same profile.

Times change, and over four decades the Liberal Party gradually became less and less hospitable to the educated, cosmopolitan and broadly liberal residents of these seats. They ceased to be quite so safe, as the party pitched itself more to “Howard’s battlers” – the defensive-voting lower-middle classes of the outer suburbs. Occasionally one was lost briefly (North Sydney was held by a popular local independent for two terms, Curtin’s sitting MP held the seat in 1996 after losing Liberal preselection, Bennelong went Labor in 2007 for one term), but they always came back to the fold.

Even as the party shifted into the hard right camp under Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison, the heartland seats hung on, whether through inertia or through lack of a serious challenger. Of the 16 named seats, only Mayo (won by centrist Rebekha Sharkie in 2016) and Warringah (lost by Tony Abbott to an independent in 2019) were not still Liberal-held prior to last Saturday.

Then disaster struck. Eleven of the fourteen fell in one hit: four to Labor, one to the Greens, and six to “teal” independents. Flinders and Menzies were saved by the departure of their previous members – cleanskin replacements were able to survive, although in Menzies only barely. Bradfield’s sitting member has had his margin slashed to a few points against an independent who was aligned with the teals but not branded the same way; if she had been she might have won.

The Liberal Party will never be the same again. Although these seats were no longer central to its electoral fortunes, they were central to its self-image. Historically it has always been the party of middle-class respectability; since Howard it has tried to have it both ways, preserving that image while at the same time consorting with the neo-fascists. The game worked for a while, but on Saturday it came unstuck badly.

It’s similar, but also different, to the problem Labor has faced recently with the Greens. The Greens were winning over traditional Labor voters in traditional Labor seats – also in the inner suburbs, but on the other side of the harbor or river. Common sense dictated that Labor should stop worrying so much about that relatively small number of seats and concentrate on the outer suburbs, but it was unwilling to do so because so much of its identity was bound up with its traditional homeland.

For the Liberals, however, things are worse. Labor had the option – although it was too pig-headed to take it – of treating the Greens as partners and coming to some modus vivendi with them, in the way the Liberals had with the Nationals. It would have to swallow some pride and concede some territory, but it would not require any major shift in direction.

But for the Liberals, coming to terms with the teals would require admitting that they have been on the wrong track for 25 years. And although a limited amount of soul-searching has begun, they show no sign so far of being willing to take that step. Rival factions mostly unite on the goal of wanting to somehow return to the Howard era: like the patient wanting to return to an earlier stage of the cancer that is now killing them.

The teals also will have some soul-searching to do. Independents, once established, are very hard to beat; as individuals, most of them have a good chance for retaining their seats for as long as they want them. But they will have to decide whether to be content with that, or whether they are serious about changing the country’s politics in a more lasting fashion.

If so, they will need to form a party or something like one; something that can compete with the Liberal Party on a broad front and possibly serve as a catalyst for splitting off its more moderate members. Such a party would need to contest state elections as well, which means it would want to move quickly – Victoria goes to the polls in November, followed by New South Wales the following March.

Currently the momentum is with them, but it’s still a big task. And so far there seems little chance of them getting assistance from within the Liberal Party. Previous rebels in the heartland areas have been supported more or less openly by party members and even whole branches, but there was no sign of that on Saturday – another indication of how out-of-touch the party has become.

The Liberal Party, remember, has split before, in a gradual process over about a decade that eventually produced the Australian Democrats in 1977, via the Australia Party and the Liberal Movement. But that was a different era; branches had a real life of their own, and members had a loyalty to something other than the local factional warlord. So far there is no sign of Liberals who are willing to treat the teals as anything other than mortal enemies.

The teals are in some ways the heirs of the Democrats, but the Liberal Party in the meantime has become a very different creature. As Guy Rundle notes today, it is hard to see any opportunities for co-operation between it and the teals. And if it fractures under teal pressure, it will do so in ways that are now impossible to foresee.

There’s been another big change since the 1970s: the Democrats had the crossbench pretty much to themselves, but the teals are sharing that space with the Greens. The relationship between the two will help to define both of them, but that will have to be a topic for another post.

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Disclosure: as noted in an earlier post, I campaigned in this election for the new teal member for Kooyong, Monique Ryan.

3 thoughts on “Disaster in the heartland

  1. Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott did not re-contest their seats at the 2013 election; there is no way of knowing for sure whether they could have held them if they had, but their performance at the 2016 and 2019 elections suggests not. If the next election produces a House of Representatives in which neither Labor nor the Coalition has a majority (something that could easily happen), and if Monique Ryan* then chooses to support Labor (over the Coalition) to form government, will the voters of Kooyong* forgive her? Again, there’s no way to know for sure, but that’s not the way I’d bet.

    * To take the nearest example to hand: but I could similarly mention Allegra Spender and Wentworth, or Kate Chaney and Curtin, and so on.

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    1. Thanks J-D. The difference there I think is that Windsor & Oakeshott sat for what were still, in underlying two-party-preferred terms, safe Coalition seats. Kooyong once fitted that description, but not any more – the Greens already won 44% 2CP there last time, & I suspect the 2PP this time will come out close to 50-50. The vast majority of teal voters knew that they were voting for a change of government – as you can see from Higgins, where in the absence of a teal candidate the same sort of people just voted Labor. It doesn’t follow that they won’t change their minds next time, but I think the Liberal Party will have to do something to win them back.

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      1. I’ve just checked the 2019 results for more of the seats won by Independents this time, and found the following:
        Curtin 2CP 64% Liberal
        Goldstein 2CP 58% Liberal
        Mackellar 2CP 63% Liberal
        North Sydney 2CP 59% Liberal
        Warringah 2CP 43% Liberal and 2PP (the informational count) 52% Liberal
        Wentworth 2CP 51% Liberal and 2PP (the informational count) 60% Liberal

        Obviously there’s considerable variation there–also obviously, like every other seat they’ve changed in the three years since and will change more over the next three years. Maybe some of those other seats (and others like them) will, in the future, be dominated by voters who are prepared to acquiesce in being represented by Independent members who keep a Labor government in office; maybe most of them will be. I still wouldn’t bet that way, although I admit I am now slightly less confident of my estimate (and pleased to have had my confidence in it shaken).

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