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The old Lib-Lab split simply isn't relevant any more

By Patrick Baume - posted Wednesday, 14 September 2011

As usually happens, Julia Gillard and the Labor Government's deep depression in the polls has been attributed to recent factors - a lack of credibility following the knifing of Rudd and a hung parliament, her general inability to "cut through", a policy backflip and implementation failures. However, the real reason for the Labor Party's appalling poll numbers runs much deeper than just bad marketing or the untimely assassination of a leader.

The Labor Party's fundamental problem is that it is trying to appease a constituency that has completely split in two, one being the outer suburban blue collar voter and the other the inner city "latte sippers". The former is no longer heavily unionised and cannot be relied upon to unswervingly vote Labor, and Labor can no longer rely on the affluent, inner city, university educated left wing, as they now have a far more authentic option available in the Greens.

Excepting the extreme ends of the scale, the richest half dozen electorates and the poorest dozen, the traditional metropolitan blue collar vs white collar, Labor vs Liberal conflict simply doesn't accurately reflect the modern ideological divide in Australian urban society, which isn't between the unionised and the non-unionised anymore and doesn't even have much to do with relative wealth.


The real divide is between those who choose to live in the inner city and those who choose to live in the outer suburbs. The fundamental point being, would you prefer your $600,000 mortgage to be on a two bedroom terrace in a city village suburb with lots of cafes, or on a four bedroom double garage McMansion 35 kilometres from the CBD?

In other Western democracies, political parties evolve all the time to suit changing realities. For example in the U.S. in the 1960's the fight for Civil Rights saw the traditionally Southern, working class Democrats take up African American rights and as a result morph into the Northern, middle class urban party. In 2011, the average Democrat voter is both wealthier and better educated than the average Republican voter. In fact the Republicans are more and more the party of the working and middle class socially conservative.

There are also parallels in the US for the regional variances we are starting to see more prominently in Australia. Just as the North-East and the South in the US have completely swapped sides in the past 40 years, so the traditional southern heartlands of the Liberal Party and the former Labor strongholds of the north have reversed their allegiance. States that are based on mining and agricultural wealth are no longer union strongholds, they are now conservative strongholds, while the traditionally small l-liberal states have become the bedrock of Labor's current parliamentary caucus. Few would remember now that Queensland up until the late 60's was Labor's strongest state, and South Australia had the longest running Liberal Government ever, or that the original strength of the Labor Party was rural "shearers and miners" seats.

While we haven't had an issue as fundamental as the Civil Rights movement, the asylum seeker issue serves as a useful totem for why neither of the major parties currently has a coherent constituency. The Government's conservative position on asylum seekers has fallen apart, giving them no credibility in the outer suburbs while still doing severe damage to their inner city vote. But at the same time some of the strongest voices against offshore processing have been blue-blood Liberals like Colin Barnett and Clive Palmer. The real split on this issue is between the outer suburbs and the inner suburbs, not between Liberal and Labor.

Meanwhile on climate change the Labor Party has taken a progressive position, but the Greens will claim a large part of the credit with their constituents without having to be concerned about the anger of outer suburban Labor voters who never would have voted for them anyway. A point highlighted by the fact that some of the lowest Green primary votes in the country are in Labor outer suburban electorates.

Julia Gillard and the Labor Party's overriding problem is that they are trying to pander to two constituencies that have nothing in common, and are just pissing off both of them. Neither of these constituencies form a majority on their own, but it's getting to the stage where the Labor Party needs to pick one or the other just to survive at all.


While the Liberal Party may be feeling triumphal now, Tony Abbott as Prime Minister would have the same problem. While some of the lowest Green primaries are in ALP outer suburban former strongholds, many of the highest are in inner metropolitan Liberal seats. There are many traditional Liberal voters who want action on climate change and many who find offshore processing and mandatory detention appalling. Abbott will drive small l liberals over the edge just the way Howard eventually did, except he'll almost certainly do it faster.

The Labor Party must pick a side. Either become the economically populist, socially conservative "truckies friend" and try and out-Abbott Abbott (good luck), or become a lot more like the U.S. Democrats, far less wedded to the unions, economically rational but far more socially progressive. This is the ideological position of the majority of metropolitan Australians in this most urbanised country in the world, who like everything free trade has given us and want responsible economic management, but who aren't against gay marriage and are completely comfortable with a multicultural Australia.

Despite the major reforms of Hawke and Keating, it might still take a lot to convince many socially progressive inner urban Liberal voters that the Labor Party is the home of better economic management, but a term or two of Tony Abbott as Prime Minister might be just what's needed to sell that story.

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Patrick Baume is a Media Analyst who blogs on politics and sport at

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