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Swan's missing middle misses analysis

By Warwick Powell - posted Monday, 25 February 2002

Wayne Swan presents an analysis of Labor’s 2001 federal election defeat in terms of Theda Skocpol’s ‘missing middle’ thesis of the decline of America politics.

Swan’s line of reasoning is that while Labor successfully garnered the support of the ‘battlers’ on issues like the GST (only to have some peel away in light of the ‘Tampa episode’), Labor failed to "convince enough of what I would term the outer suburban middle class".

This latter group are in his words the "‘Westfield Mallers’ because the shopping centre is the hub of their social interaction in the new and emerging suburbs". The ‘battler’ and the ‘Westfield Mallers’ are, in Swan’s eyes, Australia’s version of Skocpol’s ‘missing middle’.


A blunt instrument

The first flaw in Swan’s analysis is that the descriptor ‘outer suburban middle class’ does not quite live up to expectations. On the surface of things, the label is appealing and pretends to both describe and explain. It doesn’t really do either.

On the descriptive front, other than a ‘spatial’ dimension (outer suburban) the notion of ‘middle class’ in Swan’s terms doesn’t tell us much at all.

According to Swan, the ‘outer suburban middle class’ "is a very diverse group – some are teachers and nurses, some are sub-contractors and small business owners who have done well in life and want their children to do better." He goes on the say that for these people the "value of their home is important and they will often have a second investment property. There is a diversity of incomes within this grouping".

On these terms, Swan’s ‘outer suburban middle class’ is a bit of a catch-all. It’s loose enough to describe a very broad range of people on the basis of where they tend to live (which is, of course, superficially appealing), but not really precise enough to tell us much about how these diverse demographic factors played out in terms of political behaviour.

A similar criticism can be applied to ‘the battler’ as an analytical descriptor.

It isn’t clear in Swan’s thesis whether or not the common factors behind what he admits are disparate groups of people are spatial (outer suburbs), demographic or cultural.


For example, Swan invokes Skocpol’s ‘missing middle’, which he believes are represented in Australia by the ‘battler’ and the ‘Westfield Mallers’. What unifies these two groups is that they are "families who live on modest wages or wages made modest by the cost of their responsibilities to their children". So, it would appear the common denominator is ‘disposable income’.

I’m sorry, but I find it hard to think that there is much analytical purchase to be gained from a framework that lumps together families whose incomes range from $80 a week to $800 on the basis that after taking out private insurance and paying private school fees the level of disposable income among families at each end of this spectrum is a basis for similar political behaviour.

On the contrary, the statistical analysis discussed below shows that, in fact, the political behaviour of people within this income range varied quite significantly at the 2001 Federal Election.

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About the Author

Warwick Powell was an advisor to the Queensland Labor Government 1992-1996, and was involved in marginal electorate campaigning. He is now a research consultant in private practice.

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