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From left field: it wasn’t just the Tampa

By Warwick Powell - posted Thursday, 15 November 2001

The common wisdom is that the Tampa issue was the decisive difference between the two parties. For Labor, critics argue that it was a case of mistaken ‘me-tooism’ (e.g. Uren and Whitlam); others simply point to how Howard cunningly and unscrupulously used the issue to drive a wedge into the body politic.

The analysis of underlying demographic factors that we have undertaken throughout this electoral cycle – which covered first the Ryan by-election, then the Aston by-election and now the general election – indicates that Labor’s problems began well before Tampa entered our waters.

(The analysis can be downloaded from the Australian Development Strategies website:


When Labor won Ryan in March, a Coalition defeat seemed almost inevitable. They were on the ropes, politically. And the momentum was against them.

Demographically, we saw that in Ryan the major shifts to Labor were found among middle aged skilled blue collar males, married with a household income of $100-120,000 a year, buying a home and paying a mortgage of around $1,500 a month.

This was good news for Labor, because it was clearly regaining some of the support amongst this group that it had lost in 1996 and to a lesser extent in 1998.

A few months later, we had the Aston by-election. By then, the Coalition was making up some serious ground. Hip-pocket driven policy back-flips led to a Coalition victory – despite the distribution of the late sitting member’s personal vote.

The result in Aston pointed to a fundamental shift in Labor’s support base from the time of Ryan. What it had gained at the time of Ryan appeared to be slipping from its grasp.

The demographic analysis we conducted and published by Australian Development Strategies at the time, showed clearly that compared to Ryan:


"in Aston Labor experienced swings against it among a definite ‘stereotype’. This type is characterized by families with children, buying a house and paying a mortgage of approximately $1,500-2,000 a month, and earning as a household between $100,000-12,000 a year".

This shift in demographic alignment from Ryan to Aston had nothing to do with Tampa or September 11. And it was precisely this shift that drove the Coalition’s electoral success at the general election.

To be sure, the exploitation by Howard of the Tampa issue and the general ‘stormy mood’ created by the events of September 11 helped the Coalition no end.

But make no mistake: these events didn’t catalyse the demographic turnaround that underpinned the Coalition’s victory, they merely reinforced it.

A qualification:

my last commentary (#7) ascribed Wayne Swan with the responsibility of the ‘small ball’ strategy. Some readers have suggested to me that Swan was actually a private critic of the approach, but toed the corporate line once it was decided. Without the benefit of being a ‘fly on the wall’, I cannot be sure one way or the other. Readers can make up their own minds and in doing so should bear in mind one indisputable fact: Wayne Swan is a key Beazley confidante. As such, he was either an architect of the strategy or did not successfully change it despite his criticisms.
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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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