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The changing face of the ALP voter

By John Black - posted Wednesday, 3 November 2004

Do you remember the joke about the doctor who rings her plumber after hours with a leaky dishwasher. The plumber arrives promptly, tightens a seal and asks for $150 for five minutes’ work.

Shocked, the doctor says she doesn’t charge that much and “She’s A Doctor”!

"Well, I didn’t charge that much either, when I was 'A Doctor'", replies the plumber.


Figures released by Gradlink this week confirmed the truth underlying the joke: Graduate doctors in Australia now receive an average annual starting salary of $45,000, while plumbers receive $45,240, IT technicians $48,620 and power plant operators $74,620.

The votes of the plumbers, Telstra technicians and plant operators are changing with their income.

When South Australian University Academic John Lockwood and I started demographic modeling of Australian electoral behaviour about 30 years ago, we took the 1966 national election as our baseline.

At that time, tradespersons were called craftsmen and the correlation between craftsmen and the ALP two-party preferred vote was plus 0.68 and it was the strongest positive statistical link, from about 300 census variables, with the ALP vote. The female equivalent was plus 0.42. In some heavy manufacturing states, like South Australia, the positive correlation for Craftsmen was as high as plus 0.90.

Correlations normally only tell you who lives in what area, not why voters in this area behave the way they do. But, in an era when phone polls are becoming increasingly unreliable, and voters increasingly furtive about their intentions, you at least know a correlation, based on actual data, isn’t lying to you to get you off the phone, so it can watch Pop Idol.

From 1996 onwards, the industrial backbone of the ALP vote, as measured by our modeling, began to weaken, until, at the last election, the correlation - for male tradespersons - had lapsed into statistical insignificance, at plus 0.06, while female tradespersons was minus 0.08.


Skilled blue collar workers, such as electricians, carpenters, like open cut miners before them, have now been lost to the ALP, as their wages have increased, in a more competitive international economy.

On the flipside, in 1966, the correlation between the ALP two-party preferred vote and male and female clerks was 0.00 and plus 0.02 respectively - totally neutral. The latter, under the then census definitions, was a huge group, comprising one in three female workers and 11 per cent of the total workforce.

Over the intervening 38 years, this group’s links with the Liberals has weakened, along with sales staff; to the extent that the less skilled clerical and sales groups, such as sales assistants, keyboard operators, bar staff and carers, comprise the major electoral base for the ALP.

The images that we saw in the last week of the election campaign, of the tattooed Tasmanian timber workers - cheering a Liberal Prime Minister - were only the visible tip of the statistical iceberg.

Food for thought for the new ALP front bench … not to mention the ACTU. 

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Article edited by Nicholas Gruen.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

First published in the Weekend Financial Review October 30-31, 2004.

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About the Author

John Black is a former Labor Party senator and chief executive of Australian Development Strategies.

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