Australia’s Two Nations

7 March 2023

By: Centre For The Australian Way Of Life

By Rick Brown

In 1999, Australia conducted its largest taxpayer-funded focus group – the referendum on a republic. Voting in the referendum was compulsory with 95.1 per cent of Australians eligible to vote doing so. In contrast, the 2017 Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey, which had optional voting, had a 79.5 per cent participation rate.

The result of the republic referendum was a decisive 54.87 per cent vote ‘No’. Every state recorded a majority for ‘No’. The outcome could not be explained in terms of party loyalties or ideological terms such as ‘Left’ and ‘Right’.

None of the major parties adopted an official position and analysis suggested that the results could be explained by where people lived. For example, in Victoria the four electorates with the highest ‘Yes’ votes were Kooyong and Higgins, both safe Liberal seats, and Melbourne and Melbourne Ports (now McNamara), then both safe Labor seats. In Queensland only two electorates voted ‘Yes’ — Ryan which was a safe Liberal seat, and Brisbane which was safe for Labor. A national analysis generates a similar picture – 42 of the then 148 electorates that voted ‘Yes’ were predominately in affluent, inner-metropolitan areas.

The 1999 referendum result was a harbinger of what was to come globally. Brexit, the rise of Donald Trump, and the inability of the French establishment to suppress the ‘gilets janunes’ (Yellow Vests) and Marine Le Pen should not have come as a surprise.

In Australia, the referendum results revealed the nature of the intellectual and political classes, who overwhelmingly inhabit the inner-metropolitan suburbs. Also, they exposed a lack of awareness within the major political parties, who could not accept that in the post-communist world, that Australia had divided into two nations.

Consequently, almost a quarter of a century later, the 2022 federal election results form a bookend to that nationwide focus group. Both Labor and the Coalition are now starkly confronted with an uncomfortable new political reality: a collapsing primary vote and an insurgency of Greens and various Independent MPs.

Two Nations and the 2004 federal election

The Liberal Party’s drafting of the Australian Republican Movement’s leader, Malcolm Turnbull, who blamed John Howard for ‘breaking the nation’s heart’, was a manifestation of the obstinacy of the elites.

Turnbull made a substantial contribution to the philosophical quagmire that the Liberals have created for themselves. One politician who saw the philosophical challenges of the future was Mark Latham who, even before he became Labor leader, said this in 2002:

For the past decade, the Left has been debating globalisation as an economic event when, in fact, its main political impact has been cultural… With the end of the Cold War, the effectiveness of this approach has expired.

A starting point is to rethink the political spectrum, to move beyond notions of Left and Right…

…it is possible to identify two distinctive political cultures in Australia. The powerful centre of our society, concentrated in the international heart of the major cities, talks a different language to suburban communities. In lifestyle and political values, they are poles apart.

At the social centre, people tend to take a tourist’s view of the world. They travel extensively, eat-out and buy-in domestic help. The cultural challenges of globalisation are seen as an opportunity, a chance to develop further one’s identity and information skills…

In the suburbs, the value set is more pragmatic. People do not readily accept the need for cultural change or the demands of identity politics. They lack the power and resources to distance themselves from neighbourhood problems. This has given them a resident’s view of society. Questions of social responsibility and service delivery are all-important…

These changes are recasting the electoral map. The key seats are now located well beyond the CBD, on the urban fringe and regional hinterland. In the 1999 Republic referendum, for instance, the further one moved away from the centre of the capital cities, the higher the proportion of No votes.

The 2004 federal election was both a first test of Latham’s theory on culture and of his, and John Howard’s, ability to execute a political strategy in response. At the time, commentator Paul Kelly remarked ‘Latham knows that repositioning Labor on social issues is a necessary step to office’. Howard won the 2004 election by managing the Liberal’s internal philosophical contradictions by supporting conservative values on cultural issues and reducing the impact of free market policies on middle Australia through extensive financial support to families. These conflicting values also have been challenging for the Nationals, especially after they went along with economic rationalism and Howard’s gun law changes in 1996.

Culture, as Latham declared in 2002, was once more of a problem for Labor than the Coalition. Since the rise of Gough Whitlam in the 1960s, Labor has turned into a middle-class, public-sector, inner-suburban party. In 1961, blue-collar workers made up 46 per cent of the Labor Party’s membership in New South Wales. By 1981, that figure had fallen to 21 per cent. As Andrew Scott, a closer observer of Labor politics noted in 1991, by the late 1980s ‘a professional [was] more than three times a likely as a manual worker, and five times more likely than a salesperson, personal service employee or clerk, to participate in the ALP’s most basic structures.’

This transformation of Labor’s party membership was reflected in the policies of its parliamentary wing, perhaps best represented by Graham Richardson’s pro-Greens election strategy at the 1990 federal election – Bob Carr as New South Wales premier virtually shutting down the state’s timber industry in the 1990s’, and the call of the then Queensland ALP state director to sacrifice timber jobs in Tasmania for mainland Greens votes.

Under Howard, the Coalition took a different path. A report on the 2004 federal election commissioned by the Forestry and Furnishing Products Division of the CFMEU, noted:

At the start of the election campaign, Mr. Howard felt obliged to accept advice that he should appease the environment lobby because it was so overwhelming. He had a few concerns including the fact that he personally had signed Tasmania’s Regional Forest Agreement and the impact of his decision on timber workers and their communities.

Howard ignored the advice of his staff and the Liberals’ pollsters and honoured the regional forest agreement. In the last week of the 2004 election campaign Howard spoke to a meeting of 1,000 timber workers in Launceston. He won the votes of people such as timber worker Ken Hall who said:

I have come to believe that Howard is the best leader to represent the timber workers of Tasmania. And that’s a pretty big mouthful coming from a lifelong Labor supporter who first voted for Arthur Calwell in 1966 and has voted for every Labor leader in every election since then…

While Latham sought to appease the left of the Labor Party on environmental issues, he was willing to declare that marriage was the union of a man and a woman for life, to the exclusion of all others. The Coalition then introduced legislation to amend the Family Law Act to incorporate his definition of marriage. Labor’s response split its caucus as Anthony Albanese and other frontbenchers argued Labor had gone too far in seeking the support of Christians, who were unlikely to vote Labor anyway. Significantly, subsequent Labor leaders, Kim Beazley, Kevin Rudd, and Julia Gillard maintained Latham’s position of opposing same sex marriage until 2011. This fracas within Labor reinforced to the outer suburbs and regions that Labor lived in a different world from them, and consolidated conservative voters behind the Coalition.

Labor and the Greens were not the only challenges facing the Coalition. There was also the forerunner of the ‘Teal’ candidates, ‘Liberals for Forests’. However, unlike today, the Coalition did not adopt an appeasement approach. Inner-metropolitan Liberal voters who were unhappy with the Coalition’s environment policies, were made aware that a vote for the Greens was also vote for their economic policies and their radical stance on drugs. The Green’s position on drugs was exposed in the first week of the election campaign and contributed to their poor result.

The 2004 federal election was probably John Howard’s greatest electoral victory. The Coalition increased its majority in the House of Representatives and in Queensland it won four of the six Senate positions, giving a government a majority in the Senate for the first time in decades. Labor and the political commentariat attempted to put the results down to an interest rate scare campaign and Latham’s inexperience.

The ever-astute, long-time Labor Party pollster Rod Cameron saw it differently:

Most experienced observers — from both sides of politics — expected John Howard to be returned, but narrowly, with most tipping a small net gain in seats and votes for Labor. That this did not happen was a big surprise to the campaign professionals on both sides….

Howard won because of economic management perceptions and he increased his majority because of Labor’s politically suicidal Tasmanian forestry policy.

As recently as 1993 Labor had won as many provincial and rural seats as it did outer-metropolitan seats. However, in 2004 Labor won 14 of the 63 provincial and rural seats and 19 of the 46 outer-metropolitan seats. At the time, the view of political analysts Peter van Onselen and Phil Senior was that:

Labor can’t (win back regional seats) while the party is controlled by the inner-city latte set. It has become so narrow in its inner-city focus it has lost touch with its working-class roots in the bush as well as outer-metropolitan areas. Its grubby preference deal with the Greens was the culmination of this transformation. Selling out forestry workers to win over inner-city greens not only lost Labor seats in Tasmania, but respect across provincial and rural Australia.

As with the republic referendum results, this outcome was not the message the elites and the political class on both sides of the political divide wanted to hear or had expected, as Rod Cameron had pointed out. They remained unrepentant in their determination to impose their values on what they view as the unenlightened masses. The political class resent the democratic process and reflect the arrogance of the elites described by an American historian, Christopher Lasch:

The culture wars that have convulsed America since the sixties are best understood as a form of class warfare, in which an enlightened elite (as it thinks of itself) seeks not so much to impose its values on the majority (a majority perceived as incorrigibly racist, sexist, provincial, and xenophobic), much less persuade the majority by means of rational public debate, as to create parallel or ‘alternative’ institutions in which it will no longer be necessary to confront the unenlightened at all.

The Coalition has not hammered home the cultural advantage it gained under Howard. Instead, it has taken the same direction as Labor and today it is paying the price. Meanwhile, the Greens are well-advanced in their long march to be the party of the inner-metropolitan suburbs. This is at the expense of Liberal and Labor, which have not done to the Greens what they did to Pauline Hanson – both major parties preferenced One Nation last.

Latham’s analysis focused on symptoms or consequences rather than the causes of the cultural transformation. The origins of that transformation lie in the contest between liberalism and conservatism, which has ebbed and flowed since the days of the French and American revolutions. It took 200 years for liberalism to dominate conservatism culturally in Anglo-Saxon and, to a lesser degree, western European countries. Its ascendancy was heralded by the cultural revolution of the 1960s.

One example of this ascendancy in Australia is the employers’ successful assault on the concept of the basic wage in 1964, the outcome of which was foreseen. Its effect was to undermine the family unit. Another was the removal of the concept of fault from Australia’s divorce law, and the transformation of marriage in 1975 from a permanent relationship to what has been described as serial monogamy.

Given the philosophical incompatibility of conservatism and liberalism, why did it take so long for the ascendancy of liberalism to extract a political price? One response is that, from the end of the Second World War to the 1990s, the political landscape in Australia and other Western countries was viewed through the prism of communism, socialism and the extent to which it is necessary for the State to intervene in the economy. For example, in 1967 Robert Menzies wrote ‘the great issue to which Liberalism must direct itself is Socialism’.

The Labor Party had already watered down the socialist objective in its party platform in 1981, and by the time the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989, Marxism as an economic theory was discredited. The Liberals’ focus on socialism had diverted attention away from the fundamental incompatibility of conservatism with liberalism. Two developments in the 1980s delayed this inevitable reckoning. The first was Malcolm Fraser’s rejection of the liberal, economic agenda of his treasurer John Howard, and the second was Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s 1987 campaign for the national leadership of the Coalition.

Meanwhile, on the Labor side of politics, economic rationalism penetrated the walls of the ALP, a phenomenon that destroyed the party’s ideological rudder – its commitment to the working classes. Traditional Labor is conservative. Its instincts and values are at odds with Labor’s current ruling class, and a takeover by economic liberalism has taken a political toll. In 1998, then deputy leader Gareth Evans admitted that:

I think we are now all acutely aware, that the government almost certainly got ahead of the wider community…. Jobs were no longer for life or secure. …The rise of service industries at the expense of the smokestacks may have created a more fluid and flexible workplace, but one affecting working hours and family responsibilities. Agribusiness pressures and the closure of family farms put many rural communities under stress.

Upper income groups by and large did well in Australia … enjoying high quality access not only to continuing substantial incomes, but to information technology and communications services; to leisure amenities, entertaining and travel; and indeed to the political system.

For lower income groups it was a different story: wage incomes grew slowly, and even with an array of new government social wage payments which in fact did make lower income earners better off, both absolutely and relatively, they found it difficult to think of themselves as better off. And they could never match the access of the upper income groups to information technology, to leisure services, to the political system – or even to some aspects of consumer society.

While Labor has known since 1998 that economic liberalism contained the seeds of its political heartache, it still has the Hawke/Keating era on a pedestal.

As with the Liberals, the loyalty of Labor’s political class to the cultural values of their social set has outweighed the interests of the people they purported to represent and the political interests of their party. Labor Party veteran and former state minister, Rod Cavalier