Demographic problems for the Liberals

I have long been pessimistic about demographic trends in Liberal support. Last May Ian Watson, using data from both the Australian Election Survey and Newspoll, clearly showed problems for the Liberals in that their support was concentrated in older cohorts.

This week, Watson has updated the Newspoll part of his analysis, which confirms the pattern of results in previous studies. Of course in a year the Coalition was defeated that’s hardly surprising in an analysis based on voting intentions. When general swings are on they usually cut across all age groups. The yet-to-be-released 2007 Australian Election Survey, which by asking also about party identification can get beyond some of the transitory factors affecting election outcomes, will be more interesting.

With this proviso, they key figures in Watson’s analysis look at the voting intentions of people in their 50s. We can see the political effects as the dreaded Whitlam generation comes through, replacing more conservative voters born in the 1930s and 1940s (Watson’s data goes back to the 1987 election). A whole generation of Russells!

Fortunately younger Labor politicians are on average far more sensible than their Whitlam-era equivalents, so the effects on public policy shouldn’t be too serious. But it confirms that elections will be harder for the Coalition to win in the future than they were in the past.

8 thoughts on “Demographic problems for the Liberals

  1. You’re assuming cohort rather than age effects dominate, but notoriously people get more conservative as they get older. Just because the baby boomers were lefties in their youth doesn’t mean they will be in their dotage (as an unrepentant centre-lefty, more’s the pity from my POV).

    If in fact the age effect dominates then as the median age of voters rises with population aging we’ll see more conservatism. Actually I think that’s the only serious threat to growth in living standards from population aging – the old are not fond of creative destruction, so innovation may slow.

    Politically it’s a threat to social and economic liberals and democratic socialists alike. But over the long run, party policies and images usually follow where the median voter goes, so the long run partisan effects (as distinct from policy effects) are negligible whether the population moves left or right.


  2. DD – People may get more conservative with age in some respects at they get older, but this work is looking at party allegiances, which can combine with a variety of personal perspectives. I think it is pretty clearly showing a cohort effect at work. Watson’s point is that people in their 50s were much more Coalition-oriented in the past than they are now, and we can track them back through their younger ages. I would predict that the same group will continue with their political views into their 60s and 70s. Like other old people, they are stuck in their habits.


  3. Andrew, your argument about age cohorts affecting the electoral prospects of the Liberal Party is an interesting one. I would have thought, though, that the more important demographic issue facing the Liberals was connected to ethnicity rather than age.

    If you look at Melbourne, for instance, the electoral map correlates very closely to the map showing percentages of the population born overseas. In Australia there is no electorate in which more than 22% of the population was born overseas which voted Liberal at the last election. 32 of the 33 electorates with the lowest proportion of English speakers voted Labor.

    The Liberals are, rightly or wrongly, perceived to be the party of insiders and so don’t catch much of the immigrant vote, regardless of how much support they give to open borders or to overseas students. There is American research, too, showing second generation immigrants moving further to the left rather than assimilating and moving politically to the right.

    With both major parties committed to mass immigration, it will become more difficult for the Liberals to win what were once marginal seats in Sydney and Melbourne.


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  5. As for Whitlam. ROFL. If anything, the memory of Whitlam is what will keep the baby-boomers sceptical about Labor. Remember they are the ones who actually remember the disaster wrought by Gough, Jim, and the gang.

    Also, so long as our immigration program remains skewed in favour of skilled migrants – a big question mark whenever Labor is in power – then support for socialism will decline no matter how many Luvvie baby-boomers continue into their dotage.


  6. John: “the memory of Whitlam is what will keep the baby-boomers sceptical about Labor”

    It’s been over 30 years since Whitlam. Anyone inclined to vote Labor who is still put off following Hawke, Keating and now Rudd, is pretty much put off for good – they’re already a rusted on Coalition voter.


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