What will stop Liberal demographic decline?

Recently commenter Robert asked about my views on Scott Steel’s demographic political analysis. Using 2007 polling data, Steel finds what several others – including me, Andrew Leigh, and Ian Watson – have found before: that the Coalition relies heavily on older voters.

While I agree with the broad thrust of Steel’s analysis, I have a slightly different way of looking at it. The 2007 polling results he reports are for me the combination of three different dynamics – long-term trends in party identification, medium-term trends in the issue cycle which affect what those with weak or no party affiliation want out of the political system (which I have discussed before), and shorter-term factors that may affect particular polls and elections but don’t necessarily in themselves affect long-term perceptions of parties (for examples, pick any newspaper from any day at random).

On party ID, as can be seen below the trends are very much against the Coalition, making elections increasingly difficult to win because base support is too low. On the other hand, the arguments that the Greens would emerge as the new third party don’t seem likely either. Even in the most indoctrinated and fashion-prone age group, the 18-30s, the Coalition has nearly three times the base support of the Greens. Labor’s security as the natural party of government comes not from an increase in its base, which apart from the Labor-leaning forty-somethings is consistent across age groups, but from its two major rivals hating each other more than they hate Labor.

Question: ‘Generally speaking, do you usually think of yourself as Liberal, Labor, National, or what?’, in the Australian Election Survey 2007 n=1,711

Scott suggests that the Liberals need to

reform[] their political ideology to be more reflective of the views and values of people currently under 60

There is an interesting question here about how far apart these ‘ideologies’ really are (‘worldviews’ might be a better term), but for this post I will assume a significant gap. But regardless of what the Liberals actually think, say or do, it is going to be very difficult to change the stereotypes voters use as a substitute for analysing actual policies.

For example, no matter how much money the Liberals spend on social welfare issues – and the Howard government spent staggering amounts of money, increasing spending on health, education, and social security at a faster per capita rate than under Keating – they could not win these issues in the Newspoll series asking which part is best to handle them. If you can’t change perceptions with all the government’s media power and zillions of dollars of taxpayers’ cash, I very doubt that they can be changed with the meagre resources of opposition.

It suggests that other than the occasional electoral win after dismally failed Labor governments cause big swings from unaffiliated voters and weak Labor supporters, the Liberals can in the long term only win regularly if there are some big social, economic or other changes that restructure politics in ways which favour them. The Depression and World War II possibly helped set up the period of post-WW2 Liberal strength, while the Vietnam War, the rise of middle class professionals and a massive welfare class both dependent on tax dollars, and control of education systems (among other things) favoured the left of politics over the last few decades.

16 thoughts on “What will stop Liberal demographic decline?

  1. I wouldn’t pay too much attention to younger people preferring touchy feelly politics. I could trot out that old Churchill quote (at least I think it was him), but to give my own life example, I started out voting for the Nuclear Disarmament Party in the eighties. And then I grew up.


  2. Talking about the fixed perception on issues. I think it was the Bill Clinton theory of politics which was that if the focus was on health/education he won, if it was on security/economy then the Republicans won.

    This same sort of issue bias exists in Australia. For years the Libs owned a monopoly (some would argue false) on the economy/interest rates.

    The trouble with changing a party is that the hardcore adherents probably like where it is and think that rather than change the message they need to convince everyone why the message is right.

    I expect the Liberals to turn to a small government, anti-deficit message (given the Rudd spending).

    Has the conservative party in the UK shifted its message much under David Cameron?? Does it now appeal more to a younger demographic than in the past? IF so what did the re-branding process involve?


  3. Though a key difference with the UK is optional and non-preferential voting. There it’s possible to win government with only 25% of potential voters supporting you, whereas here it is close to 50% (after allowing for informal votes and those who don’t vote).

    The economy is one of those issues that is not clearly ‘owned’ by either party, I think because it is fairly easy to discern performance without party stereotypes. However, it is an issue where the Liberals are not running against strong stereotypes, as they are say with health and education.


  4. I started out voting for the Nuclear Disarmament Party in the eighties. And then I grew up.
    Are you Peter Garrett?


  5. “On the other hand, the arguments that the Greens would emerge as the new third party don’t seem likely either.”

    If you were in W.A. (2 Greens senators, 4 MLCs, 1 MLA) you might think they’re the new third party. It’ll be interesting to see how much of the Liberal vote Adele Carles can keep. She and her husband are solicitors, young and conservatively stylish, 3 photogenic children, and Adele is known as a campaigner against ridiculous over-development on our local beaches. No dreadlocks or tattoos, or history of invading power stations etc. and I have no idea what she thinks of socialism, but, not much, I imagine. I was surprised so many of my neighbours voted for her.

    The tories have done well in England because Labour is so bad (and in the same way they are here) and because Cameron is young and modern: environmentally aware, for example. I think the Libs should have stayed with John Hewson – he probably would have won the next election and we would have had a real difference.

    I thought Hewson was attractive because he seemed to have youthful energy and fresh ideas, compared to Keating. Since Gough came along the ALP has been the party of big, forward-thinking ideas – even if you didn’t like Hawke, he was intellectually superior to his opposition. The Libs have got to get an attractive leader (I thought Turnbull was going to be it, but he’s not looking so good now) and some fresh ideas. Fresh is a word none of us would associate with Rudd.


  6. The Australia expat Diaspora are overwhelmingly Liberal voters, but in 12 years of government the Liberals kept on being socialists and were unable to entice them back.

    Here’s an old conservative saying that describes the Liberals’ predicament:

    “You reap what you sow.”


  7. Andrew, I would say that up until the final Howard years the Lib’s had a polling monopoly on the economy. That’s why Rudd is “an economic conservative”. This came out of bashing the Labour governments federally and in various states (especially Vic) for the massive deficits and debts.


  8. “the most indoctrinated and fashion-prone age group, the 18-30s”

    Why on earth do you say that? I would have thought the 60 plus were the most indoctrinated (OK not fashion prone – but why is identifying with the greens a fashion?).

    Note – not 18-30s, not a green voter.


  9. “I thought Hewson was attractive because he seemed to have youthful energy and fresh ideas, compared to Keating.”

    Russell, are you sure you’re remembering correctly? Hewson 1992-3 was a different man to the Hewsonof the present. Remember 15% GST, massive income tax cuts, lip-smacking IR reform and huge cuts in government spending? If people like you forget that, then it’s no surprise that he can resurrect himself as some kind of latter day Malcolm Fraser (which is in turn a reinvention of sorts).


  10. Rajat – haven’t forgotten, and I didn’t like it, but it was coherent, and I thought he made a persuasive case. (Now we do have a GST, and would it not be better to bump it up to 15% and get rid of other taxes like payroll tax? or pay down these huge debts the Libs complain of?)
    Anyway I don’t say Hewson’s program is the one for today, just that it was new, fresh and well put.
    The result in Freo shows that despite demographics, local shifts can occur. You can run a sort of Obama-esque ‘above party politics’ campaign and take votes from both the tired, old parties – if you have a really good candidate.


  11. Russell – You are right on the third party point; I misphrased the post and was referring to claims that the Greens would become the main opposition party.

    Wilful – A reasonable point. My impression is that curriculum up the 1960s was quite conservative, but reflected views for which there was a strong social consensus. However, since then curriculum has become politicised and radicalised. Even at my conservative private school 25 years ago, we had to read books that were way to the left of mainstream opinion.

    Of course students of any generation have minds of their own, and do not believe all they are told at school, even if they strategically repeat it to gain marks.


  12. The issue is the 60+ are dieing faster then the 18 to 30 year group, nothing more and nothing less. For labor it means nothing, as you correctly point out there support across the age range is pretty flat, for the liberals it’s a disaster. The liberal’s only hope is to put forward policies that attract the young swing and green vote. I would suggest that work choices and climate change denial are not smart moves.


  13. Andrew Norton wrote: “If you can’t change perceptions with all the government’s media power and zillions of dollars of taxpayers’ cash, I very doubt that they can be changed with the meagre resources of opposition.”

    It really comes down to how the two sides of politics are viewed in terms of what they (claim to) represent.

    The Left are far more likely to want to ensure Granny’s taken care of when she’s retired, because they consider it’s the right and proper thing to do. However, with the Right, there’s the perception that, yes, the Libs will put the money in out of a self-interested need for political survival, but, you can’t help thinking that they’d much prefer to sell her off piece by piece for spare body parts on the free market — and probably would, if anyone turned their back.

    Fundamentally, it’s a matter of lack trust in the benevolence of people whose ideology is self interest and greed. I can’t imagine how anyone could be remotely surprised by that.


  14. No iamspam, I am not Peter Garrett. I would have the thought the bit where I said I grew up would have dispelled any thoughts in that direction.


  15. Entropy said “I started out voting for the Nuclear Disarmament Party in the eighties. And then I grew up.”

    Well, I started out voting Liberal mainly because I wasn’t that interested in politics. Then, in the early 80s there were a few events in Australian politics that, to me, showed just what an irresponsible, opportunistic lot they were. I’ve never voted Liberal since and cannot imagine doing so ever again


  16. Labor’s security as the natural party of government comes… …from its two major rivals hating each other more than they hate Labor.

    What’s interesting is the complete reversal this represents from the first sixty years of the Federation, when Labor’s opposition was composed of erstwhile rivals united only by their hate for Labor (initially, the Free Traders and the Protectionists; later on the social conservatives, nationalists, agrarian socialists, small-government liberals and so forth).


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