Generational differences in issue opinion?

At the end of another post on demographic shifts in voting patterns against the Coalition, Pollytics blogger Scott Steel says:

Think of the vast generation gap that exists between the youngest and oldest cohorts of the electoral roll on climate change, same sex marriage, censorship laws, asylum seekers, immigration policy and general technology issues – how will the Libs pivot towards Gen Y when on any of these issues the views of the party’s older membership base is incompatible with the majority view of Gen Y..

But is there a vast generaton gap on all these issues? I was particularly curious about immigration, as opinion on this issue appears to be cyclical, though this does not rule out generational effects as well.

On looking at the 2007 Australian Election Survey’s question on migration by Scott’s categories (Pre-WW2 born up to 1945, boomers born 1946 to 1964, Gen X born 1965 to 1980, and Gen Y born 1981 onwards) it does have the pattern he expects, but it does not show fundamental differences. Gen Y had a significantly larger majority in favour of saying that the current intake was about right or not large enough than the pre-WW2 generation, but they are both on the same side of the then seemingly cyclical pro-migration view.

Question: Number of migrants allowed into Australia: gone much too far/ gone too far/ about right/ not gone far enough/ not gone nearly far enough.

Similarly, on other issues the pattern of opinion is in the general direction Scott expects, but the gaps are not putting majorities in the generations on different sides of the issue.

Newspolls surveys find fairly even distribution of opinion on the asylum seeker issue across generations, with older people more hard line but not fundamentally different (eg here or here).

On climate change, in this Newspoll on a carbon reduction scheme last year younger voters were about 20 percentage points more likely than the 50+ to be in favour, but there was still a 61% majority in the older group backing the scheme.

I’m not sure what polls measure political opinion on technology – surely the oldies are simply baffled by it rather than politically opposed?

Only sex really divides the generations. On gay marriage older groups have minority support while younger generations have majorities in favour. And a majority of the older generations believe that displays of nudity and sex in films and magazines have gone too far, while the younger generations believe levels are about right or want even more (not quite a censorship question, though presumably on these answers younger generations would not favour it).

Question: Nudity and sex in films and magazines: gone much too far/ gone too far/ about right/ not gone far enough/ not gone nearly far enough. Australian Election Survey 2007

The demographic shifts in voting patterns are real, but I think we are short on compelling and big explanations. After all, on these issues the differences between the parties aren’t large or consistent. At this stage, the Rudd government is moderately softer on asylum seekers, moderately tougher on other migrants, moderately more in favour of censorship (Conroy’s dreaded internet filter), and proposes a moderately tougher ETS. But neither have done anything we couldn’t imagine the other party doing.

I think one of the problems for the Liberal Party is that I suspect its decline in younger groups isn’t fundamentally policy driven, but by much vaguer (and not necessarily accurate) perceptions of who the Liberals are and what they stand for. Unfortunately for the Liberal Party, once established party stereotypes are highly resistant to empirical disproof.

9 thoughts on “Generational differences in issue opinion?

  1. Is one of the problems for the Libs is that it’s too homogenous? Labor’s right and left factions allow it to sort of walk both sides of the street – something for everyone – whereas (because of Howard?) the Libs are more closely confined to their stereotype: all for big business, follow the U.S. into any war, anti-intellectual toffs etc etc


  2. Russell – This issue with younger voters pre-dates Howard; it is the multi-generational effect rather than just a Gen Y issue that is causing the problem. I think however you are right that perhaps the Libs don’t have as clear an identity as Labor. I noticed this last year when I was analysing shifts in issue opinion (which party is preferred on health, immigration etc etc) – especially in opposition for the Liberals there seems to be a common ‘general perceptions of party performance’ that triggers movements in all issues regardless of what they are actually saying on those issues, while Labor issues can be more resilient to the party’s overall performance. I’m not yet 100% clear however on why this causes the observable trends, unless it means that it doesn’t appear to stand for much on issues that are important for some voters.


  3. Andrew I’m not sure quite how it could be polled, but the question I’m interested in is “What would it take for you to switch party allegiance?”

    Very few people are single issue voters (other than voting for whoever promises the biggest tax-cut and then lying about that motivation).

    I suspect for many people positions on particular issues are not enough, its actually “the vibe”. Liberals being seen as pro-business and therefore anti-worker. John Howard being strong on security and legitimizing certain attitudes. Kim Beazley being a good bloke, but not a great leader (with out really knowing where he is only any particular issues).


  4. M – Yes, that would be an interesting question. And I think you are right that the ‘vibe’ is important, but I am struggling to get some social science rigour to this! While I think Labor is seen as being more pro-worker, I stil think this under-explains the trends we observe. This basic dichotomy between the major political forces was if anything more true when the pre-War generation formed their political views than it was for Gen X and Gen Y – who grew up in a time when middle class people had taken over the parliamentary ALP and when the unions were no longer pervasive in the workplace. I suspect at least part of the answer is in the school system, and the partial indoctrination that goes on there. Even at a conservative private school nearly 30 years ago, I had to read left-wing books. Of course it had no infuence on me, but I was already inoculated against it.


  5. I think a big problem the Libs have now is that they are afflicted with a whole bunch of the old crew that people are pretty much sick of, and they don’t have someone as tough as Kennett to sort them all out. You have Julie Bishop (awful, dull), Wilson Tuckey (mad), Tony Abbot (conservative, even for conservatives) etc. If these guys floated off into retirement and left the newer people like Jo Hockey and Turnbull alone, they’d be far better off and might actually be able to dream up some decent policies and perhaps an identity they could largely agree on. I also think that people like Jo Hockey and Turnbull alone would appeal much better to younger voters without this group of Howard era annoyances.


  6. One interesting thing about Liberal Party commentary is how contradictory theses can run simultaneously. Russell thinks the Liberals lack diversity and so have trouble appealing to multiple constituencies, Conrad thinks they have too much diversity and should dump elements of it. For once I am closer to Russell; while the urban intelligentsia is very dismissive of conservatives they are an essential element of the Liberal Party’s electoral base. I have always favoured the ‘broad church’ (why do we use that term when the Americans use ‘big tent’?) approach to maximise constituencies and minimise destabilising competition from the right (remember One Nation?).


  7. It’s not really the diversity which bothers me — it’s that they have too many members that are basically perceived to be from a government no-one wants anymore, so it makes them look stale. I don’t imagine what they actually believe or do makes much difference now apart from the obviously destructive.


  8. Conrad – On that logic, Turnbull and Hockey are as much of an issue as Abbott. After all, when the government fell they were the relevant ministers in the two areas where we can clearly identify the previous government as having unpopular policies, environment and workplace relations.


  9. Andrew Norton says:

    At this stage, the Rudd government is moderately softer on asylum seekers, moderately tougher on other migrants, moderately more in favour of censorship (Conroy’s dreaded internet filter), and proposes a moderately tougher ETS. But neither have done anything we couldn’t imagine the other party doing.

    Well said Andrew. I’ve been saying for most of the decade that, at least since Keating left the scene, both AUS’s major parties have been expressing a strongly convergent tendency. Almost certainly this policy convergence reflects an underlying political consensus in the populus.

    One sees an awful lot of nonsense spouted by both the Left & Right commentariat about “conviction politician” and “when you change the party in government you change the country”. This is piffle. The boring reality is that a party usually gets into, and hangs onto, office because “the times suit” it.

    My general rule for predicting political transactions in post-modern polities is that politicians will follow “the path of least resistance between a populace with Left-leaning political opinions…and elites with Right-leaning policy interests”. The Culture War is the exception that proves this rule. In this case the majority of voters are low-status (so-called Red-Necks or bogans) and traditionally fodder for the Left-wing. Except that they shift (“wedged”) into a Right-wing stance to protect their traditional cultural identity when this come into conflict with “minorities”.

    Voters are suspicious of politicians touting snake-oil remedies. They are sick and tired of being led by the noses towards yet another bit of post-modern liberal smoke and mirrors, whether it be multi-culti, indigenous self-government, open borders, derivatives trading, “the entrepreneur led recovery” etc. The mainstream voters force the parties towards the boring Centre because they know, from long and bitter experience, that most of these “brave new world” ideological ideas of the past generation are a crock. That is the meaning of “reform fatigue”.

    But still one hears repeated calls from “true believers” for politicians to be true to principle, as if any principle is more sacred to a politician than getting into office. Most commentators in the media and in party policy forums are, by nature, far more partisan than average voters. A study done by Katharine Betts reported in the Age in 2004 shows that ALP party leaders and officials were usually far more partisan (to the Left) than average ALP voters:

    Labor candidates’ views on important economic and social issues are significantly to the left of what those who voted for them thought, according to research that says Labor risks a “hollowing out” of its support base.

    Interestingly the same study found that:

    Coalition candidates were much more likely to hold views similar to their supporters, compared with Labor candidates and voters.

    I am not so sure of this L/NP party-voter congruence held during the latter phase of the Howard government. Most L/NP voters opposed Work-Choices. And the L/NP is still out of sync with its voters opinions on Climate Change. And, predictably, the L/NP paid for its extremism with a stronger than typical swing against it at the polls.

    On the issue of “unauthorized maritime arrivals”, the AUS populus have shown a remarkably consistent support for a policy of “controlled intake” ever since the White Australia policy was dismantled from the mid-sixties onwards. Most voters support a robust race-neutral immigration intake based on the need to bring in people with higher technical skills. They are willing to accept a fair amount of refugees so long as they go through orthodox channels. Anything beyond that stirs up a hornets nest of controversy.

    FWIW I more or less agree with the Rudd governments policy of maintaining a strict border controls and opposing people smugglers whilst softening the needlessly cruel aspects of the Howard governments policy such as “Pacific Solution”, children behind razor wire and Temporary Protection Visas. My impression is that position is where the median voter sits and is unlikely to budge.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s