The 2007 Australian Election: blue-collar voters, migrants and the environment.

Author:Betts, Katharine
Position:Report - Survey

The 2007 Australian Election Study shows that many blue-collar voters, the so-called Howard battlers, returned to Labor. Combined with earlier surveys it also shows that non-English-speakiing-background migrants have consistently been more likely to vote Labor than the Australia-born. They were particularly likely to do so in 2007, especially if they were in blue-collar occupations: The Howard Government's Work Choices legislation probaly played a role in these outcomes. However, the data also show that Labor's environmental policy also played an important part. Thirty five per cent of voters were influenced by an environmental issue, during the campaign, more than were affected by any other set of issues. Concern about the environment is spread across all occupational groups, though it is rather more pronounced among professionals.


At the federal election on 24 November last year the conservative Liberal/National Party Coalition Government, led by John Howard, lost to the Labor Party led by Kevin Rudd. This brought an end to 11 years of Coalition rule under Howard. Commentators have offered various reasons for the defeat: at 68, Howard was too old to lead, or the open succession plan for Peter Costello to succeed him was too unsettling; the Government was tried and dogged by scandal (the Australian Wheat Board affair, the war in Iraq, the harshness of its asylum-seeker policy, the children overboard affair, the Haneef affair); (1) welfare reforms, such as new work rules for single parents, had alienated sections of the electorate; (2) or its new industrial relations policy--Work Choices (3) --had proved to be electoral poison.

In some cases the Government failings listed are so numerous that it can be a puzzle to understand how any one could have voted for it at all. Perhaps Labor just needed a plausible leader, one such as Kevin Rudd, a confident media performer and social conservative? With him in charge the country could be liberated from a deeply unpopular government. (4) This story has some currency, though it is hard to square with Rudd's pre-election image where, in some guises, he was presented as a younger version of Howard, or sometimes as 'John Howard lite'. (5)

Moreover, despite this narrative, Howard's approval remained quite healthy up until the election, with more voters satisfied with how he was doing his job as were dissatisfied (43 to 46 per cent satisfied from June 2007, up to 51 per cent satisfied just before the election, compared with 43 to 45 per cent dissatisfied). In contrast, on the eve of Labor Prime Minister, Paul Keating's, loss in March 1996, around 36 per cent of voters were satisfied and 56 per cent dissatisfied. (6) For Rudd to appear as a youthful Howard, agreeing with him on most policy issues, could have served the challenger well. (7) But he and his party were opposed to the deeply unpopular industrial relations policy. They also promised to sign the Kyoto Treaty, a commitment that may have positioned Labor as more genuinely concerned about global warming and the environment than the Coalition.

Howard owed much of his previous electoral success to a combination of economic prosperity, which enhanced job security, and a strong appeal to voters' sense of pride in their nation's identity. (8) This contrasted with the rather apologetic approach towards Australia's history and culture characteristic of some left-cleaning intellectuals which, via multiculturalism and aspects of Indigenous policy, had leaked across to the Labor Party's image. As Guy Rundle puts it: 'many people in cultural, policy and educational milieux feel a deep frustration with certain characteristics of Australian life'. (9) Some of them persisted in seeing Howard's positive view of Australia as inward looking xenophobia. For example, after the election one Australian actor, writer and director (Brendan Cowell), was delighted to be free of the atmosphere of racism, fear and hatred which he attributed to Howard. His relief was so great that he spent the night in the street crying and hugging people: '[It was] as if all the negativity, repression and hatred was being breathed out of the national character'. (10)

Elections are winner-take-all competitions and we often describe their outcomes in the dramatic language of rout and triumph. But most elections are won or lost by only a few per cent of votes and, in 2007, though the two-party-preferred result was strongly in Labor's favour (52.7 to 47.3 per cent), the vote on first preferences was much closer. 41.8 per cent for the coalition versus 43.4 per cent for Labor, a difference of 1.6 per cent. In 2004, when the Coalition won, the first-preference results were 46.4 per cent to 37.6 per cent in the Coalition's favour, a difference of 8.8 per cent.


The Coalition had been in power for a long time and, despite the popularity of its leader, had accumulated enemies and its share of policy failures. Nonetheless, Labor's victory in 2007 was not assured. Commentators have long recognised that the party suffers from a divided constituency: one part consisting of some new-class professionals oriented towards internationalism and uneasily connected to the other part, a more patriotically inclined working class. (11) Former Labor leader, Mark Latham, refers to it as: 'our split constituency problem--the inner city trendies versus the outer suburban pragmatists'. (12)

Professionals are an expanding group: 13 per cent of the labor force in 1991 and 20 per cent in 2008. (13) But this uncomfortable alliance of a soft left intelligentsia with less affluent blue-collar workers, a group slowly eroding as the economy shifted away from manufacturing to services, was always in danger of being out-voted. Ranged against it were small business people searching for material security, together with ever growing numbers of semi-professionals and white-collar workers, some of them well off, others not, but most aspiring for upward mobility for their children.

If the electorate is seen in terms of groups with different economic interests, Labor's base looks weak. It is also true that less affluent voters, attached to their nation and dependent on it, were open to Howard's positive nationalism, as indeed were a range of patriotically inclined voters across the socio-economic spectrum. Thus cultural divisions centred on love of country versus cosmopolitanism can also help explain electoral outcomes. Here divisions are marked more by habits of the mind than economics.

But these habits connect with economic status. For example, well educated professionals can function comfortably in a globalising economy, afford extensive travel and cultivate networks overseas, while those less skilled are limited to local labour markets. On the other hand, the old Australia-born working class has been steadily augmented over the past decades by non-English-speaking-background (NESB) immigrants who, on some aspects of cultural diversity, may have something in common with the professionally qualified Labor supporters. Thus the blue-collar workers who started voting for the Coalition in 1996 could have been disproportionately native-born.

The themes of prosperity and thus job security, together with national identity, have helped explain the Coalition's past electoral victories. But in 2007, in the midst of a prolonged drought and growing anxiety about climate change, a third theme--the environment--may have introduced a new factor which was also strong enough to affect outcomes.

National identity was not an issue in the 2007 election. But how well do questions of job security--thrown into relief by the experiment with Work Choices--and the environment explain the result?

Labor's first-preference vote in 2004 had been its worst since 1949, and its two-party-preferred vote (47.3 per cent) the worst since 1996. Birrell, Healy and Allan concluded that Labor was rapidly being reduced to a...

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