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Are metropolitans “real Australians”?

Summary:
It’s become customary in Australian politics to define some subset of the population as “real Australians” whose views and concerns deserve special attention. In the wake of the election outcome, I wrote a somewhat tongue-in-cheek piece for Crikey, imagining how this frame might be applied to metropolitan Australians. It’s over the fold While both major parties treated urban Australians with a degree of disdain, it was the conservatives who paid the highest price for it this time around. John Quiggin May 25, 2022 (Image: Mitchell Squire/Private Media)Comparing the discussion of the 2022 election with previous post-mortems, one standard element is notable in its absence. The discussion has focused on the loss of the Liberal heartland, the concerns of women voters and

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It’s become customary in Australian politics to define some subset of the population as “real Australians” whose views and concerns deserve special attention. In the wake of the election outcome, I wrote a somewhat tongue-in-cheek piece for Crikey, imagining how this frame might be applied to metropolitan Australians. It’s over the fold


While both major parties treated urban Australians with a degree of disdain, it was the conservatives who paid the highest price for it this time around.

John Quiggin

May 25, 2022

(Image: Mitchell Squire/Private Media)

Comparing the discussion of the 2022 election with previous post-mortems, one standard element is notable in its absence. The discussion has focused on the loss of the Liberal heartland, the concerns of women voters and the fact that climate policy mattered after all; what is missing is the ritual anointing of one group of voters (rural and regional Australians, people of faith, the residents of Western Sydney and so on) as the “real Australians” who have received inadequate respect from the political class and whose concerns must be attended to.

A look at the post-election map suggests that this year’s candidate group may be called “metropolitan Australians” — that is, residents of Australia’s state and territory capital cities. On current indications, the Liberal Party could hold as few as 10 to 12 metropolitan seats, less than the combined total of Greens and urban independents. 

It is easy to imagine the kind of thing that might be written about these electorates if their inhabitants were seen as “real Australians”:

Metropolitan Australians are sick of being scorned and derided for everything from their coffee preferences to their over-education. Their concern about climate change is routinely mocked as a religious orthodoxy, often by commentators who claim to be concerned about religious freedom for “people of faith”.  Although their income taxes and GST supply the great majority of government revenue, they are regularly treated as parasites living off the relatively modest amounts paid by mining companies in royalties and company taxes. While the struggles of other Australians are treated sympathetically, young metropolitans, unable to enter the housing market, are blamed for spending their money on smashed avocado — or just for not having parents wealthy enough to support them. 

While both major parties have treated metropolitan Australians with disdain, the conservatives have been far worse, and have paid a higher price. When then deputy prime minister Michael McCormack described millions of hardworking metropolitans as “woke, inner-city greenies”, no one batted an eye. By contrast, the use of terms like “redneck” and “bogan” for rural and regional Australians has resulted in instant cancellation; indeed, Anthony Albanese was criticised on the basis that random residents of his electorate had used them.

On Saturday, however, metropolitan Australians found their voice. They are sick of being put down and ignored by the elite rural and regional minority who have held an unfair share of political power, and they are not going to take it any more.

Of course, this kind of thing is just as nonsensical as any attempt to divide us into “real Australians” and “the rest”. But if the Liberal Party ignores the results of the election or, worse still, follows the lead of Barnaby Joyce and the National Party in denouncing city-dwellers, they will face immense difficulties.

Historically, independents and Greens have found it hard to get into Parliament. But once elected, their major party opponents have found them hard to remove. Indeed, no Green candidate elected in a general state or federal election has subsequently been defeated (some byelection winners have lost their seats at the next general election). Independents have also held office for long periods.

Given this knowledge, the Liberal Party might decide to give up on winning back the seats of Greens and independents and focus on its conservative base in the hope that the inevitable difficulties of government will produce a swing away from Labor. But this would be a desperate strategy. Based on results so far, achieving a Liberal majority solely by winning seats now held by Labor would require a two-party-preferred vote of 54-46 — that is, a swing of 6%. In recent history, only the 1996 and 2007 elections have come close to this.

The Liberals could form a minority government with a smaller swing. But unless they came very close to an outright majority, they would be forced to deal with the same metropolitan independents they have treated with contempt so far. 

The alternative strategy — of breaking the coalition with the Nationals and trying to regain the ground they have lost in metropolitan Australia — is the more promising in theory. But the handful of remaining metropolitan Liberals are a minority in their own partyroom. In any case, most are outer-suburban conservatives, more attuned to their regional neighbours than to the urban majority.

We are unlikely to see the “metropolitan Australians” trope in our political commentary. But in a country as urbanised as Australia, and with traditional party allegiances breaking down, it is the big cities where future elections will mostly be decided.

John Quiggin
He is an Australian economist, a Professor and an Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow at the University of Queensland, and a former member of the Board of the Climate Change Authority of the Australian Government.

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