Neoliberalism in the swinging outer suburbs

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Outer eastern Melbourne map

The outer suburban marginal seats will almost certainly swing to the Coalition on Saturday. And I'm sure many of the Left intelligentsia think they have the reasons for the swing all worked out: voters in the outer suburbs are uneducated, 'aspirational' cashed-up bogans who only care about their mortgages, negating their working-class origins and keeping asylum seekers on the sunny shores of the pacific islands.

The problem with that explanation is that interest rates are low, the standard of living appears to be steadily improving and the ALP has lurched to the right of the Coalition on boat arrivals. Why then would these voters all now be trending toward the Coalition when all the indicators suggest they should be happy with the incumbent?

The standard explanation is that outer suburban swinging voters are so ignorant they have been tricked into backing the Coalition by the corporate press, or that they are so self-interested they are willing to see people lose their dole simply so they can have a few extra plasma screens on their walls.

Let me paint a different picture for you based on personal experience. The ALP's electoral fortunes in Melbourne's outer south-east broadly reflect what has been happening for the party across western Sydney over the past two decades. Since the late 1980s there has been an overall long-term trend to the Coalition in these seats, though they have swung back to the ALP several times over the last few elections.

Like many who live in these areas, I am a swinging voter with no real party affiliation. I live in Pakenham, which sits on the edge of Latrobe, a marginal ALP seat expected to swing back to the Libs, and McMillan, an outer-suburban, semi-rural seat which is becoming a moderately safe Liberal seat. Adjoining Latrobe are two other tightly held, politically volatile seats, Casey and Aston, held by the Coalition by less than 2 per cent — they generally swing back and forth, but have been trending to the Coalition since the late 1980s.

I suspect the reason is that the neoliberal agenda of the last 30 years has brought clear gains in wealth and quality of life for people in these electorates. Life is good and getting better. Incomes and education levels are above the national average. Personal wealth is increasing, largely through the value of their homes. More and more children from these electorates are going onto university, and while jobs are becoming less secure, the cost of living has remained relatively low. People in these electorates want more of the same, only better.

The outer suburban economy is largely dependent on manufacturing and retail, two industries which have suffered since 2008 under Labor and which are particularly sensitive to Government policy. People want to build up their businesses and get more work — they are less interested in symbolic politics, social justice or 'social engineering' than good jobs, a strong economy and less Government regulation.

Rather than materialism, Australia's suburban neoliberalism operates on a clear principle of fairness; that your pay-offs should be consummate with your efforts. This upwardly mobile suburban sense of fairness is on the face of it hard to criticise — if you work hard, you should be rewarded. Perhaps this is why the ALP's flirtation (under Gillard-Swan) with old-school 'wealth redistribution' didn't resonate as much as the Coalition's 'growing the pie'.

The truth is that of the two largely neoliberal major parties, these swinging voters seem increasingly to see the Coalition as the more competent and philosophically coherent party to deliver on their promises.

The problem for the ALP is an acute one — how does the party embrace Australia's increasingly wealthy suburbia while not neglecting its core principles of egalitarianism and social justice?

Mark Latham wrote in the Australian Financial Review: 'The corrosion of Labor's culture has produced a crisis of Labor identity. The party is confused on economic policy, not knowing whether to embrace former Prime Minister Paul Keating's legacy of micro-reform and productivity growth or to accede to the sectional demands of union/factional bosses and the anti-competitive comfort of industry welfare.' This is the ALP's great unsolved conundrum and remains between them and a long-term hold on power.

For Treasurer Chris Bowen — who explicitly rejects notions of class and socialism — the broad idea of 'social liberalism' has the potential to be flexible enough to serve the needs of the vast majority of the electorate.

He may be right; the ALP's social liberal-democratic project is not lost on the marginal outer-suburbs just yet. The 2007 rejection of WorkChoices showed that marginal voters are not exactly free-marketeers. Fairness still prevails, even if notions of equality are diminishing. But in the end pragmatism and perceptions of competence play a much greater role than hard-fixed ideologies.


Luke Williams headshotLuke Williams is a freelance journalist who is studying law at Monash University in Melbourne. 

Topic tags: Luke Williams, election, politics, labor, alp, coalition, pakenham


 

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Existing comments

I think nothing said here lets Western Sydney or Melbourne off the hook. These electors seem to be moving toward the [ same Vote against your self ] position as the US tea party republicans.
Allan Jones | 03 September 2013


Two points made by the author gave me pause. First, here in Canada, we are extremely nervous of a real estate bubble burst. As well, the "jobs are becoming less secure" situation is a reality across most of the western world. I think that suburban voters in Australia would be wise to consider both of these tenuous "improvements" when they go into the voting booth.
Paul Orlowski | 03 September 2013


Perhaps the electorate is simply growing up or evolving. People are no longer finding security in tribalism but in the improved economic conditions that have evolved over recent decades. I suspect the levels of education are such these days that electors are no longer easily conned and do not depend on what the tribe decides. The Australian electorate has historically got it right and not made many mistakes in its choice of government. Unfortunately some governments (of both major party persuasions) have let the electorate down disastrously and paid the consequences, the Gillard ascendancy and the Howard demise being perfect examples of what the electorate resented in their choice being ignored by the party machine. The Australian electorate is perhaps the most astute in the world, perhaps partly due to compulsory voting, and I think usually gets it right. I doubt that it is as complicated as many commentators seem to think. However, studied commentary does make for good literary and intellectual exercise!!!!
john frawley | 03 September 2013


The articles are very interesting thank you
joe | 03 September 2013


Labor does not stand for anyone but their 'selfie' We know clearly what the liberals stand for and always have. The libs have also moved on left issues, they are have cashed in on the utter selfishness and stupidity of the typical Labor branch stacking, back stabbing, jobs for mates. What could have been memorable history of leadership has turned the "true beleivers' away for good. Sadly Im one of them.
Kay | 03 September 2013


A very perceptive essay, Luke - and I'm a free marketeer! A couple of comments. 1) In spite of the media spin implying otherwise, WorkChoices was not free-market: despite some good points, it was overall a massive & burdensome package of regulation. Disturbingly, the Coalition, in its labour regulations platform, now seems more intent on being anti-union than pro-free market. (It is possible to be not anti-union, not anti-business, and yet pro-free market at the same time - e.g. almost everyone forgets that the earliest t.u.s were pro laissez-faire.) 2) The reason why competence and not doctrine is, as you rightly say, a key issue today is that a doctrinal consensus has emerged, since the Hawke/Keating era, punctuated by the fall of communism, that market capitalism is not the dread bogeyman that Labor traditionally held it to be. Wealth-making per se is not a zero-sum game in which one man's gain is another man's loss, as Marx and the socialists had insisted (though Doug Cameron and some of the Greens will have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the fold on this.) Labor, though, is yet to realize that this has implications for its confused allegiance to "egalitarianism" (equal rights or equal outcomes?), which confusion in many ways actually impedes the accomplishment of social justice. Human society is not an ant colony. Each of us humans, from the smallest zygote, is a unique creation, gloriously unequal to anyone else.
HH | 03 September 2013


The age-old struggle between the ‘haves’ and the ‘nots’ will always prevail. What we are seeing at present is that many of the children of the former ‘nots’ have up-graded and find themselves closer to being among the ‘haves’. Many of the ’nots’ of the past belonged to the Irish-Catholic communities, and this gave them added cohesion , since most of the ‘haves’ were Protestants. Now many of the leading ‘haves‘ are also Catholics, so this issue has lost its influence. The ‘Us’ and ‘them’ divisions will always hold sway, but the make-up of who belongs to which group will continue to evolve.
Robert Liddy | 03 September 2013


Sorry, you've said it all in a nice way, Luke, but you are basically saying that these people are greedy and self-interested. You mention asylum seekers in your opening, but then avoid that issue in favour of talking about how the Coalition is seen as 'philosophically coherent' and 'competent'. What explains obsession with being as cruel as possible to asylum seekers? And I disagree with you that the ALP is out in front on that one. Also, I don't think that voters in outer suburbs are particularly educated on these issues: manufacturing would have suffered under the Coalition too, make no mistake. It's because the issues are far broader and more complex than that e.g. the car industry here is just not financially viable because our population is too small (there is a lot written on this, particular, problem for Australia). And, where is climate change in this election? Again, I can only see that the good, cashed up and smug voters of outer suburbs (and other parts of Australia too) just can't be bothered worrying about all that when to do so might cause them to hesitate from buying that new flat screen tv...
Lydia | 03 September 2013


I am not sure that Scott Morrison would agree that "the ALP has lurched to the right of the Coalition on boat arrivals." Unfortunately they have still lurched to the right. The article is disappointing because it does not explain the depth of the social structure of our society.
Rev John Smith | 03 September 2013


Western society as a whole has been influenced by the "Greed is good " philosophy of the 1960,s. In the old days governments and businesses thought long term. loans were paid back over a long period. One put money aside for regular maintenance and depreciation One put money aside for such expenditure as long service leave and sickness benefit. These days people think short term. Superannuation was brought in to ensure that pensions were paid for out of reserves not current taxation. business do not lay money aside for depreciation but bodies involved in public utilities take out short term loans to pay for upgrades which are charged to the customer. Countries like Greece made the mistakes of paying over generous pensions out of tax receipts that did not exist, while letting the rich avoid tax.
John ozanne | 03 September 2013


'The ALP has lurched to the right of the Coalition on boat arrivals' is a very ignorant statement! Wait till Scott hears about that, and what he does post Saturday!
Angela | 03 September 2013


The more complicated politics appears, the simpler it it really is... I now believe the notion of "free market" is obsolete. It's a matter now of WHO controls the market - big corporations? small businesses/farmers? governments/unions? If big corporations get their way - market freedom diminishes just as it would if radical unions/governments had they way. So isn't it just a perennial tug-of-war between one side and the other?
AURELIUS | 03 September 2013


Williams' treatise reminds me of the late I.F. Stone, the legendary Washington (DC) correspondent, who questioned how (any) social revolution can come about when one half of the population want to be like the other half. The people of Western Sydney, the neocons, transcend educational/social barriers within a capitalist framework. That's how Capitalism works. It has nothing to do with vision or national identity. Abstract ideals are the province of future thinkers. They have no place to be in the minds of those who live in the wilds of outer suburban fringes. Sad as it is, in the context of nationhood etc., that's the way it is. These are not the meek who'd inherit the earth. these are the predators who will eventually consume themselves and drive their species into extinction. It will not happen in my lifetime. But it will happen.
Alex Njoo | 03 September 2013


Williams' treatise reminds me of the late I.F. Stone, the legendary Washington (DC) correspondent, who questioned how (any) social revolution can come about when one half of the population want to be like the other half. The people of Western Sydney, the neocons, transcend educational/social barriers within a capitalist framework. That's how Capitalism works. It has nothing to do with vision or national identity. Abstract ideals are the province of future thinkers. They have no place to be in the minds of those who live in the wilds of outer suburban fringes. Sad as it is, in the context of nationhood etc., that's the way it is. These are not the meek who'd inherit the earth. these are the predators who will eventually consume themselves and drive their species into extinction. It will not happen in my lifetime. But it will happen.
Alex Njoo | 03 September 2013


It is a pity that residents who see well fed designer clothed people arriving at will by boat without visas are maligned .Isn't it reasonable that our country has the right to manage our borders and ensure that our resources are directed to fairly helping genuine refugees and our many Australians who need special help too
BRIAN MARTIN | 03 September 2013


Luke seems to forget that a lot of the "hard workers" would have lost their jobs during the GFC if it hadn't been for the ALP's efforts to stimulate the economy.
John Murphy | 03 September 2013


Some very good points raised about the meaning of "free market". As the author of the article please let me clarify what I meant by this in relation to Workchoices. Workchoices deregulated the settting of worker wages by removing the no-disadvantage test - this meant wages/conditions in new employment relationships were determined predominately by market forces. Moreover, the worker-employer relationship became a private contractual arrangement with very limited intervention (for pay and conditions). It is in the context I refer to Workchoices and the free market - not the entire Workchoices legislation per sa (which many have suggested actually was not productivity enhancing because it was overly regulatory in other ways).
Luke Williams | 03 September 2013


“People ... are less interested in symbolic politics, social justice or 'social engineering' than good jobs, a strong economy and less Government regulation...” It seems to me this applies to the whole electorate, just that you are noticing it in the outer suburbs because they are changing from Labour to Coalition. This just demonstrates the narrow focus on self, the lack of a broader vision of the long-term good of Australia, let alone the planet. I sympathise with Alex Njoo, who states: “these are the predators who will eventually consume themselves and drive their species into extinction.” People are focussed on the immediate benefits to themselves. So they don’t see value in trying to help the planet pay for overcoming global warming. There will be no economy if the planet fries, but people don’t believe it will happen, or don’t care because they think it won’t affect them. No-one has explicitly placed the politics in the context of our faith. But I believe this narrow-mindedness; self-destructive selfishness is a symptom of the growing loss of faith in our post-Christian culture. When people no longer hear, let alone believe that we should love our neighbour as ourselves, there is a growing estrangement from neighbourliness and a loss of community; a growing “what’s in it for me” attitude, and it is obvious where we are headed. Labour and the Coalition are two peas in a pod. The Greens appear hostile in their attitude to people of faith. All of them are reacting to the electorate’s attitude, certainly not leading it. To be Catholic is to be disenfranchised even if you are a voter. But that is a small thing compared to watching the planet become slowly uninhabitable because a majority of people won’t do anything about it, and being helpless to do anything about it yourself. But pray.
Frank S | 05 September 2013


As an older Australian, I see young people who take for granted all the hard won benefits that we fought for, eg. Equal pay, four weeks holidays per year, health care and education for all no matter what your financial status, a standard of living, freedom of association and religion. I realised by observing and dialoguing with younger persons that satisfying their every whim was not in their best interests or that of our society. I think my age group fell I into the trap of indulging our young to make up for the shortfalls in our own youth. So in a sense we too only thought ''of what our country could do for us, not what we could do for our country"(J.F.Kennedy).
Norma Marot | 06 September 2013


This article seems very short-sighted, but I don't want to blame the author. His views simply reflect the neo-liberal mantra that has held sway since the 1980s. If anything, I blame my generation, the baby boomers, many of whom traded their community-focussed values developed during the 1960s-70s for the selfish values promulgated under the Thatcher/Reagan/Hawke/Keating/Howard hegemony - "It's all about me". Our parents seem even more selfish, with their gold cards and ignorance of the fact that they will be, collectively, the most materially priveleged older generation in Australian history in terms of government welfare. As one who has not benefited greatly from this neo-liberal hegemony but know many who have, I see many of my generational contemporaries becoming selfish materialists. How about the suburbanites who are doing it tough? This article fails to address the fact that Australia has become a far more unequal society in the last 30-plus years, despite its affluence.
John Alford | 10 September 2013


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