Australia’s Two Nations

Written by:
7 March 2023
Australia’s Two Nations - Featured image

In 1999, Australia conducted its largest taxpayer-funded focus group – the referendum on a republic. Voting in the referendum was compulsory with 95.1 per cent of Australians eligible to vote doing so. In contrast, the 2017 Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey, which had optional voting, had a 79.5 per cent participation rate.

The result of the republic referendum was a decisive 54.87 per cent vote ‘No’. Every state recorded a majority for ‘No’. The outcome could not be explained in terms of party loyalties or ideological terms such as ‘Left’ and ‘Right’.

None of the major parties adopted an official position and analysis suggested that the results could be explained by where people lived. For example, in Victoria the four electorates with the highest ‘Yes’ votes were Kooyong and Higgins, both safe Liberal seats, and Melbourne and Melbourne Ports (now McNamara), then both safe Labor seats. In Queensland only two electorates voted ‘Yes’ — Ryan which was a safe Liberal seat, and Brisbane which was safe for Labor. A national analysis generates a similar picture – 42 of the then 148 electorates that voted ‘Yes’ were predominately in affluent, inner-metropolitan areas.

The 1999 referendum result was a harbinger of what was to come globally. Brexit, the rise of Donald Trump, and the inability of the French establishment to suppress the ‘gilets janunes’ (Yellow Vests) and Marine Le Pen should not have come as a surprise.

In Australia, the referendum results revealed the nature of the intellectual and political classes, who overwhelmingly inhabit the inner-metropolitan suburbs. Also, they exposed a lack of awareness within the major political parties, who could not accept that in the post-communist world, that Australia had divided into two nations.

Consequently, almost a quarter of a century later, the 2022 federal election results form a bookend to that nationwide focus group. Both Labor and the Coalition are now starkly confronted with an uncomfortable new political reality: a collapsing primary vote and an insurgency of Greens and various Independent MPs.

Two Nations and the 2004 federal election

The Liberal Party’s drafting of the Australian Republican Movement’s leader, Malcolm Turnbull, who blamed John Howard for ‘breaking the nation’s heart’, was a manifestation of the obstinacy of the elites.

Turnbull made a substantial contribution to the philosophical quagmire that the Liberals have created for themselves. One politician who saw the philosophical challenges of the future was Mark Latham who, even before he became Labor leader, said this in 2002:

For the past decade, the Left has been debating globalisation as an economic event when, in fact, its main political impact has been cultural… With the end of the Cold War, the effectiveness of this approach has expired.

A starting point is to rethink the political spectrum, to move beyond notions of Left and Right…

…it is possible to identify two distinctive political cultures in Australia. The powerful centre of our society, concentrated in the international heart of the major cities, talks a different language to suburban communities. In lifestyle and political values, they are poles apart.

At the social centre, people tend to take a tourist’s view of the world. They travel extensively, eat-out and buy-in domestic help. The cultural challenges of globalisation are seen as an opportunity, a chance to develop further one’s identity and information skills…

In the suburbs, the value set is more pragmatic. People do not readily accept the need for cultural change or the demands of identity politics. They lack the power and resources to distance themselves from neighbourhood problems. This has given them a resident’s view of society. Questions of social responsibility and service delivery are all-important…

These changes are recasting the electoral map. The key seats are now located well beyond the CBD, on the urban fringe and regional hinterland. In the 1999 Republic referendum, for instance, the further one moved away from the centre of the capital cities, the higher the proportion of No votes.

The 2004 federal election was both a first test of Latham’s theory on culture and of his, and John Howard’s, ability to execute a political strategy in response. At the time, commentator Paul Kelly remarked ‘Latham knows that repositioning Labor on social issues is a necessary step to office’. Howard won the 2004 election by managing the Liberal’s internal philosophical contradictions by supporting conservative values on cultural issues and reducing the impact of free market policies on middle Australia through extensive financial support to families. These conflicting values also have been challenging for the Nationals, especially after they went along with economic rationalism and Howard’s gun law changes in 1996.

Culture, as Latham declared in 2002, was once more of a problem for Labor than the Coalition. Since the rise of Gough Whitlam in the 1960s, Labor has turned into a middle-class, public-sector, inner-suburban party. In 1961, blue-collar workers made up 46 per cent of the Labor Party’s membership in New South Wales. By 1981, that figure had fallen to 21 per cent. As Andrew Scott, a closer observer of Labor politics noted in 1991, by the late 1980s ‘a professional [was] more than three times a likely as a manual worker, and five times more likely than a salesperson, personal service employee or clerk, to participate in the ALP’s most basic structures.’

This transformation of Labor’s party membership was reflected in the policies of its parliamentary wing, perhaps best represented by Graham Richardson’s pro-Greens election strategy at the 1990 federal election – Bob Carr as New South Wales premier virtually shutting down the state’s timber industry in the 1990s’, and the call of the then Queensland ALP state director to sacrifice timber jobs in Tasmania for mainland Greens votes.

Under Howard, the Coalition took a different path. A report on the 2004 federal election commissioned by the Forestry and Furnishing Products Division of the CFMEU, noted:

At the start of the election campaign, Mr. Howard felt obliged to accept advice that he should appease the environment lobby because it was so overwhelming. He had a few concerns including the fact that he personally had signed Tasmania’s Regional Forest Agreement and the impact of his decision on timber workers and their communities.

Howard ignored the advice of his staff and the Liberals’ pollsters and honoured the regional forest agreement. In the last week of the 2004 election campaign Howard spoke to a meeting of 1,000 timber workers in Launceston. He won the votes of people such as timber worker Ken Hall who said:

I have come to believe that Howard is the best leader to represent the timber workers of Tasmania. And that’s a pretty big mouthful coming from a lifelong Labor supporter who first voted for Arthur Calwell in 1966 and has voted for every Labor leader in every election since then…

While Latham sought to appease the left of the Labor Party on environmental issues, he was willing to declare that marriage was the union of a man and a woman for life, to the exclusion of all others. The Coalition then introduced legislation to amend the Family Law Act to incorporate his definition of marriage. Labor’s response split its caucus as Anthony Albanese and other frontbenchers argued Labor had gone too far in seeking the support of Christians, who were unlikely to vote Labor anyway. Significantly, subsequent Labor leaders, Kim Beazley, Kevin Rudd, and Julia Gillard maintained Latham’s position of opposing same sex marriage until 2011. This fracas within Labor reinforced to the outer suburbs and regions that Labor lived in a different world from them, and consolidated conservative voters behind the Coalition.

Labor and the Greens were not the only challenges facing the Coalition. There was also the forerunner of the ‘Teal’ candidates, ‘Liberals for Forests’. However, unlike today, the Coalition did not adopt an appeasement approach. Inner-metropolitan Liberal voters who were unhappy with the Coalition’s environment policies, were made aware that a vote for the Greens was also vote for their economic policies and their radical stance on drugs. The Green’s position on drugs was exposed in the first week of the election campaign and contributed to their poor result.

The 2004 federal election was probably John Howard’s greatest electoral victory. The Coalition increased its majority in the House of Representatives and in Queensland it won four of the six Senate positions, giving a government a majority in the Senate for the first time in decades. Labor and the political commentariat attempted to put the results down to an interest rate scare campaign and Latham’s inexperience.

The ever-astute, long-time Labor Party pollster Rod Cameron saw it differently:

Most experienced observers — from both sides of politics — expected John Howard to be returned, but narrowly, with most tipping a small net gain in seats and votes for Labor. That this did not happen was a big surprise to the campaign professionals on both sides….

Howard won because of economic management perceptions and he increased his majority because of Labor’s politically suicidal Tasmanian forestry policy.

As recently as 1993 Labor had won as many provincial and rural seats as it did outer-metropolitan seats. However, in 2004 Labor won 14 of the 63 provincial and rural seats and 19 of the 46 outer-metropolitan seats. At the time, the view of political analysts Peter van Onselen and Phil Senior was that:

Labor can’t (win back regional seats) while the party is controlled by the inner-city latte set. It has become so narrow in its inner-city focus it has lost touch with its working-class roots in the bush as well as outer-metropolitan areas. Its grubby preference deal with the Greens was the culmination of this transformation. Selling out forestry workers to win over inner-city greens not only lost Labor seats in Tasmania, but respect across provincial and rural Australia.

As with the republic referendum results, this outcome was not the message the elites and the political class on both sides of the political divide wanted to hear or had expected, as Rod Cameron had pointed out. They remained unrepentant in their determination to impose their values on what they view as the unenlightened masses. The political class resent the democratic process and reflect the arrogance of the elites described by an American historian, Christopher Lasch:

The culture wars that have convulsed America since the sixties are best understood as a form of class warfare, in which an enlightened elite (as it thinks of itself) seeks not so much to impose its values on the majority (a majority perceived as incorrigibly racist, sexist, provincial, and xenophobic), much less persuade the majority by means of rational public debate, as to create parallel or ‘alternative’ institutions in which it will no longer be necessary to confront the unenlightened at all.

The Coalition has not hammered home the cultural advantage it gained under Howard. Instead, it has taken the same direction as Labor and today it is paying the price. Meanwhile, the Greens are well-advanced in their long march to be the party of the inner-metropolitan suburbs. This is at the expense of Liberal and Labor, which have not done to the Greens what they did to Pauline Hanson – both major parties preferenced One Nation last.

Latham’s analysis focused on symptoms or consequences rather than the causes of the cultural transformation. The origins of that transformation lie in the contest between liberalism and conservatism, which has ebbed and flowed since the days of the French and American revolutions. It took 200 years for liberalism to dominate conservatism culturally in Anglo-Saxon and, to a lesser degree, western European countries. Its ascendancy was heralded by the cultural revolution of the 1960s.

One example of this ascendancy in Australia is the employers’ successful assault on the concept of the basic wage in 1964, the outcome of which was foreseen. Its effect was to undermine the family unit. Another was the removal of the concept of fault from Australia’s divorce law, and the transformation of marriage in 1975 from a permanent relationship to what has been described as serial monogamy.

Given the philosophical incompatibility of conservatism and liberalism, why did it take so long for the ascendancy of liberalism to extract a political price? One response is that, from the end of the Second World War to the 1990s, the political landscape in Australia and other Western countries was viewed through the prism of communism, socialism and the extent to which it is necessary for the State to intervene in the economy. For example, in 1967 Robert Menzies wrote ‘the great issue to which Liberalism must direct itself is Socialism’.

The Labor Party had already watered down the socialist objective in its party platform in 1981, and by the time the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989, Marxism as an economic theory was discredited. The Liberals’ focus on socialism had diverted attention away from the fundamental incompatibility of conservatism with liberalism. Two developments in the 1980s delayed this inevitable reckoning. The first was Malcolm Fraser’s rejection of the liberal, economic agenda of his treasurer John Howard, and the second was Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s 1987 campaign for the national leadership of the Coalition.

Meanwhile, on the Labor side of politics, economic rationalism penetrated the walls of the ALP, a phenomenon that destroyed the party’s ideological rudder – its commitment to the working classes. Traditional Labor is conservative. Its instincts and values are at odds with Labor’s current ruling class, and a takeover by economic liberalism has taken a political toll. In 1998, then deputy leader Gareth Evans admitted that:

I think we are now all acutely aware, that the government almost certainly got ahead of the wider community…. Jobs were no longer for life or secure. …The rise of service industries at the expense of the smokestacks may have created a more fluid and flexible workplace, but one affecting working hours and family responsibilities. Agribusiness pressures and the closure of family farms put many rural communities under stress.

Upper income groups by and large did well in Australia … enjoying high quality access not only to continuing substantial incomes, but to information technology and communications services; to leisure amenities, entertaining and travel; and indeed to the political system.

For lower income groups it was a different story: wage incomes grew slowly, and even with an array of new government social wage payments which in fact did make lower income earners better off, both absolutely and relatively, they found it difficult to think of themselves as better off. And they could never match the access of the upper income groups to information technology, to leisure services, to the political system – or even to some aspects of consumer society.

While Labor has known since 1998 that economic liberalism contained the seeds of its political heartache, it still has the Hawke/Keating era on a pedestal.

As with the Liberals, the loyalty of Labor’s political class to the cultural values of their social set has outweighed the interests of the people they purported to represent and the political interests of their party. Labor Party veteran and former state minister, Rod Cavalier had this to say about that class:

The political class is a coterie…divisions are not about ideas or ideology. The factions have become executive placement agencies, disputes between them become serious only when they cannot agree on a placement. They are effectively united for themselves against the world.

Many would argue that Labor has not recovered from its lost legacy of a commitment to the working class even though it has won elections at the state level and it won the 2022 federal election (barely and with a first preference vote in the House of Representatives of 32.6 per cent and in the Senate of 30.1 per cent.)

What has Labor’s dumping of its traditional supporters by succumbing to liberalism, and the left’s substituting ‘gesture politics’, done for the Labor Party? It has alienated what is now an inner-metropolitan, middle-class party from Labor’s original base, which it still needs to get hold of the ministerial limousines. It has also lowered Labor’s defences against the Greens, a development of which it should have been aware of since 2007.

While the Liberals appeared to be unaffected by the changing philosophical challenge in the 1990s, there were tensions following the federal defeats in 1990, and particularly in 1993 when John Hewson’s liberal, economic agenda turned victory into defeat. Liberal leaders were conscious that the end of communism threatened to expose internal, philosophical differences and render the Liberals irrelevant as a political entity.

A rationale was needed to avoid doing what Sir Robert Menzies did in the 1940s when the United Australia Party had run its race and start again.

In 1990 Nick Greiner, the then New South Wales Premier, famously argued that we had entered the post-ideological age and the Liberal Party needed to be practical, empirical, anti-ideological, and should sever any relationship between ‘liberalism’ and ‘conservatism’.

On all of these counts Greiner could not have been more wrong. Greiner’s vision for the Liberal Party was different from that of John Howard and his ‘broad church’ in which liberalism and conservatism co-existed. As Greg Melleuish noted:

This formulation was vague enough to encompass a range of political positions, even if they were at odds with one another. The ‘broad church’ ideal had a simple goal – ensure that all Liberals were inside the tent and shared a common outlook.

Howard achieved his goal and for as long as he was leading the party at the federal level, the Liberals remained united. Since he left parliament though, the Liberals’ united front has unravelled as the social toll of economic liberalism has eroded the last vestiges of conservative values.

What Now?

As Antony Green noted, the combined first preference vote for the Coalition and the Labor Party in the House of Representatives at the 2022 federal election, at 68.3 per cent, was the lowest for the major parties since the development of two-party politics in Australia in 1910.

Which raises several questions. What does the political class do given it seems voters are rebelling against the belief of the major parties that they can be different things to different people? Does it matter that voters in the outer suburbs and regions believe that neither of the major parties shares their priorities, or understands their aspirations and the grind of daily life?

If values are not important to people in the outer suburbs and the regions, why do they resent the political class’s delivering to the inner suburbs the policies and values they want, and thinking that they only have to bribe the outer suburbs and regions?

In 1989 two American scholars, Bill Galston and Elaine Kamarck conducted an analysis of the Democrats’ poor performances in presidential elections over the preceding 20 years. It made a significant contribution to the success of the Democrats during the Clinton era in the 1990s. In 2022 they repeated their original exercise and addressed the claim that ‘economics’ is more important to voters than ‘culture’.

The Democratic party has viewed itself as the party of working-class and middle-class voters who would be bound to the party by economic and material benefits…

Too many Democrats believe that economic issues are the ‘real’ issues, and that cultural issues are mostly diversions… For many Americans across the political spectrum, social, cultural and religious issues are real and – in many cases – more important to them than economic considerations… Economic circumstances do not determine views on guns, abortion, or religion, and attitudes toward immigration reflect deep-seated beliefs about ethnicity and national identity…

The myth of economic determinism has another political downside: it leads too many Democrats to believe that showering Americans with public resources is the surest path to victory.

In Australia it seems that the Coalition and the Labor Party believe this myth too.

The proposition that economics does not override culture reinforces the importance of understanding the relationship between liberalism and conservatism. The validity of liberals who claim to be conservatives and John Howard’s proposition that liberalism and conservatism can co-exist depend on their concept of conservatism. To quote Howard – ‘We carry the Burkean tradition of conservatism within our ranks. We believe that if institutions have demonstrably failed, they ought to be changed or reformed. But we don’t believe in getting rid of institutions just for the sake of change.’

To Edmund Burke, often regarded as the founder of political conservatism, the group was the foundation of society – ‘To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind’ and ‘We begin our public affections in our families. No cold relation is a zealous citizen. We pass on to our neighbourhoods, and our habitual provincial connexions’.

Liberals’ views are more likely to be based on Rosseau’s formulation that ‘Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.’ Individualism has been modified and transformed through subsequent generations. Today, in the culture of the self-appointed elites, Rousseau’s legacy is a culture based on feelings to which facts must give way.

In responding to the latest manifestation of liberalism, the Liberals are compromised because they are either straddling the gulf between liberalism and conservatism or choosing liberalism over conservatism when forced to choose. The Coalition has yet to come to terms with this development.

For example, American church historian Carl Trueman, has posited that as gender becomes the key to the expression of personal identity, ‘the idea that religious freedom is a social good is not simply increasingly implausible, it is also increasingly distasteful, disturbing and undesirable.’ When the Coalition introduced its religious discrimination legislation in 2021, it deliberately avoided the issue which was the catalyst for the legislation – Australian Rugby Union’s sacking of Israel Folau for expressing his religious beliefs.

Another challenge for liberals is the concept of freedom of speech, which seems to be frequently conflated with expression of religious beliefs. Trueman observes: ‘In a world in which the self is constructed psychologically and in which the therapeutic is the ethical standard…the notion of assault becomes psychological… In such a context, freedom of speech becomes not so much part of the solution as part of the problem.’

The Coalition is compromised on issues which have been a cultural cornerstone of Western society for generations and which, not surprisingly, resonate in the outer suburbs.

For Lasch, ‘the essence of cultural conservatism is a certain respect for limits. The central conservative insight is that human freedom is constrained by the natural conditions of human life, by the weight of history, by the fallibility of human judgment and by the perversity of the human will.’ He goes on:

Capitalism’s relentless erosion of proprietary institutions furnishes the clearest evidence of its incompatibility with anything that deserves the name of cultural conservatism…. Twentieth-century capitalism, however, has replaced private property with a corporate form of property…

Even the ‘family wage’, the last attempt to safeguard the independence of the producing classes, has gone the way of the family business and the family farm….

After its disastrous 2022 federal election result, the Liberal Party seems to be in a state of denial about how bad both its electoral and cultural prospects are. The assault on the values that the Liberal Party once held dear, such as freedom of religion, shows no signs of abating and Liberals seem unable to respond.

The Coalition holds 58 out of 151 lower house seats. Many Liberals have argued the path back to power is through the ‘Teal’ seats that were lost, thereby ignoring the outer suburbs where there were swings recorded against them as large or larger than the swings against them in the inner suburbs. Even if the Liberals were to regain every one of the seats they lost to the Teals, that would get the Coalition to just 64 seats, still twelve seats short of government.

The Liberals must decide whether their future is best ensured by continuing to offer policies pitched to the values of those in elite, inner-metropolitan seats, thus ignoring the irreconcilability of those needs with those living in the outer suburbs and regions.

This article is from Volume 1 of Essays for Australia 2023 and is written by Rick Brown. To find out more, head to

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