Enter The Liberal Party, Working-class Heroes

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18 January 2024
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Originally Appeared In

This article was originally published in Australian Financial Review on or about 18 January 2024 and was written by the author in their capacity as a contributor for that publication. 

It has been republished on the IPA website with permission. The views expressed are those of the author alone.

The Liberals have won over the battlers before. Now they have a new cause in voter fears their children will never be able to afford a home.

In an article published a few days after Christmas, Paul Sakkal the federal political correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age made a comment both perceptive and revealing.

“In February, Dutton declared the Liberals and Nationals were ‘the parties of the Australian working class’, a jarring statement for those wishing for a more progressive Liberal Party.”

It’s perceptive because it acknowledges Dutton is beginning to refashion the public perception of the Liberals. And it’s revealing because it demonstrates that those Liberals wanting to make their party “more progressive” know that the post-material concerns of teal-inclined voters are at odds with the interests of the working class.

Dutton’s call last week for a boycott of Woolworths because of its refusal to sell Australia Day merchandise understandably made headlines. What got less attention was something else he said, “I’ve said repeatedly that the modern Liberal Party is the friend of the worker and the small business owners and employees in that business. We’re not the party of big business, and I don’t pretend that we are”.

Albanese is at risk of doing a reverse Donald Trump.

As purely an electoral strategy Dutton’s approach is sound. The party that once embraced the Howard battlers and Tony’s tradies, and before that Menzies’ Forgotten People won many more votes than did the Liberal Party led by Malcolm Turnbull.

Liberals are starting to realise not all marginal electorates are the same.

The Labor-held seat of Higgins in Melbourne has a margin of 2 per cent and voted 61 per cent Yes in the Voice referendum. Hunter in NSW, also held by the ALP is on a margin of 4 per cent and voted 71 per cent “No”. Hunter will not be twice as hard to win for the Coalition as will Higgins.

Of course making the Liberals the working-class party is easier said than done, and Dutton’s task is more difficult than under John Howard or Tony Abbott. Their main competition was the Labor Party, whereas Dutton now has to fight a three-cornered contest against the teals. In policy terms it’s a zero-sum game. Teal-friendly policies not only don’t win working-class votes, they probably lose them – as Scott Morrison and his “net-zero” promise proved.

A few years ago the Herald described the Howard battlers of western Sydney in the 1990s. “They typically had a mortgage and worked in blue-collar jobs. They were concerned about interest rates, suspicious of high migration levels, worried about terrorism and often held socially conservative views.“

Thirty years later maybe Dutton’s working class are less likely to have a blue-collar job but with one addition, the essentials are the same – the fear their children will never be able to afford to buy a home.

Canada is having a debate about immigration and housing that parallels that in Australia.

There, Conservative Party leader Pierre Poilievre last week announced a future Tory government would “make a link between the number of homes built and the number of people we invite as new Canadians” and he wants to “get back to an approach of immigration that invites a number of people that we can house, employ, and care for in our healthcare system”.

The Conservatives currently have a 17-point lead over Justin Trudeau’s Liberals. (Poilievre is proof politicians don’t need to be left-wing to appeal to younger voters. The Conservatives are the most popular party with Canadians between the ages of 18 and 29.)

At a tactical level against Anthony Albanese what Dutton is doing makes sense. Albanese is at risk of doing a reverse Donald Trump. Trump was a billionaire property developer who appointed himself the champion of the working class.

Albanese grew up in public housing, the child of a single mother. Yet, the signature policy of his first term in government was a referendum proposal endorsed by the same big businesses accused of profiteering from the cost-of-living crisis and most likely to be supported by the rich and university-educated.

Meanwhile, his image with the electorate is almost cemented as a politician who likes to travel overseas and wear a black tie outfit at red carpet events. Up against Albanese is Dutton, a cop from Brisbane.

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This article was original published in The Australian Financial Review and was written by the author in their capacity as a contributor for that publication. It has been republished on the IPA website with permission. The views expressed are those of the author alone.

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