Sum up Australian politics in one short sentence, with particular reference to last year's federal election. Economy beats climate change? Leadership matters? Queensland beats the rest?
My single sentence would be: old men beat young women. That's my conclusion after reading Sarah Cameron and Ian McAllister's The 2019 Australian Federal Election: Results from the Australian Election Study. It is a short booklet, reporting on the latest iteration of a survey series which began in 1987.
The section which contains the most stunning material is headed "A divided electorate?". From it I learnt that while geographical differences remain important, the revelations about the gender gap and the generational divide are more so.
According to the Australian Election Study survey, the gender gap is widening and has reversed over time since the 1970s. It was Labor which used to have a "woman problem". Groundbreaking Labor women like Senator Susan Ryan devoted themselves to trying to explain this problem with the intention of fixing it. Well it is certainly fixed now, and it is the Coalition, especially the Liberal Party, which has the "woman problem". Women supporting the Greens are another more recent twist.
The gap stands however you measure it. There is a 10-point gap in gender differences within the Liberal Party vote. 45 per cent of men but only 35 per cent of women support the Liberals. 37 per cent of women and 34 per cent of men, a three-point gap, support Labor. The reason that gap is not bigger is that the Greens, whose overall vote is smaller, have a bigger gender gap. 15 per cent of women and 9 per cent of men support the Greens, a gap of 6 per cent which is as stunning as the Liberal gap but in the reverse direction.
Combining Labor and the Greens, 52 per cent of women vote centre-left while, combining the Liberals and Nationals, 38 per cent of women vote centre-right. The 10-point gap still holds up. The survey doesn't pick up any gender differences in the Nationals' support.
Furthermore, Cameron and McAllister report, when Australians are asked to place themselves on a 10-point scale from left to right, the average position for men is 5.2 (to the right), while the average position for women is 4.8 (to the left). Women have moved left since the 1990s.
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Gender differences on issues are now also far greater than they used to be. Once again, the gaps are enormous. The economy dominated men's thinking but not women's (for 32 per cent of men managing the economy was the biggest issue but that was the case for only 17 per cent of women). Health was front of mind for women (30 per cent) but much less so for men (14 per cent). On these issues the gender gaps are in the order of 15-16 per cent and therefore even larger than for voting.
Now for the second big division, the generational divide. Cameron and McAllister report that in party voting terms older voters are moving further to the right while younger voters are moving further to the left. As with gender the gaps are enormous and are perhaps even more stunning.
While there has been an age gap favouring the Liberals at many recent federal elections according to the AES (2007 was the most recent exception), last year was the biggest on record. 55 per cent of voters over 55 voted Liberal compared to just 32 per cent who voted Labor. Even when the Greens' minuscule 3 per cent is added in, the gap between the Liberals and a vote for the centre-left is a massive 20 points.
At the same time, younger people are deserting the centre-right in droves. Only 23 per cent of 18- to 34-year-olds voted Liberal, while a combined 65 per cent voted centre-left (Labor 37 per cent and Greens 28 per cent). That makes a "super-massive" 42 per cent difference. Combining age and gender, the gap would be even greater between younger women and older men. The Greens have a problem to be addressed too, with a miserable 3 per cent of the older vote compared with 28 per cent of the younger vote.
There is much more in the AES report, but gender and age differences are enough for now. Old men did beat young women, and these differences are reflected in the composition of political leadership too. Women make some difference in the Senate, but political leadership is now basically wall-to-wall men. That has always been the tendency, but it is now at a high point. Scott Morrison, Michael McCormack, Josh Frydenberg, Anthony Albanese, Richard Marles and Adam Bandt. No Julie Bishop or Tanya Plibersek. Not even Bridget McKenzie. And you can throw in the Governor-General, David Hurley. Older men rule.
An appropriate epilogue to the Cameron and McAllister report has come this week from another ANU survey, the quarterly ANU Poll, conducted by the Centre for Social Research and Methods, led by Nicholas Biddle. This report measured dramatic falls in support for Scott Morrison's leadership and rises in support for making climate and environment action a major issue. These elements are also covered in some detail in the AES election survey, so the comparisons make pertinent reading.
Commentary has not focused so far on gender and age differences. The parties must decide whether to concentrate on their demographic strong points or do something about their obvious weaknesses. The next election is a long way away, but the parties should already be thinking. To remain in office, the Morrison government must hold on to the support of older men. Have these men been discombobulated enough by the bushfire season and the response of the government to change their vote? If they have, the attitudes of younger people, especially women, become even more crucial. Until then, old men beat young women.
- John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University.