Prime Minister Scott Morrison loves to talk about the so-called Canberra bubble, and there was no greater “bubble” discussion this week than the debate over the televised leaders’ debates. Where they are, who broadcasts them, and which leader agrees to them, seems to me to be irrelevant to anyone but the media and political elites (of which this column is part) that have a vested interest in them.
But this widespread voter disengagement, a feeling that the campaign is tedious and pesky, is not the whole story of the election. In previous elections, the kinds of middle-income, middle-Australian voters gathered in that Parramatta conference room on Tuesday night, were pivotal to the outcome.
That was where politicians had to pitch, and their concerns tended to be small-C conservative: pro-family, pro-immigration control, wary of government debt, focused on cost of living concerns.
But there is also another, competing dynamic at this election, playing out in the theatre of some of the blue-ribbon electorates of Sydney and Melbourne – Wentworth, Warringah, Kooyong and Higgins, not to mention country electorates like Flinders and Indi where independents are running on no-nonsense environmental and/or progressive platforms.
These candidates are backed by grassroots movements comprised of passionate, engaged and informed voters. In some cases these movements are boosted by the presence of activist group GetUp.
A couple of days after the Parramatta focus group evening, I drove north to the Queenscliff Surf Club on Sydney’s northern beaches.
There, against the stunning backdrop of pine-fringed beach, I watched the debate between Tony Abbott, whose success in politics is down largely to his ability to appeal to those marginal, middle-Australia Parramatta voters, and Zali Steggall, the star independent who might just knock him off.
Abbott’s pitch to voters that night was based on local concerns (chiefly a Spit tunnel that, really, he has little to do with, as it is a state government policy), and cost of living concerns.
On cost of living, the former prime minister skilfully straddled a divide between middle-income earning voters in his electorate, who he said would be adversely affected by the cost of the low-carbon policies advocated by Steggall, and the super-affluent, who he said would be hurt by Labor’s proposed changes to negative gearing and franking credits.
But Abbott did not, and could not, try to meet Steggall on the ground she has staked out, which is the strong momentum for action on climate change in the electorate, and anger towards Abbott for what many moderate Liberal voters say is the damage he has done to the party.
The other issue mentioned often by those disillusioned with their local member is his failure to show up to the parliamentary vote on same-sex marriage, despite the electorate voting 75 per cent “yes”. By contrast, the Parramatta focus groupers did not once mention climate change or any perceived lurch to the right of the Liberal Party. Same-sex marriage came up only in the context of politicians wasting money on a postal survey for something that could have been done “in-house”, as one participant put it.
The Steggall/Abbott debate was also a reminder of what a formidable politician Abbott is. He is divisive to the point of being a pariah on the left side of politics, but he leverages this infamy back into the loyalty of his support base, which is strong in his electorate. He is an excellent communicator, particularly compared with the waffle of this election campaign.
He is able to convincingly position himself as a champion of ordinary Australians, looking out for their power bills and their Hilux utes (which he says Labor’s electric car policy will imperil), despite living in one of the country’s most affluent electorates, and having been reared in an environment at least as privileged as his nemesis Malcolm Turnbull.
If Abbott is voted out this election, it will mark the end of an era in Australian politics. But the increasingly divergent dynamic of conservative middle Australia versus progressive, affluent Australia is here to stay, and politicians will need to get ever-nimbler to navigate it.
*Names have been changed
Jacqueline is a senior journalist, columnist and former Canberra press gallery sketch writer for The Sydney Morning Herald.