The republic referendum in Australia: a view from the left
The modest republican constitutional change proposed in the November 6, 1999, referendum was hardly the most significant political question facing Australians in recent times. Nevertheless the results provide a very useful snapshot of a changing Australia.
The results were actually much better for the republic than most of the media would admit. A 46.5 per cent Yes vote for a republic, first time up, is a very good result when you consider that British-Australia was still celebrating Empire Day about 30 years ago, and when you remember the enormous grip all the hype about the British royal family still had in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.
Most older Australians can remember being bussed as schoolchildren to showgrounds during royal visits to stand in the hot sun waiting for the Queen to pass by. For most of the period since white settlement, the Australian establishment has energetically promoted the monarchical British connection as an invaluable support for the hegemony of the ruling class in Australia.
To better understand the results, I have studied the detailed figures, booth by booth, for all the seats in NSW, and the national results for five categories of votes. The following analysis is based on my examination of these results, supplemented by some useful figures supplied by Mick Armstrong in the magazine, ">Socialist Alternative <http://www.sa.org.au/>, published by the group of the same name, which was one of the socialist groups with sufficient understanding of the class forces at work in the referendum to very sensibly advocate a Yes vote. Mick Armstrong's article is very useful and a lengthy quote from it is worthwhile here:
Indeed it has much in common with the Hanson phenomenon. Significantly, the No vote in the referendum was highest in those rural areas where One Nation polled well in the last federal elections. The three seats with the highest No vote were the seats with the highest Hanson vote in the last Federal election - the Queensland rural seats of Maranoa (No: 77 per cent, Hanson: 22 per cent), Hanson's own seat of Blair (No: 75 per cent, Hanson: 36 per cent) and Wide Bay (No: 75 per cent, Hanson: 26 per cent). This pattern was replicated outside Queensland.
In NSW, Victoria and Western Australia the seat that topped the state No vote also had the top One Nation vote: Gwydir, NSW (No: 75 per cent, Hanson: 21 per cent), Mallee, Vic (No: 72 per cent, Hanson: 13 per cent), O'Connor, WA (No: 72 per cent, Hanson: 14 per cent).
Similarly, the outer suburban areas with the highest No votes had above-average support for Hanson: Canning in Perth (No: 68 per cent, Hanson: 14 per cent), Bonython in Adelaide (No: 67 per cent, Hanson 15 per cent), Oxley in Brisbane (No: 66 per cent, Hanson: 18 per cent), Werriwa in Sydney (No: 58 per cent, Hanson: 12 per cent).
By contrast the Yes vote was strongest in areas most resistant to the appeal of Hansonism: the core working class suburbs of Melbourne and the inner suburbs of Sydney, Brisbane and Canberra.
One misconception propagated by the media is that the Yes vote was strongest in better-off Liberal electorates. It is true that Sydney's wealthy North Shore voted Yes and that the republic was narrowly defeated in some Labor seats in Sydney's outer west. However, in NSW two-thirds of the seats that voted Yes were in the working class areas of Sydney, Newcastle and Wollongong.
Nationally, the five seats with an overwhelming Yes vote were safe Labor seats, headed by Melbourne with 71.5 per cent, Sydney 68 per cent, Melbourne Ports 66 per cent, Fraser (ACT) 65 per cent and Grayndler in Sydney 65 per cent. And the Yes vote in these seats was well above that in super rich Toorak.
Nearly two-thirds of the 30 seats with the highest Yes vote were Labor seats. These were not simply inner-city "chardonnay socialist" areas but included the core working class areas in Melbourne's western and northern suburbs.
The working class Yes vote was strongest amongst non-English-speaking migrants and slightly better-off workers but lower in the poorest, most depressed sections of the Anglo working class. In Melbourne it tended to be the marginal outer suburban seats with fewer non-English-speaking migrants and a larger churchgoing Protestant middle class that voted No. So while there was not a totally clear-cut working class Yes vote, the No vote was concentrated amongst the sections of the population most easily swayed by populist appeals: the rural population, the outer-suburban middle class, the less unionised and class conscious workers, older people and traditional Anglo-Australians.
In addition to the points that emerge from Mick Armstrong's analysis, a number of other points emerge from my own investigations. The Australian Electoral Commission has five special categories in each electorate, in addition to each booth, of which there are usually between 30 and 50. The five special categories are:
·absentee votes (cast on election day in other electorates).
·pre-poll votes (cast by arrangement before election day, usually because of travel commitments on election day).
·postal votes, routinely made available by the Electoral Commission to elderly or housebound people.
·special hospital mobile teams (votes cast in hospitals, nursing homes and aged care facilities on election day, again in practice, with a heavy predominance of elderly people)
·votes cast at the capital city Town Hall polling booth in each state where a number of votes are cast on election day for each electorate.
The result for these five categories is very illuminating. Both the postal votes and the special hospital votes show a much higher No vote than the general vote in each electorate, even in the electorates that strongly voted Yes. This No vote is most pronounced in the hospitals.
On the other hand, absentee voters, people who voted outside their electorate on voting day, showed a significantly higher Yes percentage than the general vote for their area. Pre-poll votes, the votes cast by arrangement before the election, averaged nationally about the same Yes vote as the national average, being a little less than the average in the Northern Territory and Victoria, roughly the same in NSW and the ACT and dramatically higher in WA, Queensland, SA and Tasmania.
The last grouping, the small but significant sample of people voting outside their own electorate at capital city Town Hall polling booths, shows by far the highest Yes vote of all. An obvious inference is the existence, in the referendum result, of a strong tendency for younger cohorts of voters voting Yes and older cohorts voting No.
Those voting at the capital city Town Hall polling booth for other electorates are obviously people who get around, and they are probably younger people. Anyway, they clearly show a pronounced Yes bias. The overwhelming result for No in the special hospital team votes and the postal votes clearly suggests a very heavy vote against the republic in older age groups. (A significant group amongst the postals, in addition to the aged, are people who are housebound for other reasons, such as disability. Probably some features of the situation of being housebound, such as being exposed to a steady diet of talkback radio, has a conservatising effect on voting patterns on an issue like the republic.)
The tendency for the young to vote Yes and the old to vote No is confirmed indirectly in another way. For the Yes vote to have done as well as it did, it emerges clearly that, to counterbalance the No vote among the old, younger age groups must have voted solidly Yes, including the "young fogies" of Generation X and younger, who conservative pundits desperately hoped were in a deeply conservative frame of mind.
This alleged conservative mood among the young didn't show up in the republic referendum results at all. The story that a large number of the young voted No is a conservative invention, not backed up in any way by the actual results. The electorate-by-electorate pattern confirms the general observation made by most electoral observers that people with tertiary education voted Yes very heavily.
This question of levels of formal education is somewhat intertwined with the age factor. As the steep rise in the number of Australians with tertiary education has taken place progressively over the last 30 years, the cohort of Australians in the age group, say of 55 and above, is the same cohort where the proportion of people with tertiary education is far less than in younger cohorts.
It also ought to be said that the older cohort are also the cohort whose whole lives were moulded in the rabidly royalist British-Australia of the 1940s, the 1950s and the 1960s, many of whom have an entirely natural human nostalgia for the period of their youth, which seems to translate electorally into a certain reluctance to vote for a republic. Natural demographic evolution will inevitably reduce the electoral impact of this cohort over time.
In parliamentary elections, postal votes and hospital votes are an area of fierce contest between the campaigning political machines of candidates for different parties, whose interests are directly involved. All the anecdotal evidence suggests that on the occasion of the republic referendum this very sharp intervention by the various political machines was minimal because their electoral i