The republic referendum in Australia

There were some striking but significant local idiosyncracies. Often distinctively individual, slightly isolated communities, with a strong local identity and

The republic referendum in Australia

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tiary educated traditionally Liberal voters, who voted Yes on this occasion.

The voting pattern in the Blue Mountains area was extremely informative. The upper Blue Mountains: Katoomba, Wentworth Falls, etc, where there is a high concentration of people with tertiary education, showed a very high Yes vote. The Penrith, lower Blue Mountains area, which is an Anglo outer-suburban area with far fewer tertiary educated people, more self-employed tradespeople, and more church-going Protestants, showed a fairly strong No vote.

 

A referendum day vignette. Fun and games at Newtown

 

A curious experience of the republican referendum campaign was to work on voting day, as I did, for the Yes side, at the main Newtown polling booth. Early in the day some members of the most obvious sectarian socialist group, the International Socialists, put on a bit of a stunt for a couple of hours, noisily campaigning for a No vote, with the slogan, "No to the boss's Republic".

A number of the Yes campaigners had to be gently restrained from doing bad things to the ISers, who got a universally hostile response from the Newtown voters, who are wildly multi-ethnic and pretty young, including quite a number of students.

In the event, the result for the two Newtown subdivisions, one in the seat of Grayndler and one in the seat of Sydney, were about the two highest booth results for the Yes vote in the whole of Australia. The Newtown subdivision in Grayndler registered an almost unbelievable 83 per cent Yes vote. The irony of the eccentric behaviour of the IS is underlined by this result. Newtown is their patch, so to speak. It's the only place in Sydney where they consistently sell their paper. The masses of Newtown decided to do precisely the opposite of what was recommended to them by the International Socialists.

Conclusions about the current shape of Australia and future electoral prospects

 

It seems very likely to me that observant and demographically informed conservatives will be looking at the republic referendum result with very considerable uneasiness about the electoral future for Australian conservatism.

The angry social and political undercurrents in rural, provincial and outer-suburban parts of Australia were expressed in the No vote in those areas. They are also expressed in the Pauline Hanson phenomenon. These undercurrents are quite clearly an ongoing feature of current Australian political life, and are unlikely to go away for quite a while.

The monarchists achieved the immediate electoral result that they desired on the republic by a very populist and very public appeal to the discontent of these social layers against political and commercial elites.

It would not be overstating it to say that the monarchist side snatched a victory by stepping aside a little and vigorously exploiting the reactionary demagoguery of the so-called Direct Election republicans, Ted Mack, Phil Cleary and Peter Reith. There is an obvious danger in this tactic for the general conservative side in politics, which was demonstrated dramatically in the recent Victorian election.

The problem for the conservatives is that this kind of anger is even more easily directed against the Tory parties in politics than it is against the Laborites, which is clearly indicated by the result in the Queensland election, the Victorian election and even in the last federal election.

The other problem for the conservatives at the level of electoral politics is that the existence of different Hansonite independent electoral formations tends to atomise the conservative vote, with obvious electoral benefits for Labor. This situation is developing in much the same way as the existence of the Democratic Labor Party severely damaged the electoral prospects of the Labor Party from 1955 to 1972.

The current electoral backlash against the conservatives is likely to peak after the introduction of the GST in June this year. Many of the social categories of Australians most disadvantaged by the GST, and most opposed to its imposition, are precisely the social categories that were persuaded to vote against the republic by the populist campaign attacking the political and commercial elites. Particularly important in this regard is the self-employed small business sector. They are going to be particularly infuriated against the Liberals during the long period of initial implementation of the GST.

On the Labor-Green-Democrat side of politics, the electoral prospects are a good deal more promising. The only thing in question here is whether the Labor leadership has enough foresight and courage to adopt a more leftist, populist economic policy, which is obviously required, to appeal to the discontented social layers who were so obvious in the referendum result.

The age polarisation that showed up in the referendum will also obviously help the progressive side in politics electorally, for the foreseeable future. In addition, the lack of emotional involvement by ethnic Australians in the monarchical ethos of British-Australia, demonstrated in the referendum, is very promising for the Labor side electorally. In addition to this, the steady and more or less inexorable increase in tertiary education among Australians is a potential electoral plus for the progressive side of politics.

 

Their use of New Class rhetoric indicates that the conservative side of politics is bleeding electorally

 

There has recently been an energetic outburst, emanating basically from the conservative side of politics, alleging that people with tertiary education, now approaching 20 per cent of the adult population, represent some kind of "New Class", with interests basically different to those of "ordinary Australians", who the conservatives claim to represent.

The close referendum result underlines why the conservatives are so alarmed by these demographic developments. On many issues there clearly is a new social factor emerging in electoral politics. The steady rise in the educational level of the population produces a kind of potential "education dividend" for the progressive side in politics if it is prepared to argue a case energetically before an increasingly well-educated electorate.

This showed up during the referendum campaign in the interesting exercise of getting a few hundred ordinary Australians into Old Parliament House in Canberra and having a debate on the republic proposal, in which those ordinary Australians were themselves involved, over a couple of days. By the end of that process, the republic side had dramatically improved its support among that group of people.

The problem the conservatives have is that the steady increase in the educational level of Australians tends to work against them electorally. All the nasty rhetoric that they use about the New Class has its real origin in this set of circumstances.

The steady increase in the educational level of Australians is ongoing and inexorable. This continuing improvement in the educational level constantly undermines and diminishes the scope of one of the traditional weapons of conservative politics, which is the exploitation of, and appeal to, all sorts of cultural and educational backwardness. When you add to this the continuing electoral effect of past, present and future immigration, and intermarriage between different ethnic and cultural groups in Australia, the electoral difficulties for the conservative side in politics are likely to further increase.

The angry Labor voters who voted No to the republic in outer-suburban areas and provincial cities because of their antagonism to political and business elites will inevitably swing back to Labor at some further point in the political cycle, which will almost certainly be reached very soon, with the June 30 introduction of the GST.

On the other hand, many of the mainly younger, tertiary educated people who have in the past voted Liberal, who voted Yes to the republic in the referendum, have made a very major first-time change in their voting behaviour. Quite a few of them are likely to move over in the future to voting Democrat, Green or Labor.

Seriously investigated, the results of the referendum on the republic reveal enormous emerging electoral problems for the conservative side in Australian politics. These demographic problems for the conservatives are obviously going to increase in the future.

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