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The twilight of the elites: Labor must return to its heartland

By David Flint - posted Tuesday, 12 October 2004

For months I have been telling anybody who asked me about the election that I thought the result would be a return of the Howard Government. This was based on two factors.

First, when the “undecided” actually concentrated their minds, they would vote rationally. That is they would vote for the safe hand on the tiller: the man who reflected their values and aspirations. They would not risk this on someone who was not tried and tested.

To this would be added the “Howard Battlers”, those traditional working class Labor voters who believed the ALP was no longer looking after them or even cared for them. And once Malcolm McKerras had explained to me last year that the coalition would most likely end up with half the Senate, I could see that for John Howard, a double dissolution was out of the question. Further, it was clear that Senate “reform” was unnecessary, and in any event both undesirable and unachievable. The government would not control the Senate, but would significantly improve its position, being able for example to block silly (for example, the republic) or political inquiries (for example, the tired so-called “children overboard” affair).


I have to say, Malcolm and I do disagree as to the US election, but we will know the answer to that soon. I think and hope, that the President will be returned.

One of the most important pieces of research on political matters in recent years has been Katharine Betts’ analysis of the values of Labor candidates and Labor voters. The problem for Labor is that its constituency is divided into two groups alien to one another. On the one hand are the new class professionals, often living in coalition electorates such as Bennelong. These are the “doctors’ wives”: the elites. Their values are summed up in the three R’s: reconciliation, refugees and the republic. Many are inclined to give their first preference to the Greens and their second preference to Labor.

Then there is the traditional working-class constituency: larger and mainly in Labor or National electorates. They were the ones who greeted John Howard in Tasmania recently and who voted “No” in the referendum. They began to despair about the ALP when Hawke and Keating inexplicably turned their backs on the long-held belief that the people’s bank was a sacred trust and sold it off. As they did with the people’s airline and all of the sacred heirlooms of the Curtin and Chifley era.

Dr Betts has confirmed something we all know: that Labor politicians tend to come from the new class. They reflect the values of the elites and not their larger working class constituency. In their values and on a range of issues, they are closer to both Green candidates and Green voters. This was reflected in parachuting Peter Garrett into Kingsford Smith and Mark Latham’s visit to the Tasmanian forests - ostentatiously made with and under the patronage of Bob Brown. It was almost as if Brown were the Tasmanian Grand Duke whose permission Latham needed even to visit the state .

Then John Howard having resisted pressure for an early election was not to be goaded into first releasing his old growth forests policy. So Latham released his: and it was an electoral disaster. It would not have attracted the preference of one more “doctor’s wife” or that of any other Green voter because they were in the bag already. But he managed to alienate his traditional constituency and not only in Tasmania.

The isolation of the ALP politicians from their traditional constituency was reflected by the continuing isolation of the press gallery from the majority of Australians, whom as Dr Betts demonstrates, are overwhelmingly conservative.


The gallery has a Casanova-like record of falling madly in love with anyone who looks as if he or she (remember Cheryl Kernot?) will defeat the Great Satan, John Howard, or any other genuinely conservative leader. The analogy for the gallery should not however be with that of a lovesick teenager. The correct analogy is rather that of an aged and very used courtesan, prone to falling for any new potential saviour, which makes the spectacle even more ridiculous.

Notwithstanding the insistence of the commentariat, Mark Latham did not win the campaign nor did he win that non-event, the TV debate. As Paddy McGuinness says, the fact is that Mark Latham performed creditably and it surprised those who thought he would fail or even implode. Thankfully that stupid distraction, the worm, had been expelled from the TV transmission, hopefully forever. And those who agree to take part in such events, including deliberative polls, are anything but typical, so it is foolish to regard their views or apparent changes of opinion as of any statistical significance.

What was extraordinary was the apparent unwillingness of many commentators, who should have done better, to treat each part of the campaign as if it were no more than a game to be won on journalistic perceptions.

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About the Author

David Flint is a former chairman of the Australian Press Council and the Australian Broadcasting Authority, is author of The Twilight of the Elites, and Malice in Media Land, published by Freedom Publishing. His latest monograph is Her Majesty at 80: Impeccable Service in an Indispensable Office, Australians for Constitutional Monarchy, Sydney, 2006

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