Choices Part 1 – WorkChoices
Fifteen years ago, the word “Choice” was heavily discussed in Australian politics. In the built up to the 2007 election, WorkChoices was one policy that helped to sink John Howard. Work “Choices”, as workers knew, was no real “Choice” at all, for those people being retrenched and then re-employed on nastier, meaner employment agreements and contracts. It was one overreach by a hubristic Liberal government taking advantage of a rare majority in the Senate.
Flash forward to the recent election, and Choice was again the word that dominated the election. The choices were vastly different this time, however. This time, there was a paradigm shift and a societal momentum towards making a decisive change. Choices were made to vote for someone other than the two major political brands. More voters than ever decided to choose outside the regular two political brands – actually did it this time, instead of just thinking about it. And the big two will be worried about that shift.
Choices Part 2 – TealChoices
Those choices – TealChoices – were provided to electorates to whom choice outside a mainstream two brand decision is a daily reality. Go to Kooyong and Wentworth and you will see people making all sorts of choices – shopping at a high end IGA (in Melbourne, often a Ritchie’s), Toscanos, Harris Farm Markets. These are the areas in which being able to choose a form of transport into work – a well appointed train, tram or bus service that offers multiple routes. Even driving is not a punishing affair as it is for those in other parts of the cities. For the people who own their own houses living in those suburbs, there are choices in life afforded to those who have accumulated resources over the years, and are not so threatened by a rise in interest rates. For those who rent, they are similarly unencumbered by the rise of interest rates and are not exposed to the emotional scarring that mortgage stress can create. That’s why these groups have choices. In the past, however, only 15 – 20% of the people in those kinds of areas have chosen to carry their choices into their votes – with a couple of exceptions. In Hobart, people in Denison chose an independent voice, Andrew Wilkie. In North Sydney, there was Ted Mack. But this time, that change. The mood changed.
Why are they Teals?
One of the driving forces behind the teal wave is Simon Holmes a Court, son of Robert Holmes a Court, who was a symbol of the old Liberal / Commerce nexus. For his grizzle about the “teal” label, it works. They are a blur of blue Liberals and the Greens. While News Ltd overstate his influence and power over the movement (massively), his money and name did help to connect and draw upon a wider community dissatisfaction with a Liberal Party that had moved further and further away from the socially progressive / economically conservative values of the Liberal Party. Communities that were continually revolted by the lazy outer suburban dog whistling of Tony Abbott, then Scott Morrison. In addition, communities that could see that their Liberal government was not the party of Menzies. It was instead more like a Calwell Labor government might have looked like – one stuck in the past, dedicated to weird, throwback socialistic actions like funding coal fired power stations and not backing environmentally sustainable future business opportunities. It was like an inverse of this famous cartoon from the 1949 election. Except this time, it was Morrison and Joyce stuck in the Chifley car and the Teals were Robert Menzies, offering the future. Except this time, the car was electric.
These people had, for the first time, a viable choice in an acceptable form – a community based, usually well educated, economically centrist “teal”. And, most importantly, someone selected by a community based process, not someone who would normally put their hand up to be independent and make the campaign about them. These were candidates responsible to the community organisations that had selected them. That model worked in those seats in Melbourne and Sydney with a sizeable cohort of older, established, but environmentally minded voters, as well as a considerable number of younger voters who might have considered voting Green, but realising that a teal candidate was worth a first or second preference, in order to bring about action on climate change and asylum seeker issues.
The Greens and Teal
The Greens could have, at one stage of their life, ridden the teal wave. Fiona Scott, the one term member for Lindsay, said to me at a prepolling booth in Lindsay in 2016 that she believed the Greens would be the part of the seats like Mackellar, Wentworth and Warringah, while the Liberals would eventually be the party of the outer suburbs – the mortgage belt. That wasn’t a random idea. There was the evidence of a teal wave buried deep in senate votes in traditional Liberal seats. There were reasons why the Greens had senators for many years in NSW and Victoria in particular – high votes in those seats. Liberals and others used to derisively call them “doctor’s wives”, but they were in reality people who were clearly tired of having just a choice between Liberal and Labor and decided that climate change action and more progressive social policies – unbound by the anchor of pragmatism that causes Labor to compromise – were important, at least in terms of senate representation. There were many within the Greens in NSW – me included – who were advocating for a more dedicated push into those seats, much like the Victorian Greens’ successful push into Prahran in the state parliament. The Greens in NSW, however, made a decided choice to be dedicated to a harder edged socialist platform – progressive socially and economically – that cost them the opportunity to take those seats. Their constant churn of HOR candidates also did not help their cause. That is not to say that their decision was necessarily a bad thing – it is good to have a party consistently challenging the status quo, and in NSW, they have consistently challenged the systems that operate in that largely flawed and in many ways corrupt state. On a side note, David Shoebridge will be a loss to that state’s parliament. But his departure to Canberra will also be welcomed by people fronting various parliamentary committees.
Younger Voters and Brisbane
However, a discussion of a teal wave becomes somewhat more complicated in Queensland, where the movement has been more Green than Teal. More an inverse of the Sydney and Melbourne model, where the younger voters had more influence than the older ones. Of the top five seats with younger populations – people under 35 – in Australia, three of them in Brisbane were ripe for the Greens. Lots of renters, lots of university students. That would be of considerable benefit to the Australian Greens’ active courting of younger people wanting decisive action on climate change, asylum seekers and social policies. It also helped the Queensland Greens that over the years they have taken a different pathway to the NSW Greens, deciding in part, especially more recently, that candidate choice and dedicated building towards victories over many years was the pathway to success. A solid ground game, lots of doorknocking and a positive environment and social policy focus led by Larissa Waters has helped the Greens in Brisbane build a solid choice for voters, especially younger voters.
For Brisbane’s three inner city seats that turned Greens, therefore, with a combination of those younger voters combining with older, wealthy, “teal” voters in their million dollar Queenslanders created the perfect storm to push the Greens over the line. This is why Brisbane’s choices need to be seen different to those taken in Sydney and Melbourne. It might also help to explain that Labor’s response to the Green rise – especially that of Terri Butler – to be negative, was perhaps not the most effective strategy. It might work for older voters, but cynicism and consideration of “pragmatism” and “compromise” is not what younger voters want. They want to choose change, not more of the same.
Before considering the future of this teal wave, this is not to say that the notion of choice is limited to wealthy inner-city areas. There have also been choices made by the relatively wealthy and comfortably off in rural areas into the past, with traditional Nationals seats disappearing from their books. There was New England, where the National-minded rebel Tony Windsor won on the back of his time in state parliament. In Lyne, Rob Oakeshott, another former National, but independent thinker did the same as Windsor. In Calare, the people chose TV presenter Peter Andren as their voice. The people of Indi decided that a local, Cathy McGowan, was a better option than a political blow-in, Sophie Mirabella. In Nicholls, there was a swing to an independent. In Cowper, there was a swing to an independent. And finally, we have Kennedy, where an agrarian socialist, Bob Katter, has been charming locals with his bizarre mix of socialist, Labor, Nationals and crocodile focused doggerel for years.
The Teal Curtain – Where does the Teal Choice Stop?
What might be forgotten, in this new era of choice, is that most Federal electorates still do not offer that choice. Never was that more stark for me than when I was standing at a prepoll booth in Aston, with just me and my red Labor How To Votes and the Liberals. No Greens, no community independents. Just the two major brands. A bit like those areas that just offer Woolworths and Coles. The areas where most people watch or listen to one of the commercial TV or radio stations, but not the ABC or SBS. For those areas, the outer suburbs, teals – community independents – would always struggle to mount a campaign. This is why people like Alan Tudge knew they were relatively safe in this election. There is a Teal Curtain, whereby people either side of it will have or won’t have a viable or realistic choice outside one of the major parties. Where those alternatives can hope for 15% or maybe 20% at most. In Melbourne, the teal curtain can be best guessed to be an Eastern Suburbs phenomenon, whereby the curtain runs along Warrigal Rd, then up to Union Road towards Bulleen. In Sydney, the curtain can be more effectively drawn around Wentworth in the eastern suburbs, and then in the northern suburbs along the Pacific Highway, even though it may head further west in time.
Bougie Shops and Teals
If you want to took for the teal curtain’s movements, look for where there’s a choice other than Woolworths of Coles. I’m not talking Aldi, which is more of a choice for working class people and is very popular in places that still have the choice only between Liberal and Labor. I am referring to wherever there are bougie IGAs that sell expensive French cheeses or Harris Farm Markets type shops (Harris Farm had a shop in Penrith for a while, which did not last long – it needed to be in Springwood…). This is completely unscientific, but hey, this is just a blog, after all.
What of their Future?
For the Greens, there is still a worth in the teal wave and their impact on younger people who are the children of wealthy parents. We cannot underestimate the appeal of the Greens to those in their 20s. In my very Liberal, very conservative booth in Aston on Election Day, I saw many people under 25 march straight to the Greens volunteers and take only their material. This is why in that booth, there was a doubling of the Greens primary from 5% in 2019 to 10% this time. One of the most Liberal booths had one of the biggest Greens swings. It was one of the biggest Greens swings in Aston. On a side note, just around the corner, there is a bougie IGA that sells the most amazing cheese and sauces. That cannot be just a one off phenomenon in seats where choices are available.
I have no idea, though, what is going to happen with the teals. As Holmes a Court says, the teal members are all community based independents, looking out for their communities. They all have a Choice. The new Greens members have fewer choices, because they belong to a party. However, as we have seen, the Greens have more choices and freedoms because they don’t have to appeal to a wide range of voters. Whatever happens, it will be much more interesting than Federal politics has been for some time. And we won’t need to be looking too closely at the Liberals’ PotatoChoice.