John Howard became our third-longest serving Prime Minister last
week, courtesy of his battlers. They're the low-income workers who
in the past would have voted Labor, but today, lured by the social
conservatism of our Everyman PM, provide the bedrock of the Howard
era. That's the tale anyway. But does it have basis in electoral
The Parliament House library ranks the 150 House of
Representatives seats according to median household income, using
2001 Census data.
North Sydney tops the list at $1792 a week and Cowper, also in
NSW, tails it at $618. Both are coalition-held seats. Crucially, of
the bottom 50 seats, 30 have coalition members, two have
conservative independents ones, and just 18 are Labor-held. So you
might think that because the nation's poorest , where Labor once
ruled, now vote conservative, the "Howard's Battlers" thesis is
But this is wrong because Labor has never ruled in the nation's
poorest . If that surprises you, you're forgetting rural
Let's bring in the Australian Electoral Commission. It has four
electoral categories: rural, provincial, outer metropolitan and
inner metropolitan. Introduce this to the equation and a clear
pattern emerges. The bottom 50 seats include 32 rural , and just
three are Labor-held.
Now, leaving aside problems of defining rural incomes, many
farmers might be doing it tough, Howard might be their kind of PM,
but they aren't who we think of as Howard's battlers. Nor would most
even contemplate sending a Labor MP to Canberra.
There are 45 rural seats across the country. If we exclude them,
we're left with 105 . Of the bottom 35 by income, 27 are Labor-held,
compared to just 12 of the top third. So apart from the bush, the
nation's poorest still overwhelmingly vote Labor.
Howard's battlers, a western Sydney-centric myth, was concocted
by Liberal director Andrew Robb in 1996. There are 16 that could fit
the western Sydney category, and Labor holds 13, including the seven
Perhaps ironically, a mini version of the Howard's battlers
phenomenon finally came to pass in 2001, when low-income
metropolitan seats across the nation provided the bulk of the
pro-government swing. But none actually replaced a Labor member with
a coalition one.
So who decides close elections? The answer is the same as always:
voters in the regions and the relatively affluent aspirational outer
suburbs in the capitals.
It's the latter category in particular that voted for former
Prime Ministers Bob Hawke and Paul Keating until 1996, but now
strongly back the Howard government. Most are in the top third of
the median income table. If these Australians are battling, it's for
that second four-wheel-drive.
Peter Brent is editor of mumble.com.au, a website that looks
at electoral behaviour.