Financial Review  
 May 24 2003
Home  |  Register  |  Subscribe  |  Help  |  Feedback     Legend:   Premium = premium  |  Logout  

C O M M E N T   A N D   O P I N I O N 
Lies and statistics
Jul 19 2003
Feedback Peter Brent

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 fact?

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 proved.

But this is wrong because Labor has never ruled in the nation's poorest . If that surprises you, you're forgetting rural Australia.

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 poorest.

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, a website that looks at electoral behaviour.

Back to top Top

Email to a friend Email to a friend
Email to a friend Printer friendly version

stock quote
Stock code:
  Code look-up
Select details:
news search Keywords: 
Advanced search

Subscriber log-in

f2 Network Privacy Policy | Conditions of Use | Member Agreement | Copyright