Liberal Party research points to a declining support base.
THE dwindling support from two crucial voting groups is of increasing concern to Liberal strategists, according to State Scene’s best east coast political insider.
During a recent Perth visit, he alerted me to the importance of both groups, which he dubbed the “forgetful forgotten people” and “doctors’ wives”.
Liberals strategists, he said, were concerned that if both deserted the party Robert Menzies founded in 1944, it would slip into third place behind the Greens and Labor in every inner-city seat across Australia.
If that’s correct it’s dramatic news, something Liberals have good reason to be worried about.
Who are these “forgetful forgotten people” and who are these “doctors’ wives”?
Those familiar with the history of the Liberal Party will know of Mr Menzies’ famous 1942 speech, thereafter called his ‘Forgotten People’ address, in which he outlined the values that would form the basis of his party.
Such people were the self-helpers, the non-unionised, the self-employed, the get-up-and-goers – retailers, professionals, and small business owners.
Menzies borrowed heavily from the great Scottish writer, Samuel Smiles (1812-1904), author of that influential 1859 tome, Self Help, which formed the basis of much thinking that underpinned British imperial-era action and American individualism.
To Menzies such people were “the strivers, the planners, the ambitious ones”.
Such thinking was well expressed to me by the late WW (Bill) Mitchell, Sir Charles Court’s speech writer for more than 20 years.
Mr Mitchell, a poet in the mould of Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson, once described them thus: “They’re the doers, not the don’ters; the willers, not the won’ters; the canners, not the can’ters.”
Since the late 1960s, however, these forgotten people haven’t only been steadily dwindling in numbers, but many have actually forgotten Menzies’ insights and even backed big-spending and big-taxing Laborism.
Some backed, in various ways, Gough Whitlam-led Labor as early as 1972.
Since then others, and their well-healed offspring, have become increasingly well disposed towards big spenders of taxpayers’ funds, such as Paul Keating and Kevin Rudd.
All these and their spouses who are attracted to smooth talking Laborites including Messrs Whitlam, Keating and Rudd, are viewed by today’s Liberal strategists as ‘forgetful once-forgotten people’, since they no longer value Samuel Smiles’ message and instead increasingly back those handing out taxpayers’ funds willy-nilly.
Those in the other category – the “doctors’ wives” – are the spouses of those in the essentially self-employed high-earning strata that’s been steadily deserting the Liberal Party.
Such spouses are often arts graduates who were marginally politically active at campus and married well, meaning they and their husbands earn $150,000-plus annually.
They’re opposed to non-polluting nuclear energy; convinced that global climate change is true; tend towards proto-feminism; and strongly back saving forests, despite insisting on wooden floorboards and wooden beams in every room of their snazzy homes.
Before the crucial 2007 election they were attracted to Labor or the Greens because the prime minister John Howard: backed the American-led Coalition of the Willing in Iraq; was lukewarm on anthropogenic climate change; and maintained a seemingly strong stance on asylum-seekers entering Australia by boats setting out from coastal Indonesian villages.
Whether married to a doctor, lawyer, finance broker, a retailer or finance industry operative, Liberal strategists dub them all as “doctors’ wives” since their political inclinations are Labor and/or Green oriented.
My east coast insider next recommended Margot Saville’s book, The Battle for Bennelong – The adventures of Maxine McKew, aged 50 something, because the forgetfuls and the doctors’ wives featured in Mr Howard’s loss of the seat he’d held for 30 or so years.
At pages 47-48 Saville writes: “One autumn evening I go to a [Maxine McKew] fundraiser held at the fabulous Birchgrove home of David and Cathy Harris.
“The Harrises own the fruit and vegetable chain, Harris Farm Markets, and Cathy used to be the director of the Federal Affirmative Action agency.
“Their son, Lachlan, is Kevin Rudd’s media adviser.
“The Harrises have obviously invited their Louisa Road neighbors, so the party is a mixture of femocrats and wealthy inner-city lefties.
“One of my friends has been dragged along by his wife and tells me gleefully that the chardonnay has run out.
“‘It’s all those chardonnay socialists,’ he says.
“We look down at the water taxis on the jetty and discuss the fact that everyone in the room is far richer than they were 11 years ago, yet they personally loathe Howard. It’s a big topic.”
On page 54 Saville wrote: “At Maxine HQ, more and more volunteers come on board.
“They are a varied bunch. Most are retirees or housewives who have spare time. There’s a group of ‘doctors’ wives’, gorgeous north shore ladies who sound like Kath & Kim’s homeware-shop owners, Prue and Trude.
“They head out to letterbox in their Helen Kaminski straw hats and Tod’s loafers; their husbands probably vote Liberal.”
Between the mid-1940s and late 1960s, most with such a background solidly backed the Liberal Party.
Today, however, increasing numbers of forgetful forgottens and doctors’ wives back, with their feet and votes, either Labor or the Greens, which, understandably, concerns Liberal strategists.
But not all the news may be as bad as those strategists contend.
Since meeting the east coast political insider, State Scene has encountered an interesting fact that may – there’s no guarantee – help reverse or at least stem the flow of forgetfuls and doctors’ wives away from the Liberals
According The Australian (November 12) and headlined: Means Test catches Doctors’ Wives, Rudd-led Labor isn’t necessarily a devoted friend of those who so willingly flock to help Labor candidates like Ms McKew.
The report said those in safe Liberal electorates had born the brunt of Labor’s clampdown on family benefit payments to all earning $150,000 annually or more.
“The 15 most affected electorates are all Liberal-held and they include Malcolm Turnbull’s seat of Wentworth, Julie Bishop’s Curtin and Joe Hockey’s North Sydney, and Tony Abbott’s Warringah,” the report said.
A huge 600 Warringah families lost those benefits and 423 went that way in Curtin.
A total of 26,813 families had been stripped of those family benefits in 20 well-heeled seats, 15 of which are Liberal held.
The fact that removal of the family benefits from the well-heeled is closer to traditional Menzies-style means testing matters little, since Mr Rudd has removed a benefit from those likely to be ideologically inclined his way for reasons other than money.
But as their tax accountant could tell them, they’re paying far higher taxes to Mr Rudd than comparable earners did during the Menzies era.
The journalist who compiled the electoral table and report highlighted this interesting twist.
“The irony is that Labor targeted the voters that have been troubling the Coalition in power,” he wrote.
“‘Doctors’ wives’ was the putdown that former Howard government ministers used to describe the higher-income Liberal supporters who threatened to switch to Labor or the Greens over the Coalition’s treatment of asylum seekers, the war in Iraq, and climate change.”
Election 2010 promises to test a range of issues, including the strength of the commitment versus the dollar of some ideologically motivated voters.
If the outcome proves catastrophic in once safe inner-city Liberal seats, as some party strategists fear, we’ll know precisely why; the bad memories of the offspring of former solid Liberal voters and the spouses some of those offspring chose.