Nick Cater writes in The Australian:
In case we had not noticed, the first results from last year’s census show a nation that is becoming lumpier as postcodes become separated by education, ethnicity and class. Underlying everything is the emergence of a generational sectarian divide pitching boomers against millennials in a contest of values and expectations.
From social reform to tax, retirement income and education, attitudes differ between the haves and the have-nots, between those who have youth on their side and those who don’t. We have known for some time that the dominant political fault line is no longer left versus right, rich versus poor, or city versus country. It is the division between a professional-managerial elite, who are drawn to the inner cities, and the rest.
Between the two is what the American writer Joan Williams recently labelled “the class comprehension gap” in which the behaviour and attitudes on one side utterly bemuse the other.
Age adds a new dimension, as a tertiary-educated cohort of bright young things takes over rejuvenated suburbs, where their lifestyle and prejudices prevail. Hence the world looks very different viewed from Sydney’s inner-city Chippendale and Redfern, where millennials outnumber boomers five to one, than it does from, say, Lithgow in the Central Tablelands, where there are twice as many boomers than millennials.
Politicians with an eye to winning elections might have spent a productive week examining these conflicting demographic trends revealed in the census instead of allowing themselves to be consumed in internal arguments over the Marriage Act.
The ABS is yet to release the figures on same-sex couples, but it is doubtful if they spread beyond the same handful of inner-city electorates where they were in 2011. Attitudes may be changing, but same-sex marriage is more likely to be top of mind in the seat of Sydney, where at the last count there were 2666 cohabiting same-sex couples, than in the western Sydney seat of McMahon, where there were 51.
Census: How Australia is changing
We should therefore think carefully before agreeing that a prime minister “panders to the right” by exercising caution. He would be pandering — if we must use such a condescending term — to an electorate that is far more conservative than the professional media elite is prepared to recognise.
While the census does not poll social attitudes, it furnishes some useful proxies. The ratio between formally married couples and those who merely live together, for example, points to variations in attitudes towards family and tradition.
De facto relationships are becoming more common but they account for fewer than one in five partnerships, falling to fewer than one in 11 in Kevin Andrews’s suburban Victorian seat of Menzies.
Next door in the electorate of Melbourne, by contrast, two out of five cohabiting relationships are de facto. In a handful of inner-city suburbs, like Sydney’s Surry Hills, de facto couples easily outnumber registered marriages.
The next election, however, will not be decided at the extremes but in a few dozen marginal electorates where social attitudes are closer to the national norm. We might call it the centre, even if it seems a more conservative place than the average inner-city coffee shop patron would find comfortable.
Most of the 20 Coalition and 14 Labor seats vulnerable to a swing of 4 per cent are overweighted with baby boomers and underweighted with millennials. In five — Braddon and Lyons in Tasmania, Gilmore, Richmond and Robertson in NSW — one in four voters is over 65. The politics are complex. Managing the differing expectations of boomers and millennials, while avoiding offending social pieties, presents leaders with a new and difficult challenge.
Clearly a Coalition government cannot afford to neglect Australians in retirement or those about to retire. Changes to superannuation and pension rules caused a worse backlash than many imagined. The Coalition’s share of women voters aged between 55 and 65 at the last election fell dramatically from 49 per cent in 2013 to 34 per cent, the Australian Electoral Survey reports.
At the same time the Coalition must be mindful of five million or so millennial voters, aged between 18 and 34, who make up almost a third of the voting population. Their numbers roughly equal the boomers, those aged 60 and older, but their interests diverge. They differ on social issues and on economic policy at a time of fiscal contraction, or what would be fiscal contraction if the government could work out how to contract without offending our sense of entitlement.
A decision between restricting the aged pension entitlements and raising student loan obligations, for example, is a choice between favouring one generation and penalising another, making the politics of generational envy treacherous ground. The intergenerational class war, like any other, reduces to a simple question: which side are you on?
Should we include the family home in the pension asset test, for example? Should we scrap negative gearing — a sound investment strategy for the middle-aged and elderly, but of little value to a 20-something graduate busy paying back HECS?
These boomer-bashing policies might fly in areas where millennials outnumber the over-60s, in seats such as Brisbane (43 per cent millennials to 17 per cent boomers), Higgins (30 per cent to 23 per cent) and Wentworth (33 per cent to 24 per cent).
They would be poison, however, in seats where the boomers prevail, seats such as Richmond (40 per cent boomers, 17 per cent millennials), Boothby (33 per cent to 23 per cent) or Dunkley (32 per cent to 23 per cent).
As one picks one’s way across the statistical landscape mapped by the census, it becomes apparent why Australia is getting harder to govern. Weaving the multiple strands of sectarian interest into something we might agree is in the national interest requires more political imagination than we arguably possess.