Trouble and strife

Judith Brett, professor of politics at La Trobe University and author of Australian Liberals and the Moral Middle Class, let fly with her handbag yesterday at those of us who have employed the term "doctors’ wives" to characterise voters who are deserting the Liberal Party in their safest urban electorates (the Poll Bludger’s defence is that he has always employed quotation marks). Among Brett’s numerous well-made points:

Women have always been more sensitive than men to the moral dimensions of politics. They first left their homes to enter public politics in large numbers in the 19th century to support moral causes such as temperance and the abolition of slavery … It was the fear of the moral power of women voters, in particular their opposition to the male pleasures of drinking and gambling, that motivated much of the opposition to the female franchise … Until feminism and the 1970s, the Liberal Party was the natural home of the morally concerned woman looking to cast her vote in the national interest … That Liberals would even use a term such as "doctors’ wives" to describe morally motivated, well-educated middle class women shows the depth of their conviction that self-interest is the main political motivator, that no matter what they say about values, politics is really about class and these women are too woolly-minded to realise it.

That said, it must be granted that class obviously has a fair bit to do with it since these are specifically "middle class" women under discussion; women lower down the social spectrum are as likely to be shifting their votes the other way. Certainly Newspoll’s demographic analysis graphs in Thursday’s Australian, which span results from the past three years, do not suggest any seismic shift on either side of the gender divide since 2001. If Liberal voters in safe urban seats are abandoning their party, there doesn’t seem any particular reason to think that women are driving the phenomenon.

Whatever the reason, it is indeed being seriously suggested that the Liberals harbour fears for members up to and including John Howard in Bennelong, Peter Costello in Higgins and Tony Abbott in Warringah. It was reported last weekend that in Joe Hockey’s seat of North Sydney, a traditionally safe Liberal electorate that was nevertheless won by independent Ted Mack in 1990 and 1993, Liberal internal polling had the combined Labor and Greens vote at 52 per cent. The Poll Bludger suspects that the Liberals are playing games here in a move to scare supporters out of registering a protest vote, just in case. George Megalogenis and Elizabeth Colman of the Australian are on the money when they say the members for these seats are merely "comparing notes on the rumblings from formerly rusted-on supporters" and that a post-materialist anti-Howard backlash can only prove decisive in the more marginal city seats of Adelaide and Deakin in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, as well as the wild card of Wentworth.

Author: William Bowe

William Bowe is a Perth-based election analyst and occasional teacher of political science. His blog, The Poll Bludger, has existed in one form or another since 2004, and is one of the most heavily trafficked websites on Australian politics.