Are metropolitans “real Australians”?

It’s become customary in Australian politics to define some subset of the population as “real Australians” whose views and concerns deserve special attention. In the wake of the election outcome, I wrote a somewhat tongue-in-cheek piece for Crikey, imagining how this frame might be applied to metropolitan Australians. It’s over the fold

Contempt for metropolitan Australians a dangerous move for political parties

While both major parties treated urban Australians with a degree of disdain, it was the conservatives who paid the highest price for it this time around.

John Quiggin

May 25, 2022

(Image: Mitchell Squire/Private Media)

Comparing the discussion of the 2022 election with previous post-mortems, one standard element is notable in its absence. The discussion has focused on the loss of the Liberal heartland, the concerns of women voters and the fact that climate policy mattered after all; what is missing is the ritual anointing of one group of voters (rural and regional Australians, people of faith, the residents of Western Sydney and so on) as the “real Australians” who have received inadequate respect from the political class and whose concerns must be attended to.

A look at the post-election map suggests that this year’s candidate group may be called “metropolitan Australians” — that is, residents of Australia’s state and territory capital cities. On current indications, the Liberal Party could hold as few as 10 to 12 metropolitan seats, less than the combined total of Greens and urban independents. 

It is easy to imagine the kind of thing that might be written about these electorates if their inhabitants were seen as “real Australians”:

Metropolitan Australians are sick of being scorned and derided for everything from their coffee preferences to their over-education. Their concern about climate change is routinely mocked as a religious orthodoxy, often by commentators who claim to be concerned about religious freedom for “people of faith”.  Although their income taxes and GST supply the great majority of government revenue, they are regularly treated as parasites living off the relatively modest amounts paid by mining companies in royalties and company taxes. While the struggles of other Australians are treated sympathetically, young metropolitans, unable to enter the housing market, are blamed for spending their money on smashed avocado — or just for not having parents wealthy enough to support them. 

While both major parties have treated metropolitan Australians with disdain, the conservatives have been far worse, and have paid a higher price. When then deputy prime minister Michael McCormack described millions of hardworking metropolitans as “woke, inner-city greenies”, no one batted an eye. By contrast, the use of terms like “redneck” and “bogan” for rural and regional Australians has resulted in instant cancellation; indeed, Anthony Albanese was criticised on the basis that random residents of his electorate had used them.

On Saturday, however, metropolitan Australians found their voice. They are sick of being put down and ignored by the elite rural and regional minority who have held an unfair share of political power, and they are not going to take it any more.

Of course, this kind of thing is just as nonsensical as any attempt to divide us into “real Australians” and “the rest”. But if the Liberal Party ignores the results of the election or, worse still, follows the lead of Barnaby Joyce and the National Party in denouncing city-dwellers, they will face immense difficulties.

Historically, independents and Greens have found it hard to get into Parliament. But once elected, their major party opponents have found them hard to remove. Indeed, no Green candidate elected in a general state or federal election has subsequently been defeated (some byelection winners have lost their seats at the next general election). Independents have also held office for long periods.

Given this knowledge, the Liberal Party might decide to give up on winning back the seats of Greens and independents and focus on its conservative base in the hope that the inevitable difficulties of government will produce a swing away from Labor. But this would be a desperate strategy. Based on results so far, achieving a Liberal majority solely by winning seats now held by Labor would require a two-party-preferred vote of 54-46 — that is, a swing of 6%. In recent history, only the 1996 and 2007 elections have come close to this.

The Liberals could form a minority government with a smaller swing. But unless they came very close to an outright majority, they would be forced to deal with the same metropolitan independents they have treated with contempt so far. 

The alternative strategy — of breaking the coalition with the Nationals and trying to regain the ground they have lost in metropolitan Australia — is the more promising in theory. But the handful of remaining metropolitan Liberals are a minority in their own partyroom. In any case, most are outer-suburban conservatives, more attuned to their regional neighbours than to the urban majority.

We are unlikely to see the “metropolitan Australians” trope in our political commentary. But in a country as urbanised as Australia, and with traditional party allegiances breaking down, it is the big cities where future elections will mostly be decided.

5 thoughts on “Are metropolitans “real Australians”?

  1. The world has most clearly entered the anthropocene and the pandemicene epochs.

    “The Anthropocene is a proposed geological epoch dating from the commencement of significant human impact on Earth’s geology and ecosystems, including, but not limited to, anthropogenic climate change.” – Wikipedia.

    The pandemicene is and will be the era of multiple pandemics affecting the globe and especially its densely populated and metropolitan areas plus all global citizens who are highly mobile under globalization. Also, many wild animals and species domesticated for food and as pets will very likely be seriously affected.

    Australia is one of the most highly urbanized nations in the world, discounting city states and mini-states. Urban populations are going to suffer the most from climate change, the anthropecence and especially the pandemicene. The pandemicene in particular will rapidly rise to prominence, I predict, as the most serious issue facing the electorate in the short to mid-term. It will even eclipse climate change. This is not something I predicted before, though I was concerned at a lower level. I am predicting it now.

    The Monkeypox epidemic is showing clear signs of spiraling out of control globally. The important causes for this appear to be:

    (1) The immune weakening of the global human population by rampant spread of COVID-19 and its sequelae including long Covid. New research shows COVID-19 weakens the immune system in general, especially upon repeated infection which is now becoming commonplace.

    (2) The neoliberal retreat from infectious disease control. The CDC and other authorities have already signaled they are not going to seriously attempt to control monkeypox. This is because it would require expensive (and somewhat dangerous) vaccines plus it would require testing, tracing, isolating, masking, quarantining, ring-fencing and other measures which our authorities and societies have already declared they will not do. Monkeypox can be airborne.

    (3) Climate change has raised temperatures in temperate and cool temperate zones which appear to aid monkeypox, a disease from the tropics and will soon enough aid diseases like malaria, dengue, zika and many other diseases.

    (4) Monkeypox itself appears to be evolving faster; to have gained far more mutations far more quickly than would have been expected from a DNA virus.

    Metropolitan populations in Australia will soon be facing huge crises from climate change, multiple pandemics, energy shortages, or at least rocketing energy costs, and food shortages or rocketing food prices. Any political party which ignores this stuff will get more than angry emails from constituents, far more. They will be absolutely destroyed at the ballot box. I hope they are. We will not get real change until the Liberals, Nationals and Labor (which are all neoliberal capitalist parties supporting the super-rich and nobody else) are all destroyed at the ballot box and by peaceful, non-violent direct action which may even have to be of the virtual and/or isolating kind. After all, a national strike could also be an isolating pandemic circuit breaker.

    The future will be Green and Democratic Socialist or it will be non-existent. The current system, neoliberal capitalism, is completely untenable. It will destroy the biosphere and all humans unless stopped.

  2. There does seem to be a fallacy peculiar to Australia here, because of its unusual population distribution. Australia has a “frontier” narrative of its own history similar to other settler colonial states, and if you only consider the country’s extremely large total area relative to population, it’s plausible to imagine that living in the countryside or in a remote town/city like Broken Hill is still a typical Australian experience. From this you might expect rural/small-town voters form a substantial base for federal political power like they do in the USA, and feel it’s only natural that such voices carry a lot of weight in the leadership of one of the two main parties.

    In practice, these “real Australians” are now very much in the minority, and the average Australian lives in more “metropolitan” conditions than the average European: weighted by population, the median Australian urban sprawl is South East Queensland with more than 3 million people, whereas the whole of Europe (population: ~750 million) only has about 20 urban agglomerations on this scale or larger. (Sure, Australia has nothing on quite the scale of Moscow, Istanbul, London, Paris, the Randstad or the Rhine-Ruhr metropolis, but those are a long way from the average European experience; the current UK Conservative Party would make no sense at all, for example, if the average Londoner was representative of the political positions of the average Brit.) As for the non-metropolitan population of Australia, the term “regional Australia” especially seems to be close to meaningless if it lumps everywhere from Geelong to the Pilbara into the same category.

    Particularly strange to me is the continued existence of the Liberal Party in New South Wales (also one of the few surviving Coalition state governments, although probably not for much longer). It’s perennially weak in the Newcastle/Central Coast and Illawarra regions, and doesn’t even field candidates in much of “regional NSW”, so it is more or less the Liberal Party of Greater Sydney (plus a few rural seats where the incumbent happens to identify as Liberal rather than National, but honestly may as well be a National, like former energy minister Angus Taylor). It doesn’t seem particularly sustainable for a party with that geographical base to constantly rail against “metropolitan elites”.

  3. On the topic of real work, the often sound First Dog in the Moon snarks that EIIR, in her 70 years of queening, has never done any. This reflects the same reactionary macho bias. Being a symbolic monarch is a hard acting job: always being presentable, always showing up on time, always reading the papers in the red box, always staying civil while making small-talk with assorted autocrats, megalomaniacs, white-collar criminals and political conmen. You can certainly make a case that the job should be different or could be carried out more cheaply in a republican form as in Germany and Ireland, but as the job exists, Elizabeth has done it very well.

  4. Relative to her pay rate and wealth, EIIR has done effectively nothing for the people. Oh, I forgot one thing. She is the figurehead and prop for highly unequal, aristocratic and capitalist wealth. It is support for monarchy that is reactionary.

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