Generational challenge for Liberals facing “overwhelming” youth vote deficit

Dec 9, 2022
Millennial generation having fun.

‘Perhaps the single biggest question confronting Australian politics’ is how the Liberal-National coalition addresses an ‘overwhelming deficit of support among younger generations’. 

That is the most important conclusion and finding of the latest Australian Election Study (AES) conducted by the Australian National University in conjunction with Griffith University.

The survey results on generational voting are stunning, and far more significant than what they reveal about voter support for the Teals and other independents (of which, more later). And they should be of far more concern to the leadership of the Liberal Party.

Although the Liberal Party vote in House of Representatives seats fell in almost every age group at the 2022 election, it fell most among younger voters. While the Coalition won about 35.5 per cent of all first preference votes, only about 25 per cent of voters under the age of 40 voted for it.

The survey reported, ‘At no time in the 35-year history of the AES have we observed such a low level of support for either major party in so large a segment of the electorate. By contrast, support for Labor remained virtually unchanged from 2019 to 2022, with about 38 percent of voters under the age of 40 supporting Labor’.

It said, ‘Between 2016 and 2022, Millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996) record a large decline in Coalition support, falling from 38 percent to 25 percent in just two election cycles. Changes of this magnitude and this pace are rare in Australian electoral history…’

For generation Z, born after 1996, just 26 percent said they voted for the Coalition while 67 percent voted for either the Greens or Labor. The survey report said, ‘No other generation records such skewed preferences at similarly early stages of the life course.’

The generational changes are accompanied by (and perhaps partly explained by) significant changes in the way women vote. Some opinion polling during the election suggested that young women in particular were favouring the Greens and to a lesser extent Labor over the Coalition. The AES found that 32 percent of women voters favoured the Coalition, while 38 percent voted for Labor and 16 per cent for the Greens (almost twice as many as the men who voted for the Greens).

However despite the huge media attention to gender issues (and the Government’s failure to address them) under the Morrison Government, the Coalition vote by men dropped more than the vote by women (for men, from 48 to 39 percent, for women from 38 to 32 percent).

And taking class and education into account, the survey concluded that it remains the case that those who identify as working class are more likely to vote Labor, even if this base has eroded over time. ‘We also see evidence that the Coalition has lost support from high-income and university-educated voters. Traditional class-based voting patterns have eroded, and parties can no longer rely on their traditional base for support’.

In passing the survey noted that both Labor and Liberal have lost support from working class voters in favour of minor parties – from 48 percent of working class voters to 38 percent between 2016 and 2022. The AES doesn’t say so, but it could be that much of this vote has gone to One Nation and other parties of the far right.

The findings that grabbed most of the headlines concerned the Teal independents. As the executive summary put it, ‘Most Teal voters were not ‘disaffected Liberals’, but tactical Labor and Green voters. Less than one in five Teal voters previously voted for the Coalition.’

The report said, ‘Based on their recalled vote in the 2019 election, a majority of Teal supporters in 2022 were tactical voters intent on unseating the incumbent Liberal….31 percent of Teal voters had supported Labor in 2019 and a further 24 percent had supported the Greens. Just 18 percent said they had voted for the Coalition. The view that Teal voters are ‘disaffected liberals’ protesting the policies of their party therefore applies to less than one in five Teal voters. In contrast, by far the largest group are tactical voters who see their preferred party as nonviable in the electorate and use this information to defeat the most viable party – the Liberals. This is a level of tactical voting which far exceeds that found in most international studies’.

There is a caveat noted when the survey hesitates to speculate about future prospects – namely, ‘the relatively small number of these voters in the surveys’.

That caveat should probably apply also to the conclusion about the extent of tactical voting.

There are a number of problems with that conclusion, but perhaps the most significant is that although Teals were elected in three states (NSW, Victoria and WA) voting patterns in the relevant electorates varied greatly between the states, and within a state. These can’t be detected by the survey because of the small numbers caught by the survey.

If the ‘tactical voting’ thesis is correct, the voting patterns should show largish falls in the votes for Labor and the Greens and relatively small falls in the Liberal vote. That is not what occurred in North Sydney (ALP down 4 percent, Greens down 5, while the Liberal vote fell 14 percent) or MacKellar (Labor down 8.7 percent, Greens 5.3, Liberal 11.6).

However it would apply in Goldstein (Labor down 17.3 percent, Greens 6.2, Liberal 12.30 though the fall in the Liberal vote was remarkable) and more so in Kooyong (Labor down 14.8 percent, Greens 10.6, Liberal 6.5).

A final note about the survey. It found that after a long and steady decline, there was a pickup in the level of ‘satisfaction with democracy’. It had been 86 percent in 2007, fell to 59 percent in 2019, but in 2022 rose to 70 percent. Given that voters were surveyed after the election results were through, could that ‘satisfaction’ simply be because the Morrison government had been defeated?

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