The shadow of Barry Humphries and Morrison’s bid for the outer suburbs

May 14, 2022
Dame Edna
Barry Humphries encapsulated the demographic split that was the defining feature of life. Image: Flickr / Eva Renaldi

For so long in the middle to latter half of the twentieth century the dwellers of the fringe suburbs of Australian cities were the forgotten people. These suburbs housed the people who clustered around outlying factories making the consumer goods that fed the long post-war boom.

Unskilled migrants flocked to these suburbs and toiled away as industrial prisoners. They lived in weatherboard homes and silently suffered their children attending poorly equipped schools and a dearth of services. Public transport was infrequent and many of them were quarantined for life in places where the spirit of the nation was expressed in endless and unforgiving toil. For these toilers the phrase ‘Lucky Country’ had a hollow ring.

Disraeli’s two nations were evident on the streetscape of a young settler society that praised egalitarianism, but practiced a form of segregation. Class was the truth that dare not speak its name. Life was something that happened far from desolate suburbs on the outer rim. The pulse of a rich and cultured life occurred in well-heeled suburbs. In these suburbs there was a surfeit of private schools, and university beckoned once senior school was completed. Parents had secure and well paid white-collar jobs. A constant stream of trains rattled through leafy districts and buses passed libraries and theatres. Here was the crucible where the portrait of young artists was forged. The tragedy was so few of these neophyte artists looked for inspiration and narratives to the forgotten people. Instead a silver spoon was a recipe for the releasing of creative talents that appealed to the pride and prejudices of the peers they grew up with.

Patrick White was born with a silver spoon, and he had a spell where he exhibited a visceral contempt for people living on the city edges: but in time he came to see their virtues and indomitable spirit. Barry Humphries was a different kettle of fish. He was always supercilious, and never far from a sneer when he lampooned those down and out in the periphery of Australian cities.

More than any other artist, Barry Humphries encapsulated the demographic split that was the defining feature of life in Australian suburbs in that long post-war period. Humphries’ forte was to have those born in privileged suburbs roll in the aisle with laughter at sketches that took the mickey out of those living on dead end streets far from rooms with pleasant views. His satire was cruel and pitiless. Off stage he was a dandy with a cut-glass accent, and open about his robust right-wing views.

Everything is liquid. Everything is in a state of motion. Today Humphries would struggle to find the adoring audiences he played to. He is simply passé. His core audience has moved on. Blue-ribbon seats are under siege. Inner city elites and fellow brethren in adjoining suburbs are aware they live in an age of uncertainty. They listen to the science and have become disenchanted with conservatives who will not let go of subsidising and encouraging fossil fuel industries. They are socially progressive on the environment, and want a transition to clean energy. Rampant inequality is also resonating with this demographic―for they understand that a lack of progressive reforms to support the poor will imperil liberal democracy. From their ranks have come the Independent candidates seeking entry to the 2022 Australian Federal parliament. These parliamentary aspirants repudiate the zeitgeist of their parents that Humphries tapped into.

The tectonic plates have also shifted in the suburbs that provided the bedrock of Humphries’ comic act. The suburbs and the citizens that Humphries derided have undergone a quiet revolution. A web of diverse communities has sprung up. The weatherboard houses are being replaced by more upmarket housing, and private schools proliferate along with better social, transport and cultural facilities. Bourgeois patterns of life are emerging. The children and grandchildren of the post-war settlers have started to move up the social and employment ladder. The landscape of these places is dotted by skilled artisans who ply their trade all over metropolitan areas, and can levy prices that put them in the company of traditional highly paid white-collar jobs. A blue-collar aristocracy has emerged in far-flung suburbs.

In the 2022 election Morrison is courting this blue-collar aristocracy. Morrison is betting these suburbs are peopled by enough of Thatcher’s children to save his skin. In Thatcher’s England public housing stock was put on the private sales block, and those who snapped up these properties became cloth cap Tories. Morrison and his advisors are betting the same property owning fetishism will occur in Australia. The spread of upmarket houses and other middle class accoutrements in newly enriched suburbs will (Morrison surmises) result in a cult of individualism, and a shift to conservative values and voting patterns. Thatcher pulled it off. Why cannot history repeat itself in Australia in 2022?

Armed with this viewpoint, Morrison appears insouciant about connecting with voters in inner city and leafy suburban seats housing white-collar types. His focus is on winning the outlying suburbs. That is where he is concentrating the bulk of his personal campaigning. He understands a slice of the traditional conservative base is turning to Greens and Independents. Once-invulnerable blue-blood strongholds look like the walls of Jericho ready to collapse. Morrison’s indifference to voting fortresses turning sour is putting self-described moderate Liberal MPs in these white-collar seats close to the abyss. Despite their protests, these moderates have minimal policy influence and are tarred by association with Morrison and his clique―no matter how they strive to disassociate themselves from their party leaders. They stick close to the Liberal neoliberalism script, and only demur mildly on a handful of issues. The Independents exploit the moderates’ timidity and incapacity to impact policy, and they are being bankrolled by social liberals in the business community who would find Humphries anachronistic, and want voices in Federal parliament committed to deep emission cuts, and a switch to a clean energy landscape―whilst pushing social justice issues that help the vulnerable.

The Labor party hopes it can pick off the Independent types or benefit from their preferences, but they have their own problems. For example, Albanese has struggled in the past to beat off the Greens in his own inner-city Sydney seat. Playing the Tweedledum and Tweedledee card with the conservatives over the years has produced a blowback. The young and middle-aged affluent in particular have turned away from the same wine in different bottles. The small target strategy that Albanese employs is looking shaky as the campaign unfolds. It may turn out fine on election night, but Albanese has played a high risk game by focusing on a narrow range of policies that he thinks will not draw fire from the corporate media. His lack of an inspiring agenda that grips the imagination has the potential to further alienate progressive voters in privileged suburbs, and the poverty of barnstorming ideas is being exhibited in a lacklustre campaign.

With the outer suburbs history may recall that any slips Albanese made on the campaign trail were inconsequential compared to Morrison’s belief that the outer suburbs would be his ticket to ride. But he is not going to die guessing. A cash splash for projects accompanies his visits to these areas, and the most recent budget provided a raft of benefits to buy the vote of tradies in outlying suburbs, but this largesse may not recoup the expenditure made. The blue-collar aristocracy in the outer suburbs is not insignificant. But these tradies and those that hoisted themselves into white-collar middle class professions come from families that have a collective history of being disparaged, and being made aware by popular culture that they came from the wrong side of the tracks. There is status anxiety that the Humphries of this world perpetrated. This constituency may in large enough numbers stay loyal to their parents’ Labor party voting habit. In sum, there may not be enough of Thatcher’s children in these voting districts to swing seats to Morrison.

There are other pitfalls in Morrison’s gambit. The pandemic opened up the fact that the fringe suburbs contain a large cohort of intergenerational families that will not be bastions of conservative voters. These families contain some success stories but generally are filled with essential workers who have not climbed the ladder of opportunity. They were over represented in Covid numbers. They contain young workers who missed the mobility bus, and have tended to reproduce the blue-collar unskilled status of their parents and grandparents. They know that economic liberalism allied to political conservatism offers them nothing. Morrison is not trusted by this group, and is perceived to be a snake oil salesman. These voters from Struggle Street will be lucky to ever get on the first rung of home ownership, and property fetishism is a distant drum that will never beat for them. To rally people to the conservative flag there must be a clear prospect of attaining a home of one’s own, and securing a happy family life of the type celebrated by the father of modern conservatism Edmund Burke.

Gladys Berejiklian is no shrinking violet. Yet she has an inkling of the life of many of those living on the edge of city areas. As the NSW Premier during the height of the pandemic she was alert to the important role of those who were keeping society ticking. Those who every moment of the day and night fill supermarket shelves, and perform other unsung tasks. Unlike Morrison she did not feel the need to have whistle stop visits to workplaces taking note of nothing but the photo opportunity. Berejiklian has no rose tinted glass view of the status and likely voting habits of those doing unglamorous tasks. Morrison, son of a policeman, was no gilded youth roaming an upper class suburb. But he is smug, and his capacity to judge the extent of the pool of potential conservative voters in outer suburbs may well prove empirically unsound. Berejiklian on the other hand has the look of a Jay Gatsby, aware she is an outsider in the company of grandees that never fully accepted her as one of them. The daughter of a welder is just below the surface. Berejiklian is closer to a realistic view of the makeup of the streets she grew up in than Morrison. One cannot imagine her putting Morison’s degree of faith in finding enough converts to economic liberalism and the blue rosette cause in districts where so many ladders to nowhere still reside.

To become a cloth cap Tory for those not prospering requires more than Morrison’s electioneering rhetoric about his superior management of the economy. For so many in outer rim suburbs life is circumscribed by low paid work in hierarchical corporations that have worked hand in glove with Morrison to deliver wage stagnation. Morrison bangs on about lifting wages, but it is all waffle. If those on the downside fail to be conned by aspirational chatter, and even enough of their successful peers reject Morrison’s clarion call, then his outer suburban gamble may explode in his face on election night, and Albanese come out on top.

The day of reckoning is coming. Only on election night will we see if the children of those who found Barry Humphries’ brand of humour and politics to their taste have staged a striking coup against their parents’ ideology. Also we will find out if Morrison took a forked road when he gambled on the outer suburbs containing enough serried ranks of Thatcher’s children to keep him in power.

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