The great problem for political parties that find themselves in government is how to reconcile the interests of their core seats that make up the organisational lifeblood of the party, with their non-core seats that provide the governing majority.
It becomes even more difficult when the residents of these two seat classes not only have little in common, but tend not to like each other much to begin with.The core seats provide the leadership of the party, the fundraising capability and the human resources for the organisation that the party could not function without. But at the end of the day it’s the non-core seats, the ordinary mixed suburbs and regional centres which provide the vote that delivers the ultimate prize.
Keeping the two groups onside is an act of juggling the issues and the interests of two vastly separate groups of people, and since 1996 Howard has been the master circus clown. The great problem with juggling acts however is the more balls you add, the more you have to have up in the air at any given time – it’s when you start dropping the balls that life suddenly becomes difficult.
Out in the non-core seats, WorkChoices is the dark shadow that hangs over the electorate; it devalues the economic management premium that has been the government’s strongest play. With five interest rate rises T-boning the low interest rate spiel, and tax cuts delivering less than what WorkChoices has, or is perceived by many as capable of taking away – the government’s primary policy platform for the non-core seats has lost its firepower. The Crosby Textor Oztrack 33 research demonstrated that in spades, with an 18% two party preferred swing to the ALP among part-time workers, and a 13% swing to the ALP in the lower white/upper blue collar worker demographic.
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In the non-core seats, the government is forced to utilise the old culture war spin-offs of dog whistling politics and various flavours of socially conservative finger pointing as a traction mechanism.
But in the heartland seats — the leafy communities of Ryan, North Sydney, Wentworth, Goldstein and Kooyong – this type of lowbrow politics plays like poison to the small ‘l’ Liberals. It’s particularly poisonous when they have seen their ideological beliefs sacrificed by their government for 11 long years, simply to retain the votes of people that they don’t much like to begin with.
These people would never have voted for Beazley, and Latham was they type of bloke that these folks try and keep their daughters from marrying, but sensible, low risk Kevin… well that’s a different story.
The issues that these folks are actually interested in, things like reconciliation and climate change, are Howard’s weak spots. For every vote that can be won back in the heartland by some initiatives on these softer issues, two votes are lost out in the regions where reconciliation plays poorly and climate change represents a Howard back flip and ruins his conviction politician façade.
Likewise, every time Howard goes for a bit of Reffo bashing or culture war rhetoric to shore up the vote in the regional Qld seats, the residents of North Sydney and Wentworth quickly flick the bird to the government.
It is the ultimate Catch 22 situation.
With seats like Ryan, Wentworth, North Sydney and Bennelong being under pressure according to the polling (and being just the seats we know about) Howard is caught in what the ever witty Dr Adam Carr describes as The Bangkok Dilemma.
Howard is simply getting screwed from both ends.
Now that the economic management card has essentially been removed from the pack as a key issue in the mixed suburbs and regions, the things that divide the core seats from the non-core seats are far, far greater than the things that unite them.
Trying to find a new political glue that will not only hold these groups together, but allow them to overcome their enormous political differences now that economic management has lost its power, is a very tough ask indeed.