For many, the occasion to recall the legacy of Gough Whitlam will once again cast an unflattering light on the current state of the party he once led.

To the extent that modern Labor is wanting for figures of Whitlam’s audacity and charisma, this may well be hard to argue with. But in many ways, Labor’s increasing difficulty in shaping the political agenda reflects deeper changes in Australian society, on which Whitlam himself left a considerable mark.

While the defining theme of Whitlam’s modernisation of Labor was his integration of a “new class” of educated white-collar wage earners into the party fold, this was achieved in an environment where the working class, as conventionally understood, could still form the major part of an election-winning coalition.

As of 1976, the trade union movement which the party was founded to represent could claim the membership of 51% of the workforce. Today it’s 17%, a legacy of decline in manufacturing, the growth of service industries and a trend towards part-time employment, together with a decentralisation of industrial relations initiated during the Hawke-Keating years.

To some extent, the impact of the fading blue-collar Labor vote is observable on the electoral map. Even amid the debacle of 1975, regional industrial centres like Broken Hill and South Australia’s “iron triangle” of Port Augusta, Port Pirie and Whyalla sustained Labor in the respective seats of Darling and Grey. Such has been the decline of these cities that Grey is now a safe seat for the Liberals, and the electorate of Darling disappeared long ago, leaving Broken Hill as a Labor-voting pin-prick within the vast Nationals fiefdom of Farrer.

For the most part, though, the electoral change that has unfolded since Whitlam’s time has been more subtle. In the capital cities, Labor’s old blue-collar strongholds have either gentrified in a way that has attracted a different variety of left-leaning voter — in some cases presenting them with a new challenge from the Greens — or developed new identities as ethnic enclaves, while remaining as secure for Labor as ever.

One thing that hasn’t changed is that elections continue to be won and lost in the newer areas of the big cities, which are home to young families with weak party loyalties and keen sensitivity to the prevailing bread-and-butter issues of the time.

Whitlam’s winning hand was the failure of service provision to keep pace in the new suburbs that sprouted after the war, creating a receptive mood to a more expansive role for government. For all the emphasis obituaries might place on land rights, no-fault divorce and the Racial Discrimination Act, former New South Wales premier Neville Wran got nearer the nub of Whitlam’s electoral impact when he lauded him for having “found Brisbane unsewered and left it fully flushed”.

A mirror image of Whitlam’s achievement is offered by that of another polarising colossus of Australian politics, John Howard, who built four successive victories around the later equivalents of these areas, located further out at the cities’ ever-expanding frontiers. In the different circumstances of Howard’s time, these areas came to be associated with newly prosperous tradesmen in heavily mortgaged McMansions, whose hip pockets were keenly receptive to a message of tax cuts and low interest rates.

But beneath the surface of the two-party contest, a more troubling development has been evident in electoral politics since Whitlam’s time: a growing sense of alienation from the established political process.

In saying this, care should be taken not to fall prey to sentimentality about an idealised past. Spend an improving half-hour or so watching Paul Hogan Show clips on YouTube, and you’ll soon see that laconic Aussie cynicism about politics and its practitioners was alive and well in Whitlam’s time. Nonetheless, voters by and large retained a sense of identification with one or other of the parties to the political contest, and accordingly felt meaningfully represented within the system.

Evidence is abundant that this is increasingly not the case, particularly among the young. According to analysis of survey research by political scientist Ian McAllister in his book The Australian Voter: 50 Years of Change, 37% of Generation Y did not identify with either major party at the time of the 2010 election, compared with 15-20% of those born in the post-war baby boom or earlier.

Manifestations of this include the absence of a quarter of those aged 18 to 24 from the electoral roll, a rate of informal voting three times higher than in the Whitlam era, and the apparently random patterns of voting behaviour that produced such profoundly strange results for the Senate last year.

It might be that it would take nothing more than a few great men of history in the Gough Whitlam mould to turn all that around, if only our parties could show vitality enough to produce them. But the greater likelihood is that the malaise runs deeper than the parties themselves, and into the institutions that have frozen the party system along the contours of Australian society as it existed in the early part of the last century.

Peter Fray

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