Battle for the ’burbs: The quiet Australians who could decide the election

As the roar in the room lowered on election night in 2019, Scott Morrison, flanked by wife Jenny and daughters Abby and Lily, paid tribute to the “quiet Australians” who had delivered him a famous victory.

“They have their dreams, they have their aspirations: to get a job, to get an apprenticeship, to start a business, to meet someone amazing,” he told the crowd in Sydney’s Sofitel Wentworth Hotel, before turning to kiss Jenny.

“To start a family, to buy a home, to work hard and provide the best you can for your kids. To save for your retirement and to ensure that in your retirement you can enjoy it because you’ve worked hard for it. These are the quiet Australians who have won a great victory tonight.”

Flanked by his wife and daughters, Scott Morrison declares victory in front of the party faithful on May 18, 2019.Credit:Dominic Lorrimer

A direct line runs from Sir Robert Menzies’ “forgotten people”, the Australian middle class he defined in a 1942 speech, through the “battlers” who deserted Labor for John Howard in 1996, to Morrison’s quiet Australians.

These are the aspirational voters whom political parties are fighting for in marginal seats across the country. From the seat of Hunter in coal country in NSW to Gilmore on the state’s south coast, from the Geelong-based seat of Corangamite to the coal port of Gladstone in Flynn, winning over these same quiet Australians will be crucial to Morrison’s chances again.

But much has changed in the three years since Morrison was elected. The pandemic has reshaped society and politics, with border closures, lockdowns and vaccine mandates polarising the electorate. Add to that fires, floods, looming interest rate rises and war in Ukraine, and Morrison’s task of reaching the quiet Australians and securing a fourth Coalition term in office has become even harder.

In marginal seats in regions and outer-ring suburbs around the country, there’s a sense in the electorate of uncertainty, disillusion and grumpiness.

Lockdowns may be in the rear-view mirror. Resolve Political Monitor director Jim Reed says COVID-19 is “evaporating as an issue, with the cost of living and national security taking over as election themes”.

But the past two years, with vaccine shortages, fights over the timing of the end of JobKeeper, locked down local government areas and rapid test shortages, can’t just be forgotten. And there are concerns that some voters may leave Morrison and head to a minor party of the right.

The electorates of Longman (on Brisbane’s fringe), Lindsay (western Sydney) and McEwen (Melbourne’s outer north) share characteristics – all are on the suburban fringe, an hour or more from the CBD; all are population-growth areas, where younger families can (just about) afford to buy or build and all are marginal, or close to marginal. These are some of the seats where Morrison’s quiet Australians live, and where some of the key election fights will be.

Labor people in campaign HQ are hopeful of capturing Longman (Liberal 3.3 per cent) from first term LNP MP Terry Young, for example, but less sure they can win Lindsay (Liberal 5 per cent) from Melissa McIntosh. Both seats have flipped sides four times since the 2007 Rudd-slide.

Conversely, McEwen (Labor 5.3 per cent) has been in Labor hands with Rob Mitchell since 2010. But the creation of the new seat of Hawke – which has taken Labor-leaning booths in Sunbury – has made some in the ALP nervous, and stoked Coalition hopes it could recapture the seat once held by Howard minister Fran Bailey.

Research by the National Growth Areas Alliance, a lobby group that advocates for Australia’s fast-growing outer suburbs, shows that after the pandemic, 21 per cent of residents in these communities reported being in “financial survival mode”.

Fifty-one per cent are struggling to pay a bill, fewer than half have accessed mental health services in the past 12 months and they’re more stressed (63 per cent), frustrated (61 per cent) and anxious (57 per cent) than the national averages.

Chief executive Bronwen Clark, who wants a “minister for growth areas” to be appointed at a federal level, says hundreds of thousands of people have moved to the outer suburbs, where they can afford to buy, since the last election. That includes 27,000 people moving to the Moreton Bay region, which includes Longman, more than 20,000 people moving into the City of Whittlesea and Shire of Mitchell in McEwen and more than 10,000 people into the City of Penrith, in Lindsay.

“The over arching issues [are] of transport infrastructure, the cost of living, access to housing and the absolute need to catch up to those services that more established areas have access to – whether it’s public transport, health or education,” she says.

The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age has spoken to more than two dozen voters in these outer suburban seats over the first three weeks of the campaign, and in other marginals seats.

While the findings do not represent a statistically significant sample, their comments do highlight the sense of uncertainty in the community and the lack of clarity over who to choose on May 21.

At the Penrith Westfield, for example, Terrence Connolly, 77, describes himself as one of Morrison’s quiet Australian voters in 2019 and while he could be wooed by Hanson, the prime minister will have his vote again.

Terrence Connolly with his daughter Jess at Penrith Westfield. Connolly was one of the so-called “quiet” Australians at the last election. He says Morrison has his vote again.Credit:Natassia Chrysanthos

“I think he’s doing a really good job, so is Frydenberg. He handled [the pandemic] quite well, as well as anyone else could,” Connolly says. “I have no complaints whatsoever. He’s stable, speaks the truth, stands up to China.

“I like Pauline. She’s outspoken, but she hasn’t got the support. A lot of the things she pushes I agree with, some I don’t, but she’s an honest politician,”

And Palmer?

“Clive Palmer thinks he’s another Donald Trump. I’m for Donald Trump, but he’s not in the same territory.“

But others in Lindsay who gave Morrison their vote have been disappointed by his term in government.

Emu Plains couple Mark Hanrahan, 65, and Joy Hanrahan, 56, are furious at all parties.

“No one is worthy of my vote, some of them don’t even have proper policies. Neither party are being honest,” says Joy, who voted for Morrison in 2019.

“He’s not trustworthy. Every time there’s a major disaster, he’s nowhere to be seen. He’s an invisible prime minister. He’s not proactive. And then he turns around and says, ‘we’ve done this and that’.”

Donna Long says she is no longer a Labor voter.

Eight hundred kilometres south, at the Wellington Square Shopping Centre in the Victorian seat of McEwen, Donna Long, 54, leans on her mop for a few minutes to talk politics before the after-school influx of shoppers.

Long has always been a Labor voter, but the pandemic has changed her politics forever.

After living through COVID-19 restrictions enforced by Premier Daniel Andrews’ state Labor government, she’s going to vote Liberal at the federal election for the first time.

“Andrews – I just don’t like him and some aspects with all this corona stuff, I just don’t like his sort of morals and standards,” she says.

“Especially with people in dire straits situations like when people are dying or giving birth and they can’t go and be with their loved ones.”

Labor voter Mehmet Osman, 66, whose mother, Akile, is a 91-year-old migrant from Cyprus, says he’s intrigued by Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party but concedes he doesn’t trust them any more than the majors.

“I’ve never voted Liberal in my life but seeing them both in action — they’re all the same,” he says.

”If they keep their promise, [UAP] doesn’t sound too bad but every government says things that don’t happen. I mean recently we heard there would be no interest rates rising soon or it would be some months down the track. Now it’s happening next week.”

Twelve kilometres up the road at the newsagency in Kilmore Plaza, Sam Humm, 47, is ringing up TattsLotto tickets for last-minute customers.

She’s voted for John Howard and Kevin Rudd in the past, backs Daniel Andrews’ handling of the pandemic but is angry with Morrison for the exorbitant cost of living and for pushing to dial back pandemic restrictions. She doesn’t trust Labor either – so she’s voting for One Nation.

“[Hanson] tells it how it is,” the Beveridge local says. “But these other ones? Look at the price of fuel. It’s disgusting.”

Between Brisbane and the Sunshine Coast, Bribie Island retirees Rod and Sue (they don’t want to give their last name) are halfway through their lunch at the Kebab Haven in Caboolture Square shopping centre in the seat of Longman.

Both are unvaccinated and don’t like mandates, as they’ve made it hard to visit Sue’s mother. They say they’re swing voters but when pressed, narrow the choice down to Palmer, Hanson or Morrison.

Rod and Sue are self-funded retirees who live on Bribie Island in the Queensland electorate of Longman. They say it’s hard to decide who to vote for in this election, but they’re leaning towards Scott Morrison.Credit:James Massola

“Clive Palmer has some good ideas but let’s face it, he just skimmed through on the law. Years ago I liked Pauline Hanson but not so much now,” says Rod, who does not like Labor leader Anthony Albanese at all.

”The unions run him,” Rod says. “I used to deliver on sites, big worksites, and the unions did what they liked. I’ve always been in a union but if I don’t think something is right I’ll say so.“

Sue sums up the choice like this: “It’s almost like it will be a default vote for the LNP. I’m not happy with any of them”.

Rod adds: “I think he [Morrison] has done well in the pandemic – I’d like to see somebody else do better than he has.”

The most recent Resolve Political Monitor, conducted for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, shows that 4 per cent of voters are backing Hanson and another 4 per cent are backing Palmer.

The results are different along the eastern seaboard. Hanson’s vote was 9 per cent in Queensland, averaged out over January to March, Palmer was at 5 per cent in Victoria and NSW was at 3 per cent. But the message is clear.

Morrison appears to have lost some of his quiet Australians to the fringe parties of the right and the fact United Australia is running candidates in all 151 seats, and One Nation in 149, means they’ve got blanket coverage of the electorate for the first time.

United Australia Party chairman Clive Palmer launches his party’s 2022 federal election campaign at his Coolum golf resort on April 16.Credit:Matt Dennien

And while Hanson has better name recognition and is ahead of Palmer in the Sunshine State, the UAP leader has the ad buy – $31 million already and another $40 million promised (more than double the major parties in 2019) – and impossible, populist promises like capping interest rates.

It’s a potent message to anti-vaxxed, anti-establishment, locked down and left behind voters.

Resolve’s Jim Reed says the minor party vote is at the highest it has ever been as more people protest against the major parties.

“United Australia is doing quite well in suburbia with people you might call ‘ute man’ – tradies, sole-traders, middle-income men and women – including the unemployed who lost their jobs or businesses during COVID. This is particularly the case in suburban and regional Victoria”.

“The fabled ‘quiet Australians’ are not easily defined by demographics, though they tend not to be in the inner cities or affluent. These are people who aren’t engaged in theoretical debates, talking on Twitter about transgender sport or marching against Australia Day. They are focused on issues directly affecting them and their families, like the cost of living.”

A balancing act

Historically, Labor has captured the lion’s share of preferences because the Greens send 80 per cent back to the ALP.

Last time around, about two-thirds of preferences flowed from Hanson and Palmer back to the Coalition and the government will, at a minimum hope to replicate that this time – though Hanson’s promise to preference Labor ahead of moderate Liberals facing Teal independents in inner-city Liberal seats could hurt Morrison.

In Labor’s Albanese, Morrison faces a vastly different opponent with a far simpler policy offering than Bill Shorten. Albanese may not inspire, as Rudd, Bob Hawke and Gough Whitlam did in their day, but nor does he turn off or terrify voters.

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese takes a selfie with workers during a visit to the Toll NQX national office in Berrinba, Queensland.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

The teal independents have their sights set firmly on North Sydney, Wentworth, Goldstein, Kooyong and more – all blue-ribbon seats the Coalition can ill-afford to lose when it currently holds a notional 76 seats.

But while Palmer and Hanson are unlikely to win a lower house seat, the damage they could do to the Coalition primary vote in the outer suburbs and regions arguably presents a bigger risk to Morrison than the threat posed by Independents in the inner-city.

In a perfect world, Morrison would be able to thread the needle of holding small-L Liberal seats while winning over more outer-surburban voters.

But Morrison has been dropping references to “quiet voices” and to Australians “getting pretty fed up with having to walk on eggshells every day because they may or may not say something one day that’s going to upset someone”, referring to controversial Warringah candidate Katherine Deves and her views on transgender athletes playing women’s sport.

Comments like these are designed to resonate with so-called ordinary Australians in these outer suburban swing seats, even if they alienate progressives in the inner city.

They suggest he has made the calculation there is more to be gained in winning the preferences of disaffected Palmer and Hanson voters in the growing outer suburbs of our major cities than in hanging onto a handful of blue-ribbon Liberal seats in the inner cities.

In addition to McEwen, Longman and Lindsay, the National Growth Areas Alliance has identified nine more marginal seats in the outer suburbs — Cowan, Swan, Hasluck and Burt in WA, Greenway and Werriwa in NSW, Latrobe and Flinders in Victoria , Mayo in South Australia — that could play a part in deciding the election. This could explain Morrison’s outer suburban focus.

The fragmentation of our politics and the ongoing rise of right-wing parties is one of the major themes of the 2022 election.

It remains to be seen if the quiet Australians will return Morrison to office after delivering him a miracle victory last time.

Cut through the noise of the federal election campaign with news, views and expert analysis from Jacqueline Maley. Sign up to our Australia Votes 2022 newsletter here.

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