Why did so many working class suburbs back the Liberals?

The workers of Riverwood gave Bill Shorten a warm welcome one year ago when he spoke to a packed community hall about his plans to restore fairness in wages, health, education and tax.

“There is a problem in this country in that there’s two classes of workers,” Shorten told his audience. He talked about increasing penalty rates, helping casual workers and raising more tax revenue to fund his spending plans.

The applause was loud and long that night at the Riverwood Community Centre in the southern suburbs of Sydney. By the time the meeting ended, Shorten had good reason to think he could win this community, one of the poorest parts of the marginal electorate of Banks.

Scott Morrison won it instead. The startling fact about last Saturday’s election, a fact that has shattered the Labor dream and confounded the unions, is that so many suburbs like Riverwood backed the Liberals.


Riverwood has a median household income of about $1000 a week, roughly $425 below the national median. While other parts of the electorate look out on the Georges River, the view from Riverwood is more likely to be the M5 freeway.

The Liberal member for Banks, David Coleman, could have lost his seat with a swing to Labor of just 1.4 per cent. He gained a 5.7 per cent swing instead, turning this marginal seat into safe Liberal territory.



While the Liberal vote in the more comfortable suburb of Oatley barely changed, it surged in Riverwood. Voters at St Andrew’s Church Hall, in Riverwood South, swung to the Liberals by 8.9 per cent. They swung by 11.4 per cent at Riverwood Public School and 11.8 per cent at the Hannans Road Public School in Riverwood East.

Shorten fought the election on fairness and failed. He won over the crowd who turned up to the local hall but could not win the wider community. Voters spurned what he offered. His idea of fairness fell flat.

The “fairness” claim is also deeply contested. When I used the word in a report on the election result on Monday, readers disputed whether Shorten’s tax changes were really “fair” at all.

What was so fair about taking franking credits away from retirees after it had been a standard part of the tax system for decades? What was fair about curbing the use of negative gearing? Or stricter rules on superannuation?

Labor misread the community every time it added another tax revenue increase to its policy platform, even though the party’s admirers loved every shiny gold brick as it was placed upon the table. Eventually the furniture collapsed.

The backlash came in some of Labor’s heartland seats, including a 6.5 per cent increase in the Liberal primary vote in Greenway. This varied enormously, and was skewed by the swings in several seats towards the parties of Clive Palmer and Pauline Hanson, but it was a rebuff to Labor and its leader.


Wealthier Australians did not rebel in this way. The Labor primary vote increased in safe Liberal seats, rising by 8.4 per cent in North Sydney, 4 per cent in Bradfield and 6.6 per cent in Goldstein. Shorten won the voters he did not need.

The search for scapegoats makes it easy for Labor to blame Shorten, his advisers or party officials the public has never heard of. The truth is this was a shared defeat. It was a rejection of the Labor policy plan as well as its tactics.

While social media campaigns and Palmer advertising influenced the outcome, there is long-term risk for Labor if it worries only about the tactics it used to reach voters rather than what it told them.

The policy message did not work with aspirational voters, including those in Riverwood who might have otherwise welcomed Shorten’s promise to look after hospitals and schools. The tax plan looked more convincing in abstract than in reality.

The first draft of the franking credits change, released early last year, took money from pensioners and part-pensioners. Shorten redrafted the plan within a fortnight to offer a “pensioner guarantee” but the impression left with voters was clear: Labor would go after them if it could.

And the booth results in Riverwood raise an intriguing question: did workers who were promised more from Labor, either in personal income tax cuts or spending programs, vote for the Coalition anyway? Perhaps they did not trust Labor, or did not like Shorten, and felt they could rely on Morrison instead.

Morrison won this election through sheer force of will and total discipline. Some Liberals are honest enough to admit they did not expect victory. Morrison alone had the confidence to keep going with barely a stumble during the campaign.

The focus on Labor’s mistakes can easily distract from the important decisions on the government side of the campaign – not least the way Morrison presented himself to voters as a leader who could put the “muppet show” of last year behind them.

Morrison drew plenty of derision, especially online, for his “daggy dad” appearance or his talk about football or his Pentecostal faith, but the evidence from the election is that these aspects of his character did not hurt him.

The Labor treasury spokesman, Chris Bowen, was right on Wednesday to identify his party’s message to people of faith as a problem. What others within the caucus acknowledge is that the last time they took government from opposition was with an avowedly Christian leader, in Kevin Rudd in 2007.

Morrison has won over some of the “battlers” Labor thought it could hold or claim last Saturday.

David Crowe is chief political correspondent.

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