Despite having been in office for 20 of the last 27 years, predictions of the Coalition’s political death have proliferated in recent months. The doomsayers are echoing similar views of the Coalition following Kevin Rudd’s victory in 2007; although Labor was reduced to minority government at the next election. Much the same was said of Labor following Tony Abbott’s triumph in 2013, but at the following election Malcolm Turnbull held on to government by a single seat.
The reality is that the nature of politics is cyclical: at different times both left and right have been on top. Too many have mistaken this short-term cyclical ascendancy for long-term domination.
But underneath the short-term cycles is a structural tide that has significant influence on how often a party is in government over time. And — for the first time in decades — the structural tide is starting to run rapidly against the Coalition.
In particular, the Coalition is facing a challenge of demography. The generational makeup of the electorate, and how different generations vote, can have a big impact on who forms government. Changing demographics have the potential to push the Coalition primary vote below 30 per cent and, in the coming decades, could cost it more than 30 seats between now and 2040.
It’s something of a truism that younger voters lean left. However, most who leaned left in their 20s would traditionally swing right in their middle years.
Analysis of Australian Electoral Studies (AES) going back to 1967 suggests this is broadly true of Boomers and Gen X. Both generations became more likely to vote for the Coalition, relative to the average voter, although the crossover point has typically occurred in their early 50s.
As the Boomers have aged and drifted further right, their demographic bulge has been a big benefit to the Coalition. However, the generations that follow them are turning out quite differently.
At the last election, voters born after 1980 were more likely to give their first preference to the Greens than to the Coalition. More recent Newspolls put the Greens ahead of the Coalition by three percentage points among voters aged under 35.
Worse still, Millennials’ life cycle voting behaviour does not appear to be following that of earlier generations. Based on current trends, Millennials will not cross over to the Coalition until their 80s.
Gen Z are different again. They are not moving towards the Coalition at all as they enter their late-20s. Not only did they enter the electorate with historically low levels of support for the Coalition, their support has continued to decline — quite abruptly. As of the last election, the oldest among them were 25.3 percentage points less likely to vote Coalition than the average voter.
As the older generations leave the electorate and are replaced by new ones, there will be fewer Boomer and Gen X votes for the Coalition to chase.
At the next election, Boomers and Gen X will make up 46 per cent of the electorate. Adding the Silent Generation to these suggests a 2025 electorate with a little over half of voters born before 1980. By 2040, Boomers and Gen X will make up less than 33 per cent of voters. Those born after 1980 will make up just under 70 per cent of the electorate.
The ever-increasing level of support that needs to be squeezed out of the greying vote will be insufficient to offset the missing Coalition votes among the younger generations.
If Gen Z do not lift their vote for the Coalition, and the next generations enters it with similarly poor opinion of the party, the Coalition’s currently low level of support could drop even further, falling from 58 seats to 23 by 2040.
In short, in order to form government in the future, the Coalition cannot rely on a high primary vote among voters who — without putting too fine a point on it — may not be voting in too many more elections.
Over time, these demographic changes will make it harder and harder for cyclical trends to overcome the structural disadvantage. Eventually there will be almost no realistic path back to power for the Coalition without a dramatic increase in support among voters born after 1980, and among Gen Z in particular.
Of course, the other side will inevitably make mistakes that will hurt them politically, but when this happens the Coalition needs a broad base of support across each generation to take office. This means, in the medium term, the path back to government for the Coalition goes through Millennials and Gen Z — not around them.
Matt Taylor is Director of the Intergenerational Program at the Centre for Independent Studies and author of the CIS research report, Generation Left: Young voters are deserting the right.
Photo by cottonbro studio.