Facts of life are conservative, but younger voters are lurching left - The Centre for Independent Studies
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Facts of life are conservative, but younger voters are lurching left

Margaret Thatcher said the facts of life are Conservative. Even Labor icons Bob Hawke and Paul Keating agreed with the Iron Lady in the 1980s when they deregulated the Australian economy and paved the way for the biggest national income boom since the Gold Rushes. Yet there is a growing gap between those views and how a young person votes today.

Younger Australians are becoming highly resistant to supporting not just the market economy but the politics of the centre-right. People born from 1981 onwards are not only more likely to support parties to the left than those older than them, but — as the younger cohort advance through their 20s and near their 30s — their support for the centre-right is continuing to fall, rather than (as might be expected) slowly start to rise. To the extent these trends continue, the Liberal Party faces an existential threat.

What explains the youth lurch to the left? It’s all too easy to blame social media, schools and universities for corrupting spineless Millennial snowflakes. The reality is that many young people have genuine anxieties about their way of life; they feel the economy is rigged against them and have been lured into thinking that growth is natural, that budgets don’t need to be balanced or that money can be borrowed indefinitely to subsidise unlimited spending.

They live in a debt-ridden society that leads to massive future interest payments. They witness endless government borrowing to support failed or unsustainable policies (Gonski schools, NDIS, numerous defence projects, failing renewable energy projects).

They have not enjoyed real wage growth because their leaders during the past 15 years — unlike Hawke, Keating, Howard and Costello — have failed to implement productivity-enhancing reforms that improve living standards. And, crucially, many have given up hope of affording a home similar to that owned by their parents. No wonder so many think their generation is going backwards.

The problem for the Liberal Party is that, since the end of the Howard-Costello era, it has done very little to address the structural causes for the discontent of young Australians and to highlight the link between low taxation, low public spending, liberty and prosperity.

This means that the generation now embracing the doctrines of the left has heard very little of the opposing arguments. They have grown up in an atmosphere of increasingly suffocating welfarism, and with the notion that it is the duty of the state, and not of themselves or their families, to provide for them.

For instance, the housing affordability crisis is not due to capitalism, as the green left argues, but the failure of governments to allow enough house and apartment building to take place; restricting development just creates higher property prices, which impedes Millennials from buying into the housing market. Although the asset boom has brought riches to those on the inside (who are likely to be older), it’s led to widespread angst to those outside (mostly younger).

Meanwhile, compulsory retirement saving system restricts individual choice and the option of spending one’s upfront wages to pay for a mortgage.

People who own nothing and believe that nothing will ever change are unlikely to embrace market reforms to correct state failures.

Another problem for the centre right of politics is that it has allowed a vacuum to develop which for young people has been filled by Labor and increasingly the Greens, the party of renters.

That is why Coalition governments — ostensibly the parties of fiscal rectitude and limited government — aped Labor’s spending monuments, such as Gonski schools funding that has failed to lift education outcomes, and the NDIS, the fastest growing government spending item that threatens the prosperity of future generations.

It used to be the case that when people started to earn money and own property, they recognised how taxation eats into disposable income, restricts what hard-working people can achieve thanks to their efforts, and restricts it especially in terms of being able to buy a stake in the country by way of home ownership.

But these facts of life appear lost on today’s Liberals. At federal and state levels, they have failed to advocate the benefits of living under a small state in which taxation, like public spending, is low, leaving more wealth to fructify in the hands of individuals and businesses rather than being squandered by governments.

So, it is no surprise that Liberals are in the doldrums. True, history shows that, notwithstanding tectonic demographic shifts in society, political circumstances can change quickly. In an era of political tumult, anything can happen.

However, if centre-right parties have no plan to address young people’s anxieties, it is they before long who will be the beleaguered minority.

Tom Switzer is executive director of the Centre for Independent Studies.

Photo by Connor Forsyth