The Coalition can create generational voting change by tackling housing affordability - The Centre for Independent Studies
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The Coalition can create generational voting change by tackling housing affordability

Australia’s centre-right political movement is in trouble. This may have seemed obvious from the fact that the Coalition lost elections in Queensland, the ACT and the Northern Territory in 2020, was smashed in Western Australia in 2021, lost government in South Australia and was soundly beaten in Victoria in 2022 and lost government in New South Wales in 2023.

Not to forget the federal election defeat in 2022, followed by a historic by-election loss to the Labor government. Some might say this is just the cyclical nature of politics. After all, you only have to go back to early 2014 to find an ascendant federal Coalition government flanked by centre-right governments in Queensland, the Northern Territory, Victoria, New South Wales and Tasmania. Go back further still to the late 2000s and it was Labor that was dominant across the country.

But underneath these cyclical waves lies a structural tide that is probably more important to the medium-term prospects of the major political parties. Recent research by my CIS colleague Matt Taylor shows this tide is flowing out fast for the Coalition. The issue is demography and the voting tendencies of younger voters.

It’s long been a truism of politics that younger voters lean left and older voters lean right. However, that generalisation masks some significant changes in voting patterns. Each generation tracked in Taylor’s report entered the electorate more left-wing than the one that preceded it. Over time, both the Baby Boomers (1946 to 1964) and Generation X (1965 to 1980) have trended right.

In their 20s, Millennials (1981 to 1995) were even less likely to vote for the Coalition than either Boomers or Gen X, and are still far more likely to vote for left than the average voter as they enter their 40s. On current trends, they will not become a net positive for the Coalition until they reach their 80s.

Generation Z (1996 onwards) not only started to the left of Millennials but, unlike the generations that preceded them, they are continuing to move sharply to the left in their 20s. The gap between Millennials and Generation Z in their mid-20s is roughly four times as big as the gap between Millennials and Boomers in their 20s.

At the most recent election, the Coalition secured above-average support from both Baby Boomers (15 percentage points) and Generation X (2.2 percentage points). However, this was more than offset by below average level of support from Millennials (8 percentage points) and Generation Z (a whopping 25 percentage points).

Unless the Millennials and Generation Z defy current trends and turn right at a historically unprecedented pace, over time the political baseline will shift further towards Labor and the Greens. The Coalition will find it harder and harder to find the seats to form government.

In effect, the cyclical wave will need to be larger and larger to offset the fact the tide has gone out. The alternative is structural change: a shift in policy that resets the centre-right’s relationship with Millennials, Generation Z and those that follow.

While many will have a view on what this should mean for the ideological positioning of the Coalition, the most logical first step would be to take a far more serious approach to the issues relevant to those generations — and among the biggest of those issues is housing affordability.

The centre right should own the issue housing affordability so thoroughly it has a mortgage on it. The overwhelming thrust of evidence and analysis shows the problem is caused by government regulatory overreach.

This is increasingly recognised around the world. Canada’s Conservative Party has placed housing deregulation at the top of its policy platform, as have Republicans in the US state of Montana, and the Nationals in New Zealand.

Until the Australian centre-right adopts similar policies, younger voters will perceive only the left cares about them. This is despite the fact the left — obsessed with government-led solutions and reflexively suspicious of policies that might benefit ‘greedy developers’ — has no realistic answer to the problem and is actually making things worse in several ways.

The inner city councils that routinely stymie much needed higher density urban infill are dominated by left wingers; as many Greens as Labor.

The heritage protection industry that has become increasingly weaponised against any and all development — protecting the supposed ‘heritage value’ of electrical substations, some colourfully decorated with graffiti, fences and brutalist carparks — is festooned with progressives.

And the new nemesis of the Coalition in the affluent suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne, the Teals? Many of them are openly NIMBYs.

Meanwhile Labor’s signature housing affordability policies have huge problems. First, locking future generations into renting their homes from union-controlled superannuation funds is a losing policy and the government knows it. Even if super funds could be enticed to build enough homes, in the longer term most voters want to own their home, not have a lifetime rental.

The second policy is a great big investment in social housing, which currently can’t pass parliament. Even if it does pass, it can’t meaningfully address housing affordability because the government will never be able to build enough houses to make a significant difference to supply.

Notwithstanding this practical problem, it’s the wrong lever to pull anyway. Public and social housing should not be a permanent accommodation option for unemployed and poor people and families. It’s an inefficient and unequitable strategy that does more to entrench people into poverty (and violence) than it does to fix housing affordability.

Public and social housing’s actual role should be short-term emergency accommodation (for those homeless or fleeing domestic violence) and assisted-living and care facilities (which should largely be funded through disability and aged care funding).

The only solution to housing affordability that will work is freeing up supply by liberalising zoning and development laws; ie: the market-based solution. On this issue, and many others, younger voters might actually find the centre right has better answers than the left; if only the centre right would take the questions seriously.

Simon Cowan is Research Director at the Centre for Independent Studies.

Photo by Maarten van den Heuvel