Australian Economy

How the Coalition lost the professional class

The juxtaposition with Labor on Indigenous issues could also not have been made clearer on Saturday night. While Morrison again made the comments in his concession speech, which mentioned veterans twice, Anthony Albanese twice referenced Labor’s commitment to instituting the Uluru Statement from the Heart, a future referendum that was the subject of some dithering by the Coalition.

The Statement is not solely an artefact of Aboriginal Australia. It also reveals corporate Australia’s interest in these issues – not only by those who spearheaded the document, such as University of NSW constitutional expert Megan Davis and Gilbert + Tobin co-founder Danny Gilbert, but also support from some of the country’s most influential executives. This includes Magellan’s Hamish Douglass, Barrenjoey’s Matthew Grounds, BGH Capital’s Ben Gray, Ellerston Capital’s Ashok Jacob, KPMG’s Alison Kitchen, Citi’s Sam Mostyn, Wilson Asset Management’s Geoff Wilson, Tanarra Capital’s John Wylie. The list goes on.

Corporate Australia shows a plain interest in Aboriginal affairs. There are 1100 Reconciliation Action Plans in operation at the highest levels of Australian industry.

Saturday’s erection of a teal-coloured ring-fence around inner-city and wealthy suburban electorates, in what is naturally the historical heart of Coalition supporters from the upper classes, shows how the Liberal Party has lost traction with economically minded, socially liberal professional voters. Particularly women.

Take, for instance, the transgender dead cat thrown into the race by Morrison, via Katherine Deves, whose preselection was challenged by the very moderates who lost their seats to independent candidates such as Kylea Tink and Allegra Spender.

Katherine Deves, the Liberal Candidate for Warringah, concedes defeat to Independent Zali Steggall, flanked by ex-prime minster Tony Abbott  

A momentary consideration of how corporate Australia would feel about such controversy would have taken into account the litany of LGBTQ interest groups and support networks not only supported by Australia’s top corporations, but also promoted by them.

The Liberals’ Simon Birmingham said as much on the ABC on Saturday. “The lesson to be learnt is that very important lesson – Australians respect others. Australians are tolerant of diversity. And Australians want to have clarity from their leaders, particularly the leaders and the major parties, that they share that respect and that embrace of tolerance,” he said.

But of course, elections are hardly won or lost on social issues, even if voters embracing same-sex marriage in blue ribbon Coalition seats during the 2017 postal vote survey was an early indication of the electorates’ shift away from the government.

Climate change, upon which the teal campaign was founded, is a settled issue among corporate executives.

Shemara Wikramanayake has built one of Australia’s most successful financial institutions partly on exploiting the decarbonisation transition.

The Business Council of Australia, despite its aversion to Bill Shorten’s 2019 climate policy, has more recently called for stronger action than the Coalition was willing to commit to.

Teal independent Monique Ryan is set to unseat Treasurer Josh Frydenberg. Joe Armao

So too, is the urgency with which corporations, executives, and the wonkish have argued for genuine reform, a facet of the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison governments that has either failed or been sorely lacking.

When NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet and Victorian Treasurer Tim Pallas attempted to lure Josh Frydenberg into supporting issues such as GST reform or shifting from stamp duty to land tax, the government dismissed the opportunity for action out of hand.

Then, there are arguments against a federal integrity commission, which seemed to hinge on the fear it would dissuade good quality candidates from running.

The teals, rather, were all high-quality candidates (irrespective of whether you agree with their policies) and they demanded such an agency.

Corporations, in the meantime, have been forced to reckon with higher standards, forced on them in part by Morrison via the Financial Services Royal Commission he called when treasurer. What is good for the goose must be good for the gander.

Voters in the new teal seats are affluent, cosmopolitan and would accept, to a significant degree, the arguments put forward by their organisational leaders on such issues. They absorb the forward-thinking attitude of their companies on economic and social issues. They vote.

Since 2015, about 500,000 female professionals have been added to the electoral roll, now accounting for an amorphous block of 2 million voters. The male tradie vote, over the same period, has held steady at 1.5 million.

For all the talk of coal seats and resources industries voters, the Australian economy is dominated by the services sector, with high-wage post-material voters based in metropolitan areas. The superannuation industry, with all its ESG considerations and Labor trappings, is increasingly defining the shape of corporate Australia.

The Liberal Party must find a way to remain a part of it.

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