Howard’s battlers were the traditional Labor voters who supported the Coalition during the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Now new information from the ABS reveals which electorates are Australia’s most disadvantaged, and which party claims these as its heartland.
It shows disadvantaged electorates return candidates not just from Labor, historically the party of the working class.
And the Greens and One Nation are proving alternatives to voters at different ends of the socio-economic scale.
A new socio-economic scale
The eastern Sydney seat of Wentworth, held by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, provides an example of new ABS analysis which divides electorates into ten buckets — or deciles — of socio-economic disadvantage and advantage.
More than three-quarters of Wentworth’s neighbourhood-sized areas of around 400 residents are classified in the bucket of greatest advantage.
At the other end of the scale, the Labor-held seat of Wakefield, the home of the old Holden factory in northern Adelaide, is now racked by unemployment.
It has more neighbourhoods classified in the most disadvantaged decile than any other electorate in the country.
This analysis of 2016 Census data from the ABS brings together factors like unemployment, income, car ownership, spare bedrooms, disability, divorce, education and occupation.
Politically, it mostly supports the traditional divide between the Labor and the Liberal parties.
But other patterns emerge that are less well-known.
Battlers in the bush
Shaun Ratcliff, political science lecturer at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, said regional areas were an exception to the dominant patterns of political support in Australia.
“You’ve got your metropolitan working lower middle class which tend to be Labor supporters and your upper middle class tend to be Liberal,” he said.
“That pattern is a lot weaker when we get into rural areas.”
Many Nationals electorates are more disadvantaged than even Labor ones, creating a socio-economic divide within the Coalition.
The difference is obvious in a comparison of the safer seats held by each party.
Only “classic” divisions — where Labor and the Coalition candidates finish first and second — are displayed above.
Andrew Broad, Nationals MP for Mallee in north-western Victoria, said the mix of Coalition support between urban electorates of advantage and regional ones of disadvantage “is why the Coalition wins elections”.
“You need economic dries to drive a strong economy — people who when they look at politics see numbers — but you also need people who when they look at politics, see people,” he said.
“Nationals have always been that: the quiet social conscience.”
Despite identifying health and education as some of his core priorities — similar to Labor’s policy platform — Mr Broad rejected the suggestion that National and Labor voters had much in common.
“Country people aren’t victims — I guess that’s the difference,” he said.
“A lot of the Labor politics tends to be looking after the welfare recipients, so they play to this class warfare that there’s rich people, there’s poor people.
“In National Party seats, even though they literally are the battler poor, they are proud.”
Hunter MP Joel Fitzgibbon — head of a small group of Labor MPs from regional electorates — took issue with Mr Broad’s characterisation.
“I represent the type of people that Andrew Broad represents,” he said.
Mildura resident Amber Rosebottom was drawn to the minor parties at the last election. (ABC News: Lauren Henry)
“My experience is that most Australians are hard-working and appreciate every opportunity they receive, not the whingeing bludgers that Andrew Broad would have you believe.”
Amber Rosebottom, a 25-year-old Mildura resident and social work student from Mr Broad’s electorate, said most of the people she knows vote Labor, but she voted for minor parties before the majors at the last election.
“I thought they had really good values, and weren’t just trying to push their own agenda on people,” she said.
Greens and advantage
Research fellow at ANU, Francis Markham, has tracked changes in the socio-economic index (known as SEIFA) over decades.
“Within major cities, SEIFA shows that disadvantage — which was once concentrated in inner-city areas like Kings Cross in Sydney or Fitzroy in Melbourne — has moved to the outer suburbs, as inner urban areas have gentrified.”
The gentrification of inner seats has coincided with a rising Green vote in seats such as Batman and Wills.
Dr Ratcliff said some voters in these inner cities have been lost to the major parties, and the Greens are the major beneficiaries.
“You’ve got a lot of younger people in the bigger cities who are very well-educated, and have had a lot of opportunities in certain areas, but they’re struggling to get permanent employment or buy their first home,” he said.
“[The Greens are] trying to respond to this with some of its proposals like changing capital gains tax laws, and changing how rental properties are treated taxation wise.”
The Greens won a single lower house seat, Melbourne, at the 2016 election.
However the profiles of the electorates that delivered the Greens’ best lower house results show that even wealthier metropolitan seats such as Higgins and Melbourne Ports recorded strong levels of support.
At the Press Club on Wednesday, Greens leader Richard Di Natale was asked why his party wasn’t more popular with poorer Australians given its policies such as a universal basic income are designed to benefit the disadvantaged.
He described the inroads into the community the Greens have made as “huge” but developing support “takes time” given the party has only emerged “relatively recently”.
“It’s something that we continue to work on, something that we continue to strive to achieve over the coming years,” he said.
“It’s not easy.”
One Nation and disadvantage
Regional areas are some of Australia’s most disadvantaged.
Dr Ratcliff said this made them vulnerable to independents and now parties such as One Nation, “but not a challenge from Labor”.
He said the opinion of trade unions was typically low in regional areas, as was support for social spending which was seen to benefit those in cities.
“That tends to lead regional voters to the conservative side of politics, but if they’ve got an independent they can persuasively argue ‘I’ll better represent your electorate rather than the Coalition taking your vote for granted’.
“And in this case One Nation might fill some of that void.”
Of the 15 candidates run by One Nation in 2016, those who attracted the strongest support were generally in more disadvantaged seats, although large support in the seat of Wright that wraps around Brisbane’s west provides an exception.
One Nation’s protest platform is drawing support from both sides of politics.
Robert Wall drove trucks and worked in construction in Quirindi, near Tamworth, before moving to Queanbeyan in New South Wales three months ago.
“I’ve always voted Labor, but at the last election I went One Nation because of what’s going on in the country,” he said.
One Nation attracted him because he felt like the Australian culture was diminishing, and the Labor party wasn’t listening to “honest, hard-working” men like him.
He is pessimistic about the future as the cost of living rises and now feels disengaged by politics.
“[My mates and I] used to talk about ‘who are you going to vote for when you turn 18’ — you couldn’t wait to vote.
“Now … I don’t want to vote.”
The elusive battler
Mr Markham noted that while this new socio-economic data provides a useful insight into the resources and “life chances” of people living in different areas, it can’t provide the magic formula for understanding class.
“This is partly because social scientists can’t agree on what class means,” he said.
Two decades on from the rise of Howard’s battlers, Pauline Hanson staked her claim for the battler by launching a “battler bus” to tour Queensland during last year’s state election.
But the party’s subdued result in the election — it won just one seat — offered no more clues about which party best represents the battler in Australia today.
And the revival of the term did not deliver any more clarity over who exactly the ‘battler’ may be.
“The battler is somebody who finds in life that they have to work hard for everything they get,” John Howard told Adelaide radio host Leon Byner in 2004, “… somebody who’s not earning a huge income but somebody who is trying to better themselves.”
Mr Byner replied: “That could be anyone.”
Notes: This story uses the 2016 SEIFA Index of Relative Socio-Economic Advantage and Disadvantage (IRSAD). The graphic of major party seats is based on two-party preferred figures in the 2016 election. The graphics for the Greens and One Nation use first preference votes for lower house candidates. Party affiliations of MPs are provided by the Parliament’s website.