Created at Federation, North Sydney has at various times covered most of the North Shore, one of Australia’s wealthiest and most desirable residential areas. The creation of Warringah in 1922 and of Bradfield and Bennelong in 1949 cut it back to the suburbs directly across Sydney Harbour from the city, such as Artarmon, Chatswood, Neutral Bay and Willoughby. Recent redistributions have expanded it to the west to take in Hunters Hill and Lane Cove, formerly in Bennelong.
North Sydney was once the archetypal conservative seat. The conservative parties of the day held the seat from Federation until 1980, interrupted only by former Prime Minister Billy Hughes winning it as an independent Nationalist in 1929. Even in Labor’s landslide year of 1943, Hughes (by then representing the UAP) polled 53.1% of the two-party vote. Other members have included First World War hero Sir Granville de Laune Ryrie and “Silent Billy” Jack, a Scotsman who distinguished himself by saying almost nothing in his 17 years in the House. His successor Bruce Graham (1966-80) was nearly as inconspicuous. In 1980 John Spender, son of Menzies-era foreign minister Sir Percy Spender and a typical representative of the Sydney aristocracy, inherited the seat. He rose to be shadow foreign minister, mainly on the strength of his surname and his plummy accent, before being unexpectedly defeated by an independent, Ted Mack, in 1990.
Mack’s victory was the first sign that demographic change was eroding the Liberal position in North Sydney. Being just across the Harbour Bridge from the city, the North Sydney suburbs have filled up since the 1960s with affluent apartment-dwellers, many of them ferry commuters to city jobs – although downtown North Sydney itself has become a major commercial and financial centre, and more recently, the centre of Sydney’s booming advertising and IT industries. By the 1980s many of these young, affluent white-collar workers were becoming willing to abandon the Liberal Party, if not yet to vote Labor.
Mack retired in 1996 and was succeeded by Joe Hockey, a Liberal regarded as suitably young (31 in 1996) and progressive for this changing area. Hockey’s progress in the Howard government was slow, mainly because he was known to be a supporter of Liberal Deputy Leader and leadership aspirant Peter Costello, but in January 2007 he got his break when he was promoted to the Cabinet as Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations. This has proved to be something of a poisoned chalice, as it has fallen to Hockey to defend the government’s highly unpopular WorkChoices legislation. Hockey is an affable fellow, but not so affable that he can persuade Australians to like the Howard government’s workplace laws.
This issue, whatever it may be doing to the Coalition’s prospects nationally, is probably not affecting Hockey’s position in North Sydney much, except in that it ties him more closely to the Prime Minister in the minds of his constituents. This is one of the wealthiest areas in Australia, and most of its residents are business and professional types earning high incomes. North Sydney also has among the lowest levels of people paying off their homes and lowest levels of traditional households with children. There aren’t many struggling blue-collar families worrying about losing their overtime and leave loadings in Neutral Bay.
But now something is going on in North Sydney. In 1996 Hockey’s two-party majority was 15.6%, in line with the seat’s traditional Liberal strength. This fell to 12.2% in 1998, then rose (helped by a friendly redistribution) to 13.3% in 2001. In 2004, however, the margin fell to 10%, despite the fact that Prime Minister John Howard was cruising to a comfortable win over the erratic Mark Latham. The 3.3% swing to Labor in North Sydney compared with an 0.3% swing to the Coalition across NSW. The same “reverse swing” was seen in the other North Shore seats: the swings to Labor were 3.5% in Berowra, 3.4% in Bennelong, 2.7% in Bradfield, 2.2% in Warringah and 1.1% in Mackellar. Meanwhile, in 1999, 61.3% of North Sydney voters voted “yes” in the republic referendum, while NSW as whole voted 53.6% “no.”
This drift to the left in seats like North Sydney is what the cognoscenti call the “doctors’ wives” phenomenon, and it’s being seen in older upper-middle to upper-class suburbs across Australia. As The Australian’s George Megalogenis wrote in March: “The Liberals have been losing support since 1996 in electorates with these reinforcing character traits of privilege: an above-average proportion of voters with tertiary degrees, who work as professionals, who are not stretched on mortgages and who supported the republic at the 1999 referendum. In 11 blue-ribbon Liberal republic seats spread across Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide, the Government's vote is substantially lower today than it was when Howard took power 11 years ago.”
If the North Shore seats drifted to Labor even in 2004, when it was led by a man most people had decided by election day was not fit to be Prime Minister, a man who intended to cut funding to a “hit list” of private schools, such as those North Shore people send their kids to, then imagine what they are likely to do now that Labor is led by Kevin Rudd, a man who will not touch a hair on the head of the wealthiest school in Australia (which is quite possibly Shore, in the heart of North Sydney). Instead of the small statewide swing to the Coalition which was seen in 2004, NSW seems to be preparing to deliver a swing of 6% or even 8% to Labor. If North Sydney again delivers an atypically high swing to Labor, Joe Hockey could be in serious trouble.
Why should the voters of North Sydney, most of whom have no doubt prospered mightily under the Howard government, now turn against its local representative, who is by all accounts a likeable man and a diligent member of Parliament?
Consider North Sydney’s unique demographics. At the 2001 census it had a median weekly family income of $1,788, the highest in Australia. Fifty-one percent of its adult residents worked in professional occupations: the highest proportion in Australia. A majority (53.8%) of its residents lived in apartments: the third-highest proportion in Australia (and much the highest in such a wealthy area). Less than a third of its households were couple families with dependent children: the 23rd lowest proportion of the 150 electorates. Only 16.7% of residents were paying off their homes, the 7th lowest proportion in the country.
So on most measures North Sydney is the richest and the most professional seat in Australia. It’s also one of the most highly educated and fully 20% of all residents are university students, half of them adults studying part-time. It has almost the lowest proportion of children of any seat. It’s in the top 20 seats for the proportion of “never married” adults – suggesting more gay men and lesbians than average (though not as many as in Malcolm Turnbull’s Wentworth over the water). Only 59% of its residents identify as Christians. Nearly 19% were born in a non-English speaking country, the 38th highest proportion in Australia. By ethnic origin, it’s 8% Chinese, 1.6% Indian, and 1.5% Japanese.
It would seem therefore that the typical North Sydney voter is a young, cosmopolitan, highly educated, secular, single, childless, wealthy professional. That’s an over-simplification of course. North Sydney also has the nation’s highest proportion of elderly widows, and there are still plenty of traditional families, albeit very wealthy ones, in the less apartment-dominated parts of the seat such as Lane Cove. But the general tone of the seat is far from what one would expect from such a wealthy area. In some ways it has more in common with the seat of Sydney at the other end of the Harbour Bridge than it does with the wealthy dormitory seats like Bradfield and Mackellar to its north. Since Sydney has a Labor majority of 17.3%, that’s not an encouraging thought for Joe Hockey.
North Sydney is the stronghold of a newly emerging class in Australia – the inner urban cosmopolitan elite. This is a quite different class to the old Anglo-Australian urban elite, whose lives were based on the Old School Tie, the Club and the Boardroom. This class is young, multi-ethnic, secular, liberal in its view of most social issues, and not particularly family oriented, although of course most of its members will eventually get around to forming a relationship of some sort and maybe even having kids. As professionals, many in sunrise industries like IT and advertising, a high proportion are self-employed or in professional partnerships, rather than occupying managerial positions in large corporations as their fathers did. Many more of them are women than was the case with old elite, who kept their wives at home – if not actually in the kitchen, at least supervising the cook.
What issues do such people care about? The economy certainly, but they are all doing very nicely, or they wouldn’t be living in North Sydney in the first place. They’re in favour of tax cuts, but they’re not as obsessed with tax as the small-business class that forms the membership and electoral base of the Liberal Party. Not many of them work for a wage, and not many of them employ wage-earners either, so they’re largely indifferent to industrial relations and WorkChoices. Since few of them have mortgages, they’re not as concerned about interest rates as folk out in the aspirational suburbs. They have the privilege of the wealthy to be concerned about non-material issues. The younger members of this class have never even experienced a recession, let alone real hardship. As Grahame Morris, John Howard’s former adviser, says, they are: “a group of well-off people for whom the economy, because they have done so well, is not top-of-mind.”
The issues that are “top-of-mind” for the inner urban cosmopolitan elite seem to be:
These are all the issues on which Kevin Rudd has made the running, if not in substantial policy commitments then at least in the general tone of his rhetoric. Rudd speaks of an “education revolution,” of ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, of investing in a high-speed broadband network, of getting out of Iraq. These commitments – vague though some of them are – all resonate with the inner urban cosmopolitan elite. The Howard government has dourly refused to make concessions to what it sees as “political correctness” on such matters. This is partly because of Howard’s own personal convictions, which are deeply conservative on these issues, and partly his belief that any concessions to elite opinion will go down badly with his working-class and regional base, the so-called “Howard battlers.” He may or may not be right in that judgement, but it seems indisputable that his stubbornness on the issues listed above has produced a large and ugly political chicken which is starting to come home to roost in seats like North Sydney across Australia.
It is Joe Hockey’s misfortune to be the sitting member for a seat in which this conflict between the deep-grained conservatism of the Howard government on “elite” issues and the mood of the elite electorate has become very stark. His own views on these issues are probably a good deal closer to his voters’ than to the Prime Minister’s, but of course he cannot say so. By now, many Liberals will be privately cursing John Howard’s stubborn refusal to retire during this last Parliament, and Peter Costello’s unwillingness to challenge him. Few will be cursing with more vehemence than Hockey.
Last year the NSW Labor Party smelt blood in the waters of Neutral Bay and the Lane Cove River. There are few genuinely marginal seats in metropolitan Sydney these days (only Parramatta, Lindsay, Bennelong and Wentworth), so the strategists of Sussex Street were free to look further afield, and decided to have a serious tilt at North Sydney for the first time in living memory. They recruited Mike Bailey, a well-known weather presenter on Sydney ABC television, as a “star candidate” to give Hockey a hard time. They may have thought at the time that Bailey’s job was merely to keep Hockey busy and to force the cash-strapped NSW Liberal Party to spend money in North Sydney when they would much rather be spending it elsewhere, but as the year has worn on it has become increasingly apparent that Bailey has a genuine chance of pinching the seat.
By October the media were reporting on “leaked ALP polling” which allegedly showed Bailey winning the seat on preferences with a 13% swing. The Liberals responded that the poll was fictional. As is always the case with “internal polling,” the truth is impossible to know. But it is a fact that Hockey is spending much more of the campaign doorknocking his own seat than a senior Cabinet minister with a 10% majority would normally be expected to spend. Last week he debated Bailey on Sky TV. The Mosman Daily said that both men performed well, but that wasn’t really the point. The usual maxim in politics is “never debate when you’re ahead,” so it would seem that Hockey felt he was not ahead and had to take the risk of giving Bailey the free exposure that a debate always gives a challenger.
As of today, Hockey is still favourite to win North Sydney. You can get $6 on Bailey at Centrebet, one of the leading online bookmakers. These seem rather conservative odds (the same company is showing the Liberals as favourites in Herbert and Leichhardt, both seats where published polls have Labor well ahead, and Labor as picking up no seats in Victoria). Whatever the punters think, Hockey is now hostage to the declining fortunes of the Howard government. North Sydney has never elected a Labor member in its 106 years of existence. But if the renewed trend to Labor that became apparent in the second week of the campaign consolidates – and the prospect of an interest rate rise suggests that it will – then Hockey could be in deep trouble.