Keneally’s defeat in Fowler is just the tip of the iceberg. Labor’s ‘red wall’ is crumbling

May 26, 2022
Dai Le, Deputy Mayor Fairfield City Council, won the seat of Fowler. Photo: Deputy Mayor Fairfield City Dai Le/Facebook

Up until election night on May 21, almost no political pundit predicted Labor candidate Kristina Keneally could lose the “red wall” Western Sydney seat of Fowler. Situated in the predominately migrant, working-class suburbs around Cabaramatta and Fairfield, Labor had won Fowler in every election since its creation in 1984 on primary votes alone, and held it with a 14% margin.

But as the votes were counted and the size of the swing towards independent candidate and local deputy mayor Dai Le grew, recriminations began. Having won government how had Labor managed to lose one of its traditional fortresses?

Some blame Labor’s choice to parachute in an unpopular candidate from the Northern Beaches against the local branch’s preference of local Vietnamese-Australian lawyer Tu Le. Others noted disgruntlement with Labor had simmered since the COVID-19 lockdowns and its failure to stand up for residents who rightly felt they had been treated harshly and unfairly.

These were major contributing factors. But Keneally’s victor, Dai Le, best summed up why she had won on election night with a warning to the major parties they could no longer treat loyal voters like second-class citizens: “We are the forgotten people. Nobody cared for us, not the Liberals, not Labor. We finally decided we would have our own voice.”

Keneally’s defeat was more than just a local aberration. Voting trends across red wall seats in Sydney and Melbourne indicate it is the tip of the iceberg.

While there was no wave of Labor defeats — as happened with teal independents in “blue wall” inner city Liberal seats — the deepening disconnect between voters and their traditional party of choice, along with the rising desire to seek out alternatives, was evident across red wall seats.

Labor managed to improve its two-party preferred (TPP) vote across Western Sydney to 55.5%, but it fell well short of the numbers last time Labor won government. Labor leader Kevin Rudd rode into office in 2007 on the Your Rights at Work campaign and a TPP vote of 60% across the Western Sydney.

Labor should be concerned about its primary vote: the swing against it in Western Sydney (–1.55%) was above the national average and builds on the –3.5% swing it received in the 2019 elections.

Broken down further, the trend is becomes even worse. The biggest drops in Labor’s primary votes were in the migrant, working-class heartland seats of Fowler (–18%) and neighbouring Werriwa, based around Liverpool (–8.6%).

The lower overall swing against Labor is explained by higher votes in non-red wall Western Sydney seats. In Reid, previously a Liberal held marginal seat that spans into inner west, leafy suburbs, Labor managed a +5.26% swing. In Macquarie, a Labor-held marginal seat covering the traditionally Liberal-leaning Hawkesbury region as well as the Blue Mountains, Labor gained a +5.1% swing.

This pattern was starker across Melbourne’s outer working-class suburbs where, despite Labor registering a TPP swing towards it across Victoria, in red wall electorates there was an average –2.6% swing against Labor and a drop in its primary vote of –7.9%.

Contrary to expectations, the beneficiaries of Labor’s falling primary vote in Western Sydney were not the Liberals. Much had been made about former Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s attempts to appeal to voters in these seats with his religious discrimination bill among other culture war issues.

But the Liberals’ vote dropped everywhere except for a tiny primary vote rise (0.4%) in the swing seat of Lindsay, which covers Penrith and surrounding mortgage belt suburbs, and which it held on to. The same happened in Melbourne.

The predicted surge in support for the United Australia Party in Western Sydney did not eventuate, even if its vote did rise. Along with Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party, parties to the right of the major parties won a combined average of about 9.5% across Western Sydney, achieving a peak of 15% in MacMahon, which covers newer suburbs west of Fairfield. Again, this vote was largely replicated in Melbourne red wall electorates.

The Greens were the only force to the left of the two major parties standing candidates in Western Sydney. Their vote rose by about 1.5% across the region. With an average vote of 7.7%, the Greens came third in more than half of the seats covering Western Sydney.

The picture was even brighter for the Greens in Melbourne, where they came third in every red wall seat, averaging 12.4% of the vote. Victorian Socialists ran candidates in some of these same seats, adding a further 3%–5.3% to the vote for the radical left.

The pattern is clear: an increasing number of traditional working-class Labor voters are refusing to be taken for granted. It appears that the lack of perceived viable alternatives is the main thing stopping even more red wall voters turning their back on Labor.

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