I’ve just moved away from the ‘cashed-up bogans’, bling and boats of Melbourne’s bayside suburb of Patterson Lakes. Goodbye to the Kath and Kim house, that symbol of outer suburban culture. Goodbye to The Cove pub, where gambling itches can be scratched 24/7. Goodbye too to plumbers with Porsches, tattooed ladies with earrings like satellite dishes, and the best Vietnamese rice paper rolls this side of Saigon.
Built on reclaimed land on a network of man-made canals, ‘Patto’ is a lifestyle village: a hedonistic, fun-loving and very affluent bastion of middle Australia. In the outer suburbs, land is cheap, allowing more of the household income to build good-sized homes and spend on the better things in life. But whether or not they’re CUBs, Patto residents are people who work very hard for what they have, simply enjoying the good life along Melbourne’s bayside fringe. It’s not a place for bludgers, and there’s a strong volunteer ethic: lots of clubs and community service organisations to join. Patto-ites may not be university-educated soy latte-sippers, but they do love a flat white.
Like most people not obsessed about politics, Patto-ites are more insightful than most professional commentators. They offer the same acute glances into the tribal mind as the Angry Old Man of outer suburbia, Mark Latham, without his attitude. They typify the the great, silent majority of Australians, people who never will be interviewed on the ABC, or vox popped by the Age.
They may be patronised by academics and self-styled intellectuals, but outer suburban communities like Patto, and Mandurah in Western Australia’s by-election electorate of Canning, are where Australian federal elections are won and lost. Inner city latte-sipper and urban working class seats tend to go strong Labor – or increasingly Green. Affluent, high net worth suburbs like Sydney’s Vaucluse are blue-ribbon Liberal strongholds. Regional Australia is shared mostly between the Libs and the Nats. But outer-suburban capital city seats, especially in the nappy valley new suburbs springing up everywhere, are the ones that are marginal and more likely to swing one way or another. Not all these communities are as materially well-off as Patto, but all of them are the battleground on which federal electorate are most fiercely fought.
And that’s the big question mark about the sudden change of prime minister. Malcolm Turnbull is undoubtedly more popular generally than ousted Tony Abbott, according to the opinion polls, Canberra press gallery and much of the commentariat. Turnbull’s more socially progressive outlook certainly appeals to Labor and Greens-voting intellectual and arty types far more than Abbott’s dour muscular Catholicism and a political philosophy learned at Bob Santamaria’s knee. But how will the Turnbull gospel go down in election-deciding communities like Patterson Lakes?
For all Abbott’s struggles for acceptance among the literati and Twitterati – reflected in his spiteful, vengeful and utterly disgraceful castigation by lefty commentators and social media pseuds – in Patto, Abbott as prime minister was someone in tune with their lives and their values. While there was frustration with his leadership in terms of frequent mis-steps and stuff-ups, Abbott was never on the nose in Patterson Lakes.
Talking to Patto-ites over a bevvy, at the barbeque or the sailing club, Abbott is respected for toiling against heavy odds: they know he had a tough gig facing down hostile chattering class types and, especially, a feral Senate. What’s more, he’s highly-regarded for his unsung community service as a firey and lifesaver, and he’s celebrated for banishing Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, and for abolishing the carbon tax which, as I once wrote in the Speccie, all but killed Patto’s beloved extravagant Christmas light displays.
Abbott may never be an economics whiz kid, but he let Bruce Billson craft a winning small business package in this year’s budget that actually understood what it’s like to be a tradie or a shop-owner. Abbott showed an instinct for what support these small businessmen and women, the economic backbone of the outer suburbs, need to grow their business and to create more jobs. He got them.
By contrast, Turnbull’s affinity with Patto and its materialism largely starts and finishes with their shared fondness for the material trappings of affluence. He is much admired for his self-made success and his ability as a communicator, but his career as a barrister, banker and corporate lawyer, associating with the great and powerful for decades, is far removed from the outer suburban normality. In policy, even his association as communications minister with the never-never National Broadband Network is a minus, even though it was Labor’s baby.
Turnbull’s patronage of the luvvie arts and small ‘l’ liberal views on social issues like gay marriage and especially man-made climate change, where the Patto view is closer to Abbott’s declaration of it being ‘crap’, are also considerably removed from outer suburban realities. On gay marriage, for instance, there’s a feeling of not caring one way or the other, but there’s bewilderment, even anger that it has become a first-priority issue strangling parliament and the economic agenda.
There’s no doubt that Turnbull’s ascension will build the Liberal vote in Labor seats, as well as in the blue-ribbons like his own seat of Wentworth, But to win his own mandate, Turnbull has to win over outer suburban marginals, and he can’t take them for granted. He has to prove to them, by his politics and policies that, like Abbott, he does understand their lives far removed from the inner cities.
If Turnbull can do this, especially by practising what he preached on spill night about honouring the broad church of the Liberal party, he has every chance of delivering on his saviour’s promise. But if the outer suburbs become Turnbull’s forgotten people, be they tradie paradises like Patterson Lakes or the new suburbs housing Howard’s battlers and Abbott’s aspirationals, the new prime minister may yet be remembered for being a very naughty boy rather than a messiah. There’s his real challenge.
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