On Saturday 18 May 2019, Scott Morrison stood before his many supporters and celebrated an unexpected win. He paid homage to this country’s Quiet Australians. John Howard had his Howard battlers and Scott Morrison was now identifying his own electoral vanguard.
Were these Australians responsible for this unexpected victory? Not entirely. But the re-elected Prime Minister was correct in attempting to identify a group of Australians who belong to a part of this country that are rarely seen or heard by those in politics and the media.
You can’t find them on Twitter, they don’t watch Q&A and polling them is incredibly difficult. They rarely read political news, care little about the countless gotcha moments spicing up the six o’clock news and largely tune out from all news unless it involves an issue that directly impacts their lives … including the footy.
When the Prime Minister beamed a light on their existence, many of the political commentariat quickly conjured up narratives about their location, occupations and lifestyle. We were treated to countless vox pops of what Canberra thought was a typical Quiet Australian household. But they missed the mark, as the types of households the PM was referring to would not even return a journalist’s call.
So, who are they?
The best analogy I can use is the traditional Queenslander house, raised above the ground to protect the occupants from the elements and provide some circulation.
However, the Quiet Australians don’t actually live in the house. You can find them among the weeds, under the raised floorboards, exposed to the elements. It’s the political commentariat that actually live in this house, protected from mother nature’s extreme whims.
Even before the COVID-19 crisis, these Australians were already experiencing hardship. Buffeted by rising household debt, job insecurity, and declining wages, they were exposed to even the slightest downturns in the economy. You can find them in our large cities’ outer suburbs, largely migrant communities, but also young families struggling to keep a roof over their heads. They are never home for the 6pm news because their daily commute to work is more like a pilgrimage then a short tram ride to work.
In regional Australia they are like the 43-year old bed and breakfast manager who re-entered the workforce after the GFC. Her husband had lost his job and has only ever been able to find seasonal work ever since. Her income puts food on the table.
Their life is one of scarcity and vulnerability and the COVID-19 crisis acted like a Queensland flood, washing through them under that traditional Queenslander.
They were the first to experience the economic shock and the last to agree to having our lockdown laws loosened. They are acutely aware that a virus breakout will impact them the most. By the end of May, a 42-year old support worker had already spent eight weeks wracked with fear as she went to work each day. Caring for the disabled was her life’s work but she now feared it would take her life because her employer was not supplying enough PPE. The loosening of our lockdown laws only means one thing to her, more risk and exposure.
Like dozens we have spoken to, she fears the second wave. Her anxiety, like many others, is now compounded as the world reawakens with anger. The growing China – Australia trade sabre rattling may excite the political class living above them, safe from the elements, but for these Quiet Australians, the barbed exchanges between the CCP and Australia only means on thing: more job losses.
Neary all we have spoken with have, either personally or through a relative, some form of reliance on this major trading partner. Their predicament summed up well by 33-year old customer service operator living in Melbourne’s outer east, “If this trade war blows up with China, I will lose my job”. The small business he still works for heavily relies on this trade relationship. For him and his family, increased tensions means risk. He may have escaped the first economic shock from COVID-19 but he may indeed be swept up by what he perceives to be a second, politically-induced shock on the horizon.
Others have expressed anger towards those within the political commentariat playing games with their health and economic wellbeing. Initially it was verbalised through their angst towards some who were demanding a premature loosening of the lockdown. It is now slowly manifesting to a rage aimed at those who they feel are throwing fuel over a bonfire that threatens to burn down the jobs they are desperately trying to hold onto.
Debates about our rising tensions with China simply come across to these people as some abstract, foreign conversation that amplifies their anxiety. Many do harbour extreme reservations about the CCP and our lack of self-reliance as a country. However, this is a measured view, utterly overwhelmed by concerns about a battered economy and a job market that simply does not exist.
But what about race? Quiet Australians will never openly admit to their own prejudice. Before the COVID-19 crisis, this prejudice may have manifested in several ways. Whatever that may have looked like, it only bubbled to the surface if they could afford to entertain the thought. Scarcity also breeds pragmatism. Ask them a question in a poll about their views about China and you will get one answer, speak to them for over an hour about their deepest fears and you will get another entirely different answer.
So, can Scott Morrison still call on his electoral vanguard? On the face of it, based on dozens of focus groups, you could argue the vanguard has now turned into a praetorian guard. They not only support how the Prime Minister has handled the crisis but need him to succeed. You could say these Quiet Australians are now emotionally invested in seeing him succeed. The same can be said for the Victorian Premier Dan Andrews, viewed by many we have spoken to as not an opponent to the PM but a critical ally against the COVID-19 fight and the upcoming economic rebuild.
Even in Melbourne’s well-heeled inner eastern suburbs, voters look at the duo with some national pride. To quote one mother of three, “I’m incredibly proud of my country and this state. On how we have become world leaders when it comes to fighting this disease.”
But that emotional investment is a two-edged sword. To paraphrase the Bard: hell hath no fury like a voter scorned. If the Prime Minister lets down his praetorian guard by undermining their jobs, rolling back the much-appreciated economic supports too soon, or neglecting certain members of their brethren, this is an army that can turn fast and in large numbers. While the Prime Minister has been awarded flying colours to date, in terms of the things that will have the greatest impact at the polling booth in 2022, the COVID test has only just begun.
This article was originally published here and is republished with permission.
Kos Samaras is the Director at Redbridge Group Australia and a former Deputy Campaign Director of Victorian Labor. Twitter