Over the last decade, much has been published and discussed about the mounting challenges faced by Social Democratic parties right across the developed world. In Greece, the once dominant PASOK was felled by a combination of the GFC and its inability to disentangle itself from the subsequent austerity measures. Across Europe, powerful Social Democratic movements have been pushed aside by populous movements. To a lesser extent, Labor at a federal level is also facing similar challenges. This is a complex area, warranting much deeper thought and analysis.

Mapping party support across the 2010-19 Australian Federal Elections: Trends for Labor and the Greens. Report


The brief for this project is to analyse federal election results between 2010 to 2019 in New South Wales and Queensland, to map out support for the Coalition, Labor, Greens and minor parties over that period, by suburb. The hypothesis being tested is that the Greens and Labor vote, while stable overall, has contracted to the inner city, declining in some parts of suburbia and the regions.

Key findings

1. The hypothesis is partially supported for both parties, but there is complexity. Nationally, relationships between left-party support and population density (and proximity to CBDs for the Greens) have strengthened slightly over time. However, when breaking results down by state, one party or the other is observed to be gaining in the inner-city of state capitals, not both simultaneously.

2. The Labor vote was estimated to have become more concentrated by distance in NSW and QLD, though (but not density). In NSW, Labor has gained in inner-city Sydney, while mostly holding stable in suburbs further out.

3. Labor appears to generally do the best in middle and outer suburbs (approximately 10-100km from CBDs) with moderate to high population density. This has been largely consistent since 2010, with small shifts. These patterns were generally replicated for results across states, except in QLD, with the federal Labor vote becoming weaker in suburban Brisbane over time. Conversely, Labor’s vote appears to have strengthened closer to the Sydney CBD, and perhaps to a lesser extent in Brisbane, but not Melbourne.

4. In QLD, and even more so in VIC, it was the Greens who really gained in the inner-cities though. The Greens vote has become more concentrated in the inner-cities in these states, but less concentrated in NSW. In QLD, the Greens primary vote declined in less dense areas while remaining stable in those with higher density, and grew in postcodes closer to the Brisbane CBD while remaining low in more distant areas.

5. Left strength in the inner-cities is balanced by weakness in rural areas. The Labor vote was estimated to have declined in booths 500km from the Sydney and Brisbane CBDs, increasing Labor’s reliance on inner-city and (in NSW and VIC) suburban areas.

6. The Coalition has not been the primary beneficiary from the decline in rural support for the parties of the left, though. Rather, the One Nation vote increased substantially in QLD outside of inner-city Brisbane, while the vote for other parties and candidates increased across much of NSW, in more remote parts of VIC, and some parts of QLD outside Brisbane.

7. Distance from the CBD of a state or territory’s capital city appears to generally be a stronger predictor for vote intention than population density, suggesting it is something about being removed from the inner-city rather than the built environment itself that is important.

Possible explanation

Has the two main ‘Left wing’ parties in Australia suffered the same fate? Has Federal Labor’s vote followed the contraction of manufacturing? Where heavy industry, that once dotted the regional landscape can now only be found in the mines or the big cities.

The short answer is yes. The longer answer is a more complex one. But we can see these same geopolitical currents that have dragged under many Left wing movements, washing their way through this country’s landscape. From much of Queensland, right across most of regional Australia, to Northern Tasmania.

Small town Australia is no different to small town America. It is now the home of the outsiders, people who feel they have been left behind. The old just get older, whilst the young either leave or stay behind and face a life of addiction and lost opportunity. There is no appetite to worry about global warming here, nor obscure debates that city folk tend to focus on. It is here where we see the greatest collapse of Federal Labor’s support.

In Queensland, this erosion is more profound, as it extends right into Brisbane. In this state, the dam holding back Federal Labor’s erosion burst in 2019. But cracks were clearly present as early as 2010.

The same can be said for Northern Tasmania. The dam here has not only broken but spilt significantly into the state arena, where Labor’s overall brand has suffered immensely.

In Sydney, Federal Labor has largely held its ground since 2010, although there has been a growing fragility to its primary vote beyond the middle suburbs. The flip side, like the Greens, Federal Labor has enjoyed greater support towards the inner parts of Sydney.

Clear electoral problems start to surface outside Sydney. The 2019 election result in Hunter was not an abnormality. It has been decades in the making and it’s not just isolated to the Hunter region.

Head down to Victoria and a much more stable electoral picture can be viewed for Federal Labor, although the same small town Australia decline is clearly present. The difference here is much of this troubled constituency is not situated in Federal Seats that Labor has genuinely ever contested.

So where has this vote gone? Minor parties, like One Nation, Palmer United Party and others of a similar make up. In Northern Tasmania, at the 2020 Rosevears Upper House election, State Labor was not just massively beaten by the Liberal Party, but a local Independent secured almost 3 times the number of private votes.

Without small town Australia, Federal Labor will find the path to victory a very narrow one. The Hawke and Keating victories, followed by the Rudd victory of 2007 were only ever possible because of many regional seats.

Without small town Australia, Federal Labor will continue to by pushed back into our large cities, where its task of securing 75 seats will increasingly become more difficult. A task made even more challenging because this analysis does reveal some electoral erosion for Federal Labor within some of this country’s outer metropolitan suburbs, largely in Brisbane and Sydney.

The solution? Two decades of political erosion cannot be remedied within one parliamentary term. It certainly cannot be remedied by shutting down debate or limiting the political dialogue to a narrative tailor made for the victors of the last 20 years of economic evolution.

The Coalition will continue to harness the preferences from all that electoral hemorrhaging, via preference deals with parties like One Nation and Palmer United.

So Federal Labor’s only real option is to get these voters back or in many cases, secure them for the first time. Yes, there are now entire generations of voters who have never voted for Labor, even though they were born into Labor voting families.

Federal Labor does not have to look beyond this country’s boundaries for answers to their electoral problems. Queensland Labor has consistently shown how to talk to ‘both sides of the river’ and more importantly how to win in an environment that is extremely challenging.