Shifting demographics but same direction


The north-south division in Cooper is something candidates must take into consideration. Photo: Ally Galletti

In June 2018, the decision was made by the AEC to rename the former division of Batman to Cooper due to pressure from community activists who saw Indigenous leader William Cooper as a more reflective of, and respectful, representative of the values of the electorate.

The name change is symbolic of an overall shift within the area as it becomes further gentrified, from an influx of middle-class professionals.

As the ALP navigates challenges from rising candidates from minor parties in what was once its safest seat, we examine how demographic shifts are influencing the make up of Cooper.

The Facts

The division of Cooper is a metropolitan seat comprised of suburbs within Melbourne’s inner and middle North.

The traditionally working-class seat still maintains many of its original characteristics, with manufacturing, retail and warehousing considered key industries of the region.

Despite the extent of blue-collar industries in Cooper, the appeal of gentrified inner-city suburbs in the electorate is increasingly enticing young professionals.

Since 1991, the rate of voters employed in professional occupations has risen from 19 percent to 31 percent.

In the same period, the number of residents with tertiary qualifications has also increased by 16 percent.

The Battle of Bell Street

Prior to the 2007 election Batman/Cooper was the ALP’s safest held lower house seat.

Fast forward nine years and the ALP was believed to be at serious risk of losing its heartland to Greens candidate Alex Bhatal at the 2016 federal election.

It appeared that the ALP was losing touch with the electorate as voters began to grow tired of right faction candidates such as David Feeney.

Voters felt that more progressive candidates were needed to be truly reflective of community values.

Labor and the Greens turned their attention to the suburbs ‘south of Bell Street’ which are home to more upwardly mobile residents in the electorate.

Despite a swing towards the Greens at the 2016 election, Labor managed to retain the seat.

An opportunity arose to replace Feeney with former nurse and ACTU secretary Ged Kearney at the 2018 by-election, triggered by Feeney falling foul of the constitution’s ruling on dual nationality.

Commentators again spoke of the likelihood of a Greens victory due to the changing demographics of the electorate.

But Labor claimed victory with a 3.35% swing.

Sticking to the status quo?

The changing make-up of the seat of Cooper has failed to have the predicted impact on the outcome of election results.

What has led voters to stick with the ALP throughout the Greens’ rise in the electorate?

In contrast to some traditionally working-class electorates around the country, Cooper has remained consistently diverse with waves of migrants and refugees calling Melbourne’s north home for decades.

As voters in the area are likely to be supportive of immigration and refugee rights, it may be surprising that they have stuck with Labor because these issues are key parts of the Greens’ platform.

The arrival of Ged Kearney in Cooper has had an impact on voter attitudes towards Labor.

Ms Kearney has been vocal about her support for a more humane refugee policy from the ALP as well as her commitment to implementing sound climate policy.

Her views are appealing to Greens voters who felt the ALP was moving away from the left and too far towards the centre.

The Junction spoke to Ms. Kearney about her role as an MP in an ever-changing socioeconomic landscape.

She noted that the issues voters found most important were universal across the electorate.

Voters commonly expressed their concerns regarding climate change, public education, the cost of living and the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees.

Ms Kearney also stated that voters in more affluent pockets of Cooper were as concerned about career and economic opportunities for their children as their working-class counterparts.

When asked about commentators’ expectations of a Greens victory in the 2018 by-election, Ms. Kearney reflected on the ALP’s position as a “party of government.”

The member for Cooper believed that voters have remained loyal to the ALP as they hold power to bring about change that may not be attainable for the Greens.

In the context of values and beliefs, Ms Kearney feels that voters have chosen her as a representative who stands up for what is most important to them.

As a former nurse and union leader, Ms Kearney is aware of the challenges facing working class voters as well as those in more affluent positions who value commitment to social progress.

Where to Next?

The constitutional expulsion of David Feeney may have been a blessing in disguise for the ALP with the appointment of Ged Kearney allowing them to claw back ground in Cooper’s new professional demographic.

In the early stages of the 2019 federal election campaign, Labor’s campaigning has remained high profile while the Greens have been somewhat absent in the electorate in comparison to previous campaigns.

This is despite newcomer David Risstrom taking the reins, and may suggest a lack of confidence in their chances in Cooper in 2019.