The Class of 96: A Biographical Analysis of New Government Members of the Australian House of Representatives(1)

By Pickering, Paul A. | The Australian Journal of Politics and History, March 1998 | Go to article overview

The Class of 96: A Biographical Analysis of New Government Members of the Australian House of Representatives(1)


Pickering, Paul A., The Australian Journal of Politics and History


The 1996 federal election brought thirty-six new government members into the House of Representatives. The size of the "Class of 96" provides an opportunity for a comparison of biographical characteristics, looking for common experiences and backgrounds, as well as for an exploration of similarities and differences with previous cohorts of Coalition MPs. This examination will suggest that, in biographical terms the "Class of 96" represents a significant new development in Australian politics. Further, a detailed analysis of the first speeches of the members of the "Class of 96" provides a window into the minds of those who have sought and achieved office on behalf of the Liberal and National parties after thirteen years in the political wilderness.

The Federal election of 2 March 1996 saw the victory of a right-of-centre Coalition of the Liberal and National parties after thirteen years in the political wilderness. The extent of the Coalition "landslide" took many pundits by surprise, and brought thirty-six new government members into the 148 seat House of Representatives. The size of the "Class of 96" (twenty-four per cent of the House) presents the student of politics with all important opportunity for prosopography: comparing and contrasting the backgrounds and biographical characteristics of the group, looking for common experiences and traits and exploring similarities (and differences) with previous cohorts of Coalition MPs. In particular comparisons will be made with the last large intake of Coalition MPs (thirty-three) elected in December 1975. But there is an opportunity here for a more intensive investigation. By convention new members use their first speech to place on record their hopes and aspirations for the future, and to say something about themselves, their views and motivations. An anthropologist, Clifford Geertz, has suggested that we can learn a lot about personality by looking at "how people represent themselves to themselves and to one another".(2) In these terms, this crop of thirty-six speeches provides an important window into the minds of those who have sought and achieved public office on behalf of the Coalition.

Biography: "Howard's Battlers"

Analysis of the result of the 1996 election showed that many members of the "Class of 96" owed their success to the defection from Labor of large sections of its working class heartland.(3) Twenty-eight of the thirty-six won their seat from the Labor Party with swings ranging from 0.88 per cent up to 11.97 per cent (the average two-party preferred swing of the thirty-six was +6.49 per cent. (see Table 1, p. 97). According to the Federal Director of the Liberal Party, Andrew Robb, exit polling in the fifty-two most marginal seats indicated that Labor's vote among blue collar workers fell from nearly fifty per cent in 1993 to thirty-nine per cent while the Coalition share of the blue collar vote jumped from forty-three per cent to forty-eight per cent.(4) Robb went on to claim for the Coalition a new voting base among working Australians -- "Howard's battlers" -- a rubric enthusiastically adopted by commentators and Coalition politicians alike.(5) What has not attracted comment is the extent to which "Howard's battlers" constitute a new force inside Parliament as well as outside it.(6)

Table 1: The Class 96(9)

Name                Electorate       State   Party   Swing   Margin

Anthony, Larry      Richmond(*)      NSW      NP      8.53    6.75
Baldwin, Robert     Paterson(*)      NSW      LP      3.73    0.43
Barresi, Philip     Deakin           VIC      LP      1.89    2.48
Bartlett, Kerry     Macquarie(*)     NSW      LP      6.48    6.63
Billson, Bruce      Dunkley(*)       VIC      LP      1.02    3.36
Brough, Malcolm     Longman          QLD      LP      8.13   11.59
Cameron, Ross       Parramatta(*)    NSW      LP      7.11    3.87
Causley, Ian        Page(*)          NSW      NP      4.44    4. … 

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