Younger generations are not voting for the Liberal party or following the ABC in the same numbers. This won’t change without a radical shift

The Guardian | July7, 2023 | Trent Zimmerman

As a former politician and someone who has spent plenty of time in front of an ABC microphone, it strikes me that the Liberal party and the public broadcaster have more in common than most of their respective supporters would care to admit when it comes to facing the challenge of their future relevance.

It’s a proposition that might horrify many in Liberal ranks and diehard ABC audiences alike. Yet both institutions face the threat of demographic trends.

In short, younger generations are not voting for the Liberal party or following the ABC in the same numbers as their older peers. This won’t change without a radical shift in approach by the two. Unlike in decades past, young people are also not replenishing their support base as they grow older.

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The ABC and the Liberal party face the double-edged sword of a loyal but shrinking core audience combined with a reluctance to countenance the change needed to keep relevant.

We have witnessed this in the debate, marked by some uproar, surrounding the ABC’s new five-year plan and the diversion of resources for its digital transformation.

Young voters are leaving the Liberal party

For the Liberal party, there is a shopping basket of issues which led to its defeat in May 2022 federal election. Many were leadership and policy-related matters, but what should be most worrying for it is the underlying demographic trend evident in the election result.

While the Liberal party lost voters across a number of demographics – including women, professionals and some in major multicultural communities – what is most stark is its decline in support among younger cohorts. In fact, only one in four Gen Z voters gave the Coalition a first preference vote.

Those resisting a change in approach within the Liberal party will argue that younger voters have always been inclined to vote left but come to the centre-right as they age. That was the case in the past, but more detailed analysis shows it’s not true today.

Last month, the Centre for Independent Studies released a new and compelling report which found that Millennials and Gen Z voters are not moving to the Coalition as they age in the numbers of previous generations. This poses an existential threat to the Liberal party’s election prospects over the next 15 years.

The Liberal party must reconnect with younger voters – both in outreach but, more importantly, in ensuring liberal values adapt to their policy issues if it is to have a long-term future as a governing party.

Innovation is the way forward for the ABC

Within the media landscape, the challenges faced by the ABC are not unique. All forms of traditional media – what Malcolm Turnbull liked to call “curated media” – have faced the revolution of content consumption driven particularly by social media and on-demand services. Such platforms have offered consumers more choice and convenience.

This is particularly pronounced among younger Australians. I have spoken to many in their late teens and 20s who never watch a full-length news bulletin or read a newspaper, online or in print. Instead, most of their news will come from the short clips they see on social media.

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For other content, younger Australians are more likely to watch on-demand video rather than free-to-air linear services (in a more than two-to-one ratio, according to a report from Deloitte). In contrast, baby boomers remain likely to watch more free-to-air services rather than streaming services.

There lies the rub for the ABC – its existing audience, and I suspect many within the organisation itself, are more content with its traditional formats and they struggle to understand why resources would be diverted to the digital transition outlined by managing director, David Anderson. Yet its future relevance and ultimately support depends on it going down this path. As ABC journalist, Leigh Sales, has been quoted as saying, “it’s change or death.”

The ABC will need to continue a conversation with its audience about these changes. Its decision to make one of the nation’s most respected journalists, Andrew Probyn, redundant, has not helped in that journey. However, the ABC’s management is right to recognise it must reach new audiences in the format they want to receive content and news.

In this regard, it would do well to look at the example of its sister public broadcaster, SBS, which identified much earlier the need to innovate and adapt. It has proven much nimbler in delivery and content – the wild (pun intended) success of Alone Australia is an example of that approach.

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If I think of my own viewing patterns, I am so often drawn to the diversity of SBS On Demand rather than the ABC’s iView (with a reprieve for the new season of Utopia). SBS has invested in new technology, as demonstrated by its capacity to intuitively provide services in 60 languages including in-language login and navigation of its streaming services.

The method of delivery for ABC broadcasting, news and content is only part of the challenges our national broadcaster is facing. The nature of content itself will require calibration and change to reach new audiences, as will its response to the decline of radio audiences in metropolitan markets.

Yet just as for the Liberal party, as hard as change can be, it must come.

Trent Zimmerman is a former federal member for North Sydney