Any Australian election campaign follows a fixed pattern. Daily photo opportunities masquerading as policy announcements are interspersed with debate stoushes and then the debates themselves. Somewhere in the final two or three weeks the campaign launch is held. And also around that time, the expectations game begins.
The rules of the expectations game are simple: make the voters think the election outcome is finely balanced and that every single vote counts. This is a time-honoured way of managing the protest vote. It’s preferable for any political party to be perceived as the underdog at that point in the campaign, running slightly behind, than to have an unassailable lead.
Election outcomes that are seen as a sure thing can lead voters into thinking they can afford to lodge a protest vote against the inevitable outcome, safe in the knowledge they won’t be responsible for altering its certainty. When enough voters think they can harmlessly protest in this way, they can inadvertently tip the election pendulum and produce unexpected election outcomes.
The most recent examples of this phenomenon happened at the State level in the 1990s. Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett entered the 1999 state election campaign with a seemingly unassailable lead but lost to fresh-faced newbie Opposition Leader Steve Bracks because he hadn’t bothered to manage the protest vote. Victorians who voted against The Jeff mostly likely just wanted to give him a boot up the arse, not throw him from office altogether. And yet that’s what they ended up doing.
A similar fate almost befell another Liberal Premier in 1991. New South Welshmen and women came close to tossing out Nick Greiner that year when he called a snap election to capitalise on a strong lead in the polls and was predicted to be easily re-elected. Greiner ended up with a minority government instead.
While one could argue that the fate of two former Liberal Premiers has little import for the current Leader of the Federal Liberal Party, it’s clear Labor has commenced the expectations game early and is attempting to manage the protest vote against Abbott. It’s mostly a ‘saving the furniture’ strategy but with a bit of wishful thinking thrown in for one of those ‘unexpected’ election results.
Gillard supporter and potential future Labor leader Bill Shorten said on Friday:
‘There is no doubt in my mind that if the polls are correct Tony Abbott would win in a landslide. So the question then is, what does an Abbott government look like if the polls are correct and stay this way?’
Admittedly, Shorten later backed away from this statement, worried that it was being depicted as a sign of no confidence in Gillard, but it was clearly part of a strategy to mobilise a protest vote against Abbott.
While not going as far as Shorten, his Gillard-supporter Cabinet colleagues followed the same strategy earlier in the week. Communications Minister Stephen Conroy said Abbott would cancel construction of the NBN to new premises should he win the September federal election. Industry and Climate Change Minister Greg Combet said Abbott would not scrap the carbon tax.
Their subliminal message is that although Abbott’s election is inevitable, it’s not too late to voice your protest and rein in his post-election power.
Greens leader Christine Milne is employing a similar strategy, conceding an Abbott victory even before votes are lodged in the hope of gaining enough protest votes for the Greens to keep the balance of power in the Senate.
Granted, these attempts at marshalling the protest vote may be an entirely misguided strategy. Perhaps Kennett and Greiner are not the relevant case studies; see contemporary State Liberal Leaders such as O’Farrell (2011), Newman (2012) and Barnett (2013), who all converted huge poll leads into landslide election results.
Each of these leaders tapped into voter disenchantment with a tired and discredited Labor Party. Each leader offered a clear alternative. And each promised stable and competent government. Voters responded by flocking to them in droves: O’Farrell’s Liberals achieved a 14.16% swing, Newman got an 8.05% boost, and Barnett stormed home with an 8.71% increase. Abbott appears to be in for an equally impressive tide, currently tracking at around 6%.
The similarity doesn’t end there. Each of the successful State Liberal triumvirate led their opponents as the preferred Premier leading into the election, but not all had a higher net satisfaction rating (with Barnett, the only incumbent Premier of this group, trailing his Labor opponent).
The other distinguishing feature of these three elections is how the Green vote diminished over time. The 2011 NSW election (seven months after the Greens saw their highest national vote ever at the 2010 federal election) saw the minor party’s vote increase by around two percent. But by the Queensland election in 2012 the Green vote was coming off the boil, with a one percent swing against them. This had deteriorated to a three percent swing against them at the WA election in 2013.
This downward trend in support for the Greens suggests a growing level of disenchantment with them that will be reflected in this year’s federal election result. Having reached a peak of 11.8% in the House of Representatives and 13.1% in the Senate at the 2010 election by providing a lightning rod for the protest vote, the Greens are now registering 9% for the HoR and 11% for the Senate in the most recent published polls.
Labor voters who turned to the Greens in protest in 2010 are now turning away again. The lightning rod has turned to lead. Fifty percent of voters now believe minority government has been bad for Australia and only 25% support the independents and Greens having the balance of power in the Senate. This means the protest vote will be looking for a new home at this election. The smart money will be on the party that manages them the best.
Former Labor State Secretary and Minister, Graham Richardson, will go down in history as Australian politics’ greatest protest vote-wrangler. The second preference strategy he devised to save Labor’s bacon in 1990 cleverly acknowledged voters’ anger with the Hawke Government by saying ‘we don’t deserve your first preference vote, but please give us your second’. This strategy, paired with preference swaps and a strong marginal seats campaign, delivered Labor victory with more seats than the Coalition but less votes.
The protest vote is a fickle beast, beholden to no-one and difficult to manage. This year it will be more unpredictable than ever, even taking the Coalition’s strong lead into account. For Labor, effective management of the protest vote could turn a rout into a respectable loss. For the Greens, it could mean salvation from irrelevancy and impending oblivion.
And for Tony Abbott, good management of any protest will secure him a place in the history books as the only Liberal Leader to take his party to victory despite one of the highest disapproval ratings ever.
As well as a thumping mandate to do pretty much whatever he pleases.
This post first appeared at The King’s Tribune.
Battalions of straw men sprung to life last week, conjured to defend the heretofore-unassailable political edifice known as Australia’s compulsory voting system.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard led the charge, tweeting:
Fight @theqldpremier’s plan to end compulsory voting. Don’t let the Liberals make our democracy the plaything of cashed-up interest groups.
Somewhat inconveniently, the ABC’s Antony Green pointed out that former prime minister Kevin Rudd had also encouraged a discussion on non-compulsory voting back in 2009.
The PM’s call to arms was followed by a flurry of similarly strident tweets. Many expressed horror at the thought of Campbell Newman oxymoronically taking away someone’s freedom by no longer forcing them to vote.
Almost any suggestion that non-compulsory voting could have merit was met with fervent and obdurate rejection.
Compulsory voting proponents vowed that a voluntary system in Australia would undoubtedly follow the US model, beset as it is with disenfranchisement and extremists, and not that of the UK or New Zealand, which is not. US-like ruination was apparently only a matter of time for the 20 other OECD nations that currently allow voluntary voting.
Some supporters defended the compulsion to vote as defence of a right, while others saw it as imposition of a responsibility. “People died so that we can vote,” said one. “Voting is a duty,” said another, “we might as well opt out of other ‘public good’ responsibilities like paying tax and wearing seatbelts.”
A few even tried to have it both ways, arguing that the compulsory vote is actually voluntary because one only has to turn up and not necessarily cast a vote. The Electoral Commission has (also inconveniently) challenged that argument as a common fallacy.
But if the partisan jibes and straw defenders could be set aside, it would become clear that the debate about whether or not a vote should be compelled is really one about political engagement. Many of the arguments raised against voluntary voting rely upon the resigned assumption that, given their druthers, most people could not be bothered voting.
This is the real issue that should be debated and resolved, not a scarecrow battle over compulsory versus voluntary voting.
Compulsory voting may have bestowed Australia with an admirable participation rate, but other statistics show we’re considerably disengaged from politics and becoming more so. As the Australian Electoral Commission rather euphemistically said in its analysis of informal voting at the 2010 federal election, “a challenge remains to maximise electors’ potential participation in the electoral process”.
In the 2010 federal election, the informal vote was the biggest it’s ever been since 1984, rising from 3.95 per cent at the 2007 election to 5.5 per cent. But unintentional informal votes – being those with incomplete numbering showing either a misunderstanding of what’s required or confusion with state election voting processes – actually decreased between the two elections.
It was the level of intentional informal votes that rose, now representing 48.6 per cent of all informal votes. The rate of blank ballots doubled, with more than a quarter of all informal votes cast in the 2010 election being left unmarked. The proportion of informal votes defaced with scribbles, slogans or other protest marks also increased, off a low of 6.4 per cent in 2001 to around 14 per cent in 2007 and 17 per cent in 2010.
Some might be tempted to dismiss this result as the work of Mark Latham, but that would ignore the fact noted by Peter Brent that the informal vote has been on the rise since 1993 with the exception of the 2007 federal election.
Claims that the compulsory vote makes Australians value their democratic choice are as insubstantial as straw man defenders. In 2010, almost a million of the 14 million Australians enrolled to vote simply did not bother to go to a polling booth. Another 1.4 million eligible voters were missing from the electoral roll altogether. And this number has since grown to 1.5 million.
So in 2010, within Australia’s supposedly optimal and indisputably preferable compulsory voting system, an estimated 3.2 million Australians or 21 per cent of eligible adults were either not on the electoral roll, did not turn up to vote, or lodged an informal vote. As Brian Costar and Peter Browne observed at the time, that’s equivalent to 33 federal seats. It also represents a whopping $7 million in electoral funding that never made it to political party coffers.
The compulsory vote may partially disguise Australians’ political disinterest at election time, but there’s no hiding our manifest disengagement at most other times.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics has found that only 19 per cent of adults actively participate in civic and political groups. Alongside the 1 per cent who are active in political parties, 7 per cent participate in a trade union or professional/technical association; 5 per cent in environmental or animal welfare groups; and 4 per cent in body corporate or tenants’ associations.
Perhaps the starkest indication of all is a 2011 opinion poll which found only 10 per cent of respondents follow politics closely. This proportion was quite consistent regardless of political preference and age group, except for over 55s who had a higher level of interest at 17 per cent.
Is it any wonder then that our democracy is looking a little shabby? It’s dependent upon the vote, regardless of whether it’s considered or informed, of citizens forced to attend a polling station on election day. Surely the objective of any democracy should be for voters to value their democratic right enough to participate in political discourse and processes between elections and turn out in force on polling day to cast a considered, informed ballot.
We’re missing the point arguing over the merits of voluntary voting. We should instead be identifying and implementing ways to help Australians better understand and participate in the nation’s democratic processes. This would require more than a one-off civics course in school; it would involve comprehensive and longitudinal exposure to different forms of government, political philosophies and types of engagement; experience in negotiating and advocacy; and immersion in everyday political discourse.
Once our citizens were truly engaged, they would genuinely value their vote and vigorously exercise it. The straw man defence of compulsory voting would be dispersed in the wind. It’s hard to not also conclude that the more citizens there were who decided their vote on policy comparisons instead of fridge magnets, the better quality our politicians and governments would be. Another ancillary benefit would be that viewers and readers would demand better political reporting and analysis from the media too.
Yes, this approach to civil engagement would be challenging and something that no democracy has ventured before. Is that a reason not to do it? Or is it easier to not do something because the US does it badly?
If we can make better coffee and pizza than the Yanks, why can’t we make a better voluntary voting system too?
This post originally appeared at ABC’s The Drum. The comments are well worth reading.
This morning Australian voters woke to read that the tide has turned on Prime Minister Gillard, with the Herald/Nielsen poll showing the Coalition now leading on a two-party-preferred basis.
The commentariat are saying that the bell is tolling for Gillard. This interpretation may sell papers, but it is wrong. We are still three whole weeks out from polling day. Previous contemporary elections have shown that around 5-10% voters do not firmly make up their minds until the last week. 2-3% do not decide until THE DAY. This percentage is still enough to decide the election.
Today’s poll shows nothing more than an expression of protest by those voters not happy with this week’s ALP campaign. It costs voters nothing to shift their “vote” around during the weeks of the campaign. What they tell pollsters they will do, and how they actually DO vote are two different things.
A more interesting result from the poll is that 69% expect Labor will win the election, while only 21% believe the coalition will. Another is that 21% of voters have not yet firmly made up their minds.
This reflects the wormers’ views after Sunday night’s Leaders’ Debate – when asked to finally choose between Gillard and Abbott, the vast majority chose the PM.
Today’s poll is nothing more than a wakeup call for protest voters. Expect Labor to press the point – do voters unhappy with Julia Gillard REALLY want Tony Abbott to be their next Prime Minister?
If votes swing back, then the superficial protest will be confirmed. If the trend remains, then we can start to toll the bell for Julia.