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.