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28 May 2019

The Austalian election is a fascinating case study for political scientists

Alexander Downer

ALEXANDER DOWNER: The pollsters got it wrong again

Australian flag
Australian flag

The recent Australian election is a fascinating case study for political scientists. Here are four aspects worth examining.


First, the published polls were all wrong. The exit poll on the day predicted the left-of-centre Labor Party would defeat the incumbent right-of-centre Liberal National Party government 52 to 48. The previous day’s poll showed a similar result: 51.5 to Labor, 48.5 to the LNP. Polls throughout the previous three weeks showed that while the gap was narrowing, Labor was always ahead. What happened? The LNP won 52 to 48.


Australia has preferential voting, or AV. Pollsters estimate the primary votes of the parties and then calculate the distribution of preferences from minor candidates to produce a two-party preferred figure. So one claim is the pollsters miscalculated the preference flows. Perhaps, but they substantially over-estimated Labor’s primary vote (37% against an actual outcome of 33.5%) and under-estimated the LNP vote (38% as against an outcome of 41%). The usual excuse that the pollsters miscalculated turnout is also irrelevant as voting in Australia is compulsory.


As in the US and the UK, the polls over-estimated the Left vote. In the case of last week’s Australian election, it was the worst performance by pollsters anyone can remember.


Secondly, the Google Trends test did get the election right. This is an analysis of the use of Google search in the lead up to the vote. It showed two things. First, the public were searching more for information on the LNP than Labor. The same analysis shows that in the lead up to the 2016 US presidential election, there were more Trump searches than Clinton searches. That suggests voters were leaning towards the party or person they chose to search.


Of equal interest is the analysis of the issues searched. At the Australian election, there were more than five times as many searches for tax issues than searches for climate change. This is important. The LNP campaigned relentlessly on the danger of tax rises under Labor and the benefit of the LNP tax cuts. Labor campaigned on a policy package which increased taxes on savings and property as well as the rich in order to fund big increases in spending on health, education and welfare. Labor also made a significant issue of climate change, promising a near doubling of renewables, setting targets for electric cars and committing substantial funding for CO2 mitigation – funding which was uncosted. Judged by Google searches, the LNP priorities gained more traction than Labor’s.


Thirdly, the election exposed the gulf between the priorities of highly educated elites and everyday Australians. The elites were focused in particular on climate change policies. The need for Australia to increase its efforts to reduce CO2 emissions was also the major issue for a number of “progressive” media outlets such as the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and several online and published newspapers. Elites also sympathised with Labor’s ambition to increase taxes to provide more funding for services and infrastructure.


For middle- and lower-income families, these issues were unattractive. Spending more on climate change seemed at best esoteric. If Labor could have demonstrated that by spending hundreds of billions of dollars on climate change initiatives – which would also have meant higher power prices – that it would reduce the temperature by a measurable amount, then well and good. The sacrifice would be worthwhile. But of course voters know the sacrifice would only be for a totemic gain; it would be virtue signalling. Australia’s emissions as a global percentage are too small have any tangible impact.


On the other hand, suburban Australia feared the impact of higher taxes: taxes on savings, on property, on capital and some income earners. The promise by Labor to spend more on certain services, which Labor hoped would offset concerns about higher taxes, wasn’t well received. The public want better, more efficient services but are sceptical that just spending more of their money will help. On balance, middle Australia would rather spend their own money than give it to the government to spend.


These different attitudes were reflected seat by seat. Labor and other progressive candidates did well in high-income seats which had traditionally been LNP strongholds. With a couple of exceptions, they did not do well enough to win those seats.


But there was a swing against Labor in the lower-income seats. That’s where Labor lost the election.


This is a phenomenon seen elsewhere. Labor was seen since its foundation over 100 years ago as the party of the workers. Working class Australians were its base. The LNP were regarded by Labor as the party of the “silvertails”, of business and landowners. This has gradually changed. Labor has become more middle class, more focused on social liberalism, affirmative action for so-called victim groups and big government spending programs. Its most vociferous support groups are educationalists, civil servants and some professionals.


The LNP has pitched more successfully to “the quiet Australians”, the people who are uninterested in politics and go about their private lives without complaint. More than that, many traditional working class Australians – such as miners – vote solidly for the LNP.


Finally, there was a side issue in the Australian election: the sacking of Israel Folau by Rugby Australia for posting on social media that homosexuals would go to hell unless they repented. Not many Australians would agree with Folau but it led to a simmering concern about freedom of religion. The prime minister – and leader of the LNP – is an evangelical Christian. Although he did not comment on the controversy, Labor sought unwisely but subtly to politicise the issue. Australians may not be deeply religious as many Americans are, but they do value their freedoms. Freedom of religion is axiomatic and there is a strong sense that religion is a private matter, not one for the state.

Alexander Downer is a former Australian High Commissioner to the UK, and now Executive Chair of the International School for Government at King's College London.

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