After one of the most unpredictable, unstable and polemical parliamentary terms in living memory, the calling of the election for 18 May finally brings the curtain down on the 45th Parliament. The eventual election result is likely to be closer than the previous polls have indicated – with the Coalition trailing Labor in the last 51 Newspolls.
There may not be much of a nation-wide swing, but rather patchy regional swings with different states registering different outcomes. One of Labor’s biggest hurdles to overcome maybe that most people and almost all commentators believe Labor will win comfortably; this can become a tricky two-edged sword when campaigning.
So, what will this election be about? It is a well-worn cliché to claim it will be about the ‘hearts and minds’ of Australian electors. With the high levels of disillusionment and negative attitudes towards politicians and major political parties, the election is likely to become mired by voters opting for the least-worst alternatives. So, the election will represent different things to different people; largely because of the nihilistic fragmentation and tribal atomisation of our demographic constituencies. What we will see is a series of mini-elections taking place with different regional dynamics, and no general consensus about the vote changing issues.
The election battleground will take place across three important domains: the contest over values and visions; the battle of policy ideas and issue-promotion; and the dynamics of the campaign itself which will count in who eventually wins office.Electors will not be weighing up these three domains collectively but more probably focusing on selected aspects to reaffirm their pre-existing opinions.
Elections were once far more about value clashes and competing visions for the future of Australia. Today, these factors are less important but still resonate. The question many will ask themselves is: who do they trust to deliver better government?Or at least better than the alternative - as most astute political scientists believe, people vote against what they most dislike rather than vote for what they prefer. Trust is an important value but is composed on many contending assessments but primarily on what has occurred in the past not what might happen in the future – what leaders or parties have or haven’t done, what their competing records suggest, whether they have impressed or disappointed in the past.
Trust is often a simile for competence, steadiness and stability in governing. A reputation for competence is hard to establish yet easy to dissemble. The revolving door of prime ministers since 2010 has hardly helped the main parties claiming competence. Already this has seen the rise in importance of ‘open and honest government’ in annualised opinion poll surveys with almost 30% or voters claiming it is the biggest issue for them.
Leadership is another prism through which to judge value or vision determinations – who do people want to govern them, who do they believe is up to the job, or has the best team? We are not totally presidential with a disproportionate emphasis on the rival leaders, but who has the last say as the political leader is a crucial factor for many voters. Earning respect rather than displaying likeability is perhaps the main ingredient of leadership, as the battle between John Howard and Mark Latham in 2004 demonstrated.
Once again, Labor is stressing its version of ‘fairness’ as a social and industrial value feeding into aspirations of redress to motivate voter base. For Labor this involves reimposing penalty rates for casual workers, a ‘living wage’ and tax relief or increased family payments to those on minimum incomes, and a review of the Newstart allowance. It also means fanning the politics of envy and mounting a rallying cry for a ‘referendum on wages’, with a sub-text for restoring union power.
On the flip side, disunity and infighting which has characterised the Coalition parties in office are a serious detriment to parties big or small. Voters punish poor leadership or leadership vacuums; and generally dislike leadership challenges based purely on personal ambition. Poor track records and an inability to manage one’s own affairs cost parties more than they can ‘earn’ on the policy promises front.
We should also acknowledge the steep decline in ‘habit voting’across family generations. No longer do voters only identify with one party that they have supported through thick and thin. They are far more likely now to be ‘promiscuous voters’ – sequentially flirting with their primary vote and preference flows. This is true whether they are living in inner city seats, outer-metropolitan suburbs, or in rural and remote communities. Voter loyalty is irreversibly collapsing, and so we may expect to see more not less independents returned and a not too dissimilar Senate cross-bench.
Elections have been increasingly fought less and less about policy ideas and salient issues. Certainly, parties still release policy statements and press releases, but theseresonate now with a smaller percentage of the electorate. Economic management cannot be discounted as a perennial concern, with employment prospects and infrastructural provision important issues. But the major parties will also mount a more general contest between big government providing more public provision of services versus more restrained government capping spending. Both think they can pay down debt in a decade, but only the most naïve optimist will believe this claim.
Health and educational spending always gains a guernsey and gives politicians something to campaign on at the local level. Labor’s $2.3 billion splurge on cancer treatment seems generous but inequitable to those with other major health problems.
Much will be made of the rival tax plans of the main protagonists – which while very similar in scope have the Coalition offering a flatter tax and lower levels of direct taxes over the medium term(reducing tax to 30 cents in the dollar for those earning up to $200,000 by 2024). Labor has offered marginally more to lower income earners, but not to match to the Coalition’s structural tax cuts nor to further business tax cuts (despite Bill Shorten advocating this in one of his earlier budget reply speeches). Laborhas also opted to slug landlords and retirees some $200 billion over 10 years, but may have over-estimated how much these measures will actually raise because investors will reconfigure their investments or change their behaviour.
Pertinent issues have also emanated from households on which the parties can say or do little. Cost of living pressures are rated as the number one issue facing families by 52.7% in opinion polling. Better government and less duplicity is also a big issue for many swinging voters.
A grab-bag of environmental concerns will resonate in wealthy inner city urban areas with most employment in the service sectors and high tertiary education levels. Climate change will particularly influence younger voters, who supposedly now hate coal, funnelled into hostility to the Adani mine in Queensland However, given our love of the passenger vehicle, the tortuous adoption of electric cars has emerged as a vote-splitter – with Labor advocating surreal take-up targets and the Coalition defending ‘tradies’ with SUVs running a campaign to ‘save our utes’ – both somewhat mindboggling logics.
It will be important for both major parties to continue to compete to be seen as the underdogs, hoping notto give the impression a win is assuredwhile holding out for a late surge in support. Although some positive campaign messages have been promoted to date, expect vehement negative campaigning especially in social media, but also in mainstream media, in local campaigning and in doorstop interviews. Spoiler tactics and rent-a-crowd faux protests will recur frequently to the annoyance of anyone intending to prosecute more serious discussion of matters. The major parties have so many party staff depending on the result they will throw caution to the wind as the campaign progresses. I doubt that simple slogans about ‘tax reductions’ versus claims about fictitious ‘cuts’ in projected spending will last the entire campaign or motivate wavering supporters.
Most importantly to the parties will be the preferences shown by the voters of minor parties and independents, especially given that the primary vote may end up 1/3 Coalition, 1/3 Labor and 1/3 others. Maybe up to 60% of the seats will be determined by preference flows of non-major parties but also of the major parties in many selected seats. Liberal preferences will be crucial in inner city seats like Melbourne, Macnamara, Cooper, Higgins and Wills, or Grayndler and perhaps Sydney, and maybe Griffith or Brisbane. Labor preferences will be key in seats such as Wentworth, Warringah, Flinders, Kooyong, Mayo and Indi. But most of the preferential flows will come from One Nation, Palmer’s UAP, the Greens and notable independents;which means preference flows will determine upwards of 100 seats at the election.
Primarily the election will be lost rather than won; reflecting Australians persistent and mounting disaffection, increasing apathy and temptation to lodge protest votes. This will encourage increased early voting leaving the latter half of the campaign somewhat arid with the protagonists talking to just on 50% of the electorate. I suppose many will be simply waiting to get it over rather than enjoying the campaign.
This is an edited version of an article written for Griffith University. Professor Wanna is the Sir John Bunting Chair of Public Administration and holds a joint appointment with Griffith University and the Australian National University. The views expressed in the article are his own.