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Protest vote did not decide the outcome

By Graham Young - posted Monday, 30 August 2010


There are always winners and losers who want to blur our vision.

In this respect Labor provides the first round of election-result rationalisations to critique, reflecting the fact that Tony Abbott did better than most expected. Indeed, they were framing the result even before it had arrived.

In early August, Kevin Rudd justified his re-emergence on the basis that he needed to stop "Mr Abbott from slid[ing] quietly into the office of prime minister". Julia Gillard had used the theme the day before, saying he was trying to "sneak into the Lodge".

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Both were worried about a protest vote campaign where a government everyone expects to win loses to an opposition people think won't. Voters use the opposition to protest and accidentally turf the government out.

This is why in the last weeks Labor was saying the election was on a knife edge, but to little avail. Just before the election, Newspoll showed 59 per cent thought the government would win and 24 per cent didn't.

So the protest vote could have been a factor. But was it?

We can test the proposition. The protest vote leaves a distinctive fingerprint, with larger swings in safe seats than marginal ones. Voters in marginals realise that their vote counts and are less likely to protest.

Plotting the results of a protest vote election produces a saucer-shaped trend, with the smallest swings in the middle and largest swings on the outside.

The results of this election produce a flattish trend line. That doesn't mean that swings were uniform. They weren't, with some of the largest and smallest swings occurring in marginals, and they went in both directions. This says there was no overall sentiment across the country and that local factors counted.

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It's not surprising that there was no clear protest vote. Both sides were unanimous the election was going to be close. Abbott was emphatic that you "had to change the government". Had he played for the protest vote, the result may have been quite different.

Labor pin-up Maxine McKew claims that she lost because of the knifing of Rudd, and because the party turned away from the emissions trading system.

Our database of responses from the election allows us to assess these claims. Climate change was undoubtedly a factor. Out of 2,151 respondents in our last poll, 446 (21 per cent) nominated "climate" or "warming" as the issues they had wanted to hear more about in the campaign.

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First published in The Australian August 28, 2010.



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About the Author

Graham Young is chief editor and the publisher of On Line Opinion. He is executive director of the Australian Institute for Progress, an Australian think tank based in Brisbane, and the publisher of On Line Opinion.

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