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Votercam reporting - a street-level view of the New South Wales election

By Graham Young - posted Friday, 7 March 2003


How would sports fans feel if sporting reportage was limited to what Wayne Carey might have done in the Spa, Tatiana Grigorieva's day at the races or Shane Warne's SMS service? Unhappy and alienated? Or worse? But sports reporting in this country is exemplary, even from the point of view of a non-fan like me. The various programmes use a mix of journalists and ex-players to ensure that the coverage flows with flair and insight. To this they add analytical techniques from the time-honoured, like the action replay, through to the avant garde like stump cams. I can't imagine watching a first-rate football match without Stirlo or one of the boys circling players on screen to show the overlap or demonstrate the options.

But that is not how we cover elections, with the result that most electors are further alienated from the process. Election reporting, when it is not capturing the tableaux and summarising the policies and promises, is little more than retailing of gossip. The only exception to that is opinion polling; and even that is little more than keeping track of the half-time score.

That is why On Line Opinion started its On Line Focus website. The purpose of the site is to give a players' and voters' view (and in politics voters are not a passive audience, they are players as well) of what is happening, why, and just as importantly, what could have happened and what is still possible. To make this work we have used the economies of the Internet, to run relatively cheap and effective quantitative questionnaires and qualitative focus groups - the tools that politicians use to "see" on the field of play. Added to this we have enlisted retired players from opposing sides to direct the angles and perform the analysis. When we conducted research into the Federal Election it was Mike Kaiser and me, in concert with Professor John Wanna from Griffith University. In the New South Wales election campaign it is me and Tim Grau from Springboard Australia.

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A combination of publicly available opinion polling, our less statistically rigorous polls from the site, our focus groups, experience, insights, skills and guile allowed us to pick many things in the federal election missed by conventional journalists. For example, in their early ads the ALP targetted John Howard's refusal to commit to a full term. They pulled them after a couple of nights. Why? Well, you won't get them to admit this, but we know from our qual that it was because people thought that Howard was being open and honest, and they preferred that to any secret Kirribilli pacts to change leaders like that between Keating and Hawke.

It was also because it shifted the debate away from the leaders onto their deputies. While the conventional view was that voters thought Costello was "mean, tricky and out of touch", in fact what they were thinking was that in a contest between Costello and Crean, Costello trumped Crean. So, a major flaw in the ALP campaign was its succession planning, something that is all too evident at the moment. The ALP should have been grilled over this key flaw in their strategy, and they weren't.

So much for the theory: what is actually happening in the NSW election? Well, the polls pretty much have it picked at the moment, and I don't think on the basis of what we have seen that anything much is going to change, although there are some viable lines of attack, particularly for the Greens. The most recent Morgan Poll puts the ALP at 62 per cent on a two-party preferred vote with the Coalition on 38 per cent. Most voters are unimpressed with the campaigns. Labor voter Buck (rtf file, 35Kb) said that it was "…usual bull about law and order…", while usually Liberal-voting small businessman Jim said politicians were talking about "…education and police - same crap". They also expect Labor to win.

In these circumstances, where an election is not seen to be particularly important and where there is an expectation that one side will win handsomely, voters often have a tendency to balance the ledger by voting for the under-dog - the so-called 'protest vote'. There is a possibility of that in this election.

Voters are unenthusiastic about Carr, although they see him as capable. When asked what makes them hesitate before voting for him they invariably nominate his Ministers, starting with Carl Scully, and generally including Michael Egan and Michael Costa. This is not an overwhelming problem for Carr. Even Liberal-voting Susan says he "… has the ability to control some of his thuggy and dopey ministers". I found it interesting that voters nominated people rather than issues as the hesitations, yet when probed on issues, voters had plenty of opinions, and plenty of dissatisfactions. This suggests that the Liberal Party has not been successful in changing concerns into actions.

The issues were "crime and safety, health and education". There was a perception that Sydney was being nourished to the detriment of the regions. Roads was an issue, as were crime and taxes. Almost unanimously, our group wanted better services but they weren't prepared to pay higher taxes to get them, believing that they could be funded from more efficient government.

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So while generally happy, there are some itches wanting to be scratched. But if there is to be a protest vote, there has to be an acceptable vehicle for it. Unfortunately for the Liberal Party, the Liberals do not meet voters' minimum expectations. While fundraising concerns may have driven the execution of Kerry Chikarovski, this does not appear to have done the Liberal Party in general, or John Brogden in particular, any favours. Voters know what they are getting with Carr, but are unsure with Brogden. They worry about his youth and inexperience, and his consistency. Labor voter Helen made a telling point when she said: "I read about how brogden hated his Dad, but today on the news there he was kissing his dad. What gives????" There is also a perception of him as the smiling assassin, anxious to please, and with blood on his hands.

It would be wrong to represent their concerns as being primarily with Brogden. It appeared to be as much a concern about the party. Liberal voter Jim said "The Liberals are still lost". Shennanigans and allegations of corruption in the Manly-Warringah Council created an impression that the Liberal Party was at least as corrupt as Labor, aided by the ghost of Premier Askin. As a result of Brogden's lack of a defined public persona and the institutional weakness of the Liberal Party the Coalition has a huge problem harvesting the protest vote. Voters agree with Brogden when he enunciates their concerns about particular issues, like health and education, but they believe that Labor is better placed to deal with them.

Some issues are playing differently to the predictions of many commentators. There is no evidence that the War against Terror, and the Probable War against Iraq, are driving electors to seek refuge in the safe-and-secure and to vote for Labor because they represent the status quo. It might be comforting to Liberals to believe this as an exculpation of their woeful record in recent state elections, but there is no evidence for it. There were also predictions that Law and Order would play a big part in the campaign and move votes. Instead we found that Law and Order as an issue has actually changed radically in character, at least in New South Wales.

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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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First focus group transcript (rtf file, 35 Kb)
On Line Focus NSW Election 2003
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