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Jottings on the Victorian State Election

By Graham Young - posted Wednesday, 15 September 1999


There are some surprises from the Victorian Election result, and one of them is that Jeff Kennett did as well as he did. There was always a strong possibility that a protest vote campaign could work, as long as the ALP could get its act together, but if it has won it is for altogether different reasons.

By protest vote campaign I don’t mean just any campaign where people vote against the incumbent. It is a specific type of campaign used when everyone believes that your opponent will win. Reports suggested that in Victoria this may have been 85% of the electorate. It is characterized by a public admission that you are unlikely to win; a tacit concession that you understand that people believe that the other side has done a good job; an assertion that your opponent is arrogant, uncaring and not listening; and a call to action to vote for you as the only way of making him change his behaviour. The aim is not to win on your own merits, but by stealth. You make yourself a small target and concentrate on the Government.

Kennett’s style made him highly vulnerable to such a campaign. He was way out in front at the start, and he is arrogant. That arrogance was played up during the campaign. What other leader would have registered himself as an internet domain name, and then plastered it and his photo all over advertising billboards? And if that wasn’t enough, those of us who clicked onto the website or signed up to receive email had our noses rubbed in it with Jeff’s Grand Prix Racing Game and a macho daily round-up of Jeff’s inexhaustible activity.

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Along the way Jeff’s authoritarian style was highlighted by his purported "gagging" of MP’s (actually no more than a standard campaign discipline) and his secrecy over government decision making. He added to the list by threatening to withhold government largesse if particular areas didn’t vote Liberal.

It seemed to me that there had been a deliberate decision to play up Kennett’s arrogance. It was predictable that the ALP would run a protest vote campaign – there were no other options. The ideal foil to that is a leader who can be humble. That suits a Bob Carr, for example, but not Jeff. So what do you do with a serve and volleyer who is facing a championship match on clay? Teach him baseline play, or reason that the skills that has brought him thus far are the only ones that can take him further? The Victorian Liberal Party did the latter, and I think this actually helped to smother the protest vote campaign.

Now that’s a big call, seeing most commentators, and not a few interested spectators like the Prime Minister, are saying exactly the opposite. But for Australian journalists and political scientists, elections remain the most covered and least understood areas of their beats.

Let’s look at the facts. In a protest vote result there tends to be a donut effect where the marginal seats stay tight and the big movements and wins are in the next round of seats out. This is because the strategy relies on the electorate believing that the incumbent is going to win. In a marginal they know that isn’t necessarily the case and in a safe seat they know that it is, so they behave accordingly.

It is amplified because the major parties target their scarce resources at possible wins or losses with the odds calculated on the numerical margin of safety. If you are in a marginal you know it because of the amount of material in your letter box.

But the size of swings in Victoria wasn’t dictated by the safety margin in the seat, but the region where the seat was located. If anything the safe seats did proportionately better than the marginals.

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This is evidence that Kennett smothered the protest vote. He did it by incessantly talking about the prospects of loss, and playing up the sins of Labor Governments past. My guess, without the benefit of focus groups, is that the "in your face" nature of the campaign helped him because it forcefully reminded people of Kennett achievements. People don’t warm to Kennett, but they respect him, so you have to play to that strength.

Kennett is in trouble for a number of reasons. The first is that there tends to be a reversion to the mean in Australian elections. Electors don’t intentionally give you large majorities unless it is a by-product of punishing your opponent, and then they rectify their generosity at the next election. Kennett had not one but two landslides, so this was a danger election for him. It was also 7 years out from the last Labor Government, long enough for most of the anger to have faded.

The second is that, for regional reasons, a large slice of rural Victoria decided to vote him out, if they could, because they felt he had gutted their services. Politics is a process of coalition building. Kennett had built his coalitions across socio-demographic boundaries in Melbourne, but he had neglected the bush.

The third is the Churchill factor. With most of the reform agenda implemented some voters, rather than rewarding Kennett by keeping him on, were prepared to look at someone who might give them a bit more space to enjoy their place in the sun. Or just felt that it was the other guy’s turn. In the words of the graffiti artist – "No matter who you vote for, you elect another politician." Only politicians and commentators think that the public cares really deeply about who runs the country.

Apart from the protest vote theory, there has also been a One Nation theory trotted out. This is even more spurious. We know that Victoria is one state that was immune to One Nation fever. Victoria is the most multi-cultural state and rejected One Nation’s racist overtones although some of its economic nationalist themes were likely to resonate in Australia’s champion of protectionism. But the One Nation vote in the Federal election was extraordinarily widespread touching working class industrial suburbs as well as regional seats. If this was part of that phenomenon but with Labor the beneficiary, there should have been big swings to Labor in the outer working class areas of Melbourne. Nothing of the like occurred.

In summary, Kennett campaigned as well as he could. It wasn't his arrogance or the protest vote that pulled him down, but the accumulated resentment in regional Victoria for the hard decisions that he had made whilst governing delivered through a considered judgement at the ballot box. It was probably the success of those decisions and his style that allowed him to poll so comparatively well in Melbourne, averting a clear win to Labor.

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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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