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An electorate divided and entrenched: a tripartite dilemma for Australian politicians

By Graham Young - posted Thursday, 23 September 2004


Australians tend to think of themselves as a fairly homogenous nation.  Based on class we may be, but in this election we are split into at least three radically different groupings. This is one of the conclusions so far from the surveys and interviews we have conducted this election with 1,150 Australians.

When asked whether Australia is heading in the right direction a balanced cross section of these voters is split virtually right down the middle.  Overwhelmingly Liberal Party voters, the largest block, believe we are, while Labor voters disagree, but a bit less overwhelmingly.  Greens voters disagree most emphatically. 

Why the difference? For Liberal voters, the most important factor is the economy. For Labor voters it tends to be about services. And for Greens it is the morality of government and our society; as well as issues like the FTA, war in Iraq, and of course the environment.

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This election, 80 per cent of voters say they are unlikely to change their minds.  That coupled with the heavy polarisation of electors around radically different mindsets suggests that this election will produce a status quo result with very little movement.  Not that electors are divided on everything.  When it comes to the leaders they are equally dismissive of each. 

For most voters, "Honest John" has disappeared to be replaced by the “lying rodent”.  He is seen as representing sectional interest, particularly his own in being reelected.  There is open contempt for some of the more prominent members of his team, and interestingly it is coalition voters who are more worried about a Costello succession than Labor ones. 

This respondent summed it up “… It started with Stan Howard and ended with Abu Ghraib. In short, lies and insincerity, nepotism (see the spam), 'mateism', and, yuk, 'toadyism'.  Do I have to spell that out?”

Yet in an uncertain world, these are traits that many voters don’t necessarily mind having work for them.  In a sense they do “trust” John Howard.

When it comes to Latham, the concerns go to his lack of experience, a perception that he is a bully, the team behind him (the NSW ALP machine and Simon Crean both get frequent mentions), that he is unstable, and that he might just be another John Howard.  One respondent said, “I sense that, like Howard, he is not a very nice person.  Whether he is a ruthless and scheming liar like Howard remains unknown.  You never know how they drive until they get behind the wheel.” 

Policy announcements aren’t convincing voters to change their vote.  Most are confused about the details and concentrate on the negative aspects.  Latham’s tax and family policy is perceived as being about penalising low-income earners and fudging the $600 child payment.  Howard is perceived not to have a tax policy, because it was all in the budget, which has been forgotten.  Education boils down to Howard’s negatives on HECS versus Latham’s class war against private schools. Medicare? Who can tell the two policies apart.  On national security Latham has made up some ground. Some voters warm to his emphasis on regional defence, yet at the same time others see him as dangerously undiplomatic.

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The Jakarta bombing hasn’t had a major effect on our voters.  While national security is an issue for them, it is matched by a determination not to act hysterically in response to an incident.  There is an apprehension that last election they may have done so in response to the Tampa. On the issue of hostage taking our sample (a focus group, so its opinion should be tested on a larger group) was unanimous – the Australian government should never give in to blackmail.  Terrorists take note.

Given the entirely different psychologies of the separate groups of voters, only those few issues where there is an immediate personal risk are cutting through.  Interest rates is one of these. While it isn’t a top of mind issue, it is not far from the surface.  Voters are aware of how fragile their own personal circumstances would be under just a small increase in rates, and what that would do to the overall economy. This is not necessarily good news for the government.  Australians have a sophisticated understanding of economics, and for every one who remembers rates of 22.5 per cent under Keating, another believes that governments have no influence over their level.

In summary, this election appears to be a contest between a man no-one likes, but many respect, and another no-one knows.  The prospects for a change of government hinge on whether voters think that things are travelling so well that they can afford to take the risk, or that badly that they need to take the risk.  The quandary for the politicians is that our three different groups think so differently that satisfying one group could alienate the others. 

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A version of this article was also published in The Courier Mail on Wednesday, 22nd September, 2004.



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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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