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Has Labor found a winning coalition?

By Phil Senior - posted Wednesday, 26 July 2006

On ABC's Insiders last Sunday, Prime Minister John Howard suggested the Coalition would suffer in the opinion polls due to the latest leadership flare-up between himself and Peter Costello.

The latest Nielsen and Newspoll results suggest the Government has escaped relatively unscathed.

However, Labor has maintained a solid advantage, suggesting their relentless industrial relations campaign is biting.


The Nielsen poll showed Labor's has extended its two-party preferred lead only one point, to 52 per cent to 48 per cent. Newspoll also has Labor ahead 52 to 48 per cent, narrowing slightly from the previous result of 53 to 47 per cent.

The lack of swing against the Government suggests that voters learned very little from last week's leadership machinations. The electorate has long seen Howard as less than honest, but seems unconcerned. Voters know that Costello wants the top job and is hoping for a handover before the next election. It now seems clear that Howard will lead the Government to the next election, and the prospect that Costello will challenge is considered remote. Given the prospect of the team they have come to count on continuing "business as usual", it is unsurprising that the Coalition's vote remained steady.

However Labor's continued lead will be a cause for concern for marginal Coalition MPs, a group that includes the Prime Minister himself. Crucially, Labor's primary vote is strong. Nielsen put Labor's primary vote at 41 per cent, its highest in two years, Newspoll at 42 per cent. These are election-winning levels.

This turnaround is due to IR. The WorkChoices reforms are palpably unpopular and Labor has been competitive since their introduction. Given Labor's success criticising the reforms, many (myself included) questioned the wisdom of Kim Beazley's decision to advocate the abolition of AWAs. AWAs are a totemic issue for unions, who see them as a threat to their influence. Beazley's flip-flop on AWAs risked appearing ideologically motivated and painting Labor as beholden to union interests.

However, the move appears to be part of a broader strategy to paint the WorkChoice reforms as a threat to the future of collective bargaining and unionism in Australia. Recall Beazley's statement that "the party I lead will unambiguously be the party of collective bargaining".

While many dismiss Beazley's rhetoric as preaching to the converted, the potential electoral upside from targeting the votes of rank and file union members should not be understated.


The decline in union membership in recent decades has been widely discussed, but the decreasing loyalty of union members has also hurt Labor at the ballot box. If Labor could capture union member votes in greater numbers, they could again be a decisive electoral base.

The Australian Election Study 2004 suggests the Coalition secured the primary vote of one third of union members, 8 per cent of the electorate, roughly 1 million voters. In the 12 most marginal Coalition seats, the Coalition garnered a quarter of union votes.

ACTU secretary Greg Combet recently lamented that the marginal Adelaide seat of Wakefield, which the Coalition secured by 540 votes, has nearly 12,000 union members, but a third probably voted for the Coalition. If Labor could recapture a substantial portion of this, its natural constituency, it would have a winning coalition.

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First published in The Courier-Mail on July 21, 2006.

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About the Author

Philip Senior is completing a PhD in Political Science at University of Sydney.

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