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Lapsed Liberals - the ebbing tide

By Graham Young - posted Monday, 30 July 2007

The Coalition’s support has literally ebbed away. While you might expect that there would be voters changing in both directions - from Coalition to Labor and vice versa - this election the traffic is just about all one way. The Liberals' vote is as low as it is because people who voted for Howard last time have changed their minds and gone across to Rudd. Why has this happened?

There are a number of clues in our responses.

First, there is no obvious demographic group from which they come. When you look at occupations, the splits are very similar to our total sample. Teachers and the retired are still the two largest groups, and every other group is represented within the tolerance of sampling error. I’ve scanned postcodes, and there is nothing which suggests a bias towards outer-urban or rural electorates, and representation from the states is well within sampling bias. Likewise with income. This group is very typical.


Howard’s grip has loosened across the whole range. Previous election victories have been defined by capturing key demographics: like blue-collar conservatives, the elderly and young families, using combinations of special benefits - baby-bonuses and retirement benefits. Or by touching deep cultural nerves - the “elites” versus the “real” Australians. Now representatives of most of these constituencies are defecting.

The only quantitative difference between this group and the whole sample is in the gender split - males appear to be over-represented, particularly between 35 and 64 years of age, as well as in the under 24s. I’m not sure what this reflects, but the government has been running an anti-domestic violence campaign for months, so perhaps it reflects the success of those ads with younger women.

Second, these people are on balance pessimistic about the direction of the country, mildly unfavourable to Howard, and appear very enthusiastic about Rudd. While 71 per cent approve of Rudd, only 30 per cent approve of Howard, and 59 per cent think the country is heading in the wrong direction. Some days ago John Howard asked his cabinet if the problem was “him”. It appears that it is. Or at least, when these voters hear mention of the Howard Government they compare it unfavourably with the prospects of a Rudd government.

Third, these voters are more likely to be Christian than our sample in general. This suggests a less materialistic mind-set than that of voters in general. And while they are not particularly evangelical in their attitudes, on balance (52 per cent to 40 per cent) they believe that Christian values have a place in political debate. They also overwhelmingly believe (77 per cent of them) that Christian values have been valuable to society.

So while they don’t appear to have a particular geographical home, they do appear to share some deep attachments to Western conservative values. This is reinforced by the fact that only 9 per cent of them claim to be traditional Labor voters. Over half identify as traditionally Liberal or National, and 22 per cent as having no traditional political commitment. This possibly explains the seemingly inexplicable combination of lack of anger against the government in the electorate and the large swing to Rudd. Many who make up the Rudd majority are voting against their normal political family.

This makes it a soft vote. Even though everyone in this sample says they are not voting for the government, 15 per cent still wants the Coalition to win, and only 57 per cent wants Labor to win. Perhaps there is some hand-waving going on here. The statistics suggest that these voters haven’t so much deserted the Liberals, as that they’ve crossed to the other side of a valley and they’re trying to encourage the Liberals to follow after them, or give them a reason to come back.


The qual fleshes out some of these perceptions. Major concerns about the direction of the country centre around a sense that society is increasingly divided between the haves and have-nots and a concern for the environment, particularly water and climate change. The government is seen as aligned with business and the rich, and uncaring about the poor. IR is present as a supporting issue to this perception. There is also concern about our foreign policy, and it tends to be expressed as part of an overall concern that we are becoming too American in our society.

While respondents are concerned that the economic benefits should be spread around there are no suggestions as to how this might be done. Economic good times are being taken for granted, and they are providing many Australians with the opportunity to be post-materialistic in their approach to politics. This makes the government seem old-fashioned. In focusing heavily on the economy it appears to be located in the industrial-age rather than the modern world.

These concerns are reflected in the issues that respondents emphasise as being important. At the same time there are some interesting conflicts. Climate change is an issue that cuts in both directions. While many blame the government for not acting decisively, others blame the government for acting at all. Why the latter group is veering towards Labor is not at all clear if this is the important issue for them. Climate change is also an issue that emphasises the perception that the government is focused on the past rather than the future and has failed to plan.

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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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