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Giving voters what they want

By John Warhurst - posted Monday, 29 October 2007

We are well into the second week of an election campaign full of allegations of me-tooism and poll-driven policies. What policies do Australian voters really want and how much do the major parties meet their needs?

Luckily, we now have a tremendous resource to help answer these questions.

Professor Ian McAllister of the Australian National University (with the assistance of Juliet Clark of Deakin University) has just published Trends in Australian Political Opinion: Results from the Australian Election Study, 1987-2004. This handbook reports on the results of surveys conducted at the time of the past seven elections, together with earlier surveys.


In presenting the key themes to a seminar at the ANU last week, McAllister was able to link these trends to the present election campaign.

The question of Labor's opposition to capital punishment caused ructions when Labor's foreign affairs spokesman, Robert McClelland, was reprimanded by Kevin Rudd for allegedly insensitive remarks close to the anniversary of the Bali bombings. The issue surfaced again during the leaders debate on Sunday. Is Rudd being too timid?

Labor is actually being reasonably brave in opposing the death penalty at home and abroad because the electorate is still fairly conservative on this issue. In 2004 a majority (51 per cent) of Australians still wanted to reintroduce the death penalty, though back in 1993 that figure peaked at 68 per cent. The Coalition's intuition is almost certainly right that the number of Australians supporting the death penalty for foreign terrorists, like the Bali bombers, is much higher. Initially brave, Labor folded when tackled by the Government.

The other pre-campaign issue was Aboriginal rights, especially John Howard's promise to include Aboriginal rights in a new constitutional preamble. This followed the Government's intervention in the Northern Territory, a policy in which Labor acquiesced.

The Australian electorate again remains pretty conservative, though it is becoming more inclusive and tolerant. At the 2004 election 45 per cent thought government help for Aborigines had gone too far and 44 per cent thought the transfer of land rights to Aborigines had gone too far. If either the Government or the Opposition stick their neck out too far it can easily be bitten off by the electorate.

Once he announced the election, the Prime Minister quickly released his $34billion tax cut package. It was not until after a week of goading that Labor released its own plan. Labor's main difference was a $2billion-plus education scheme funded by delaying for 12 months tax cuts for those earning over $180,000.


Rudd called on those, including himself and the Prime Minister, who are in this bracket to make a sacrifice in the public interest.

At the leaders debate, journalist Paul Kelly criticised Rudd for not being bolder by devoting much more of the tax cuts to services.

This question goes to the heart of the individualist/collectivist divide, and, along with attitudes to trade unions, might decide the election. Those in the health, education and welfare sectors argue Australians are unselfish and actually put the public interest ahead of their private interests. But Australians might just flirt with this notion to make themselves feel good. The old saying is that elections are decided by the hip pocket nerve not altruism.

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First published in The Canberra Times on 25 October, 2007

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About the Author

John Warhurst is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science with the Australian National University and Flinders University and a columnist with the Canberra Times.

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