Perpetuating a myth about the source of the “teals” vote

Apr 10, 2023
Preferential voting - fictitious names

In the wake of the Aston by-election and, more importantly, last year’s federal election, the Liberal Party could easily be misled into dismissing the “teals” as a sneaky Labor/Greens front.

In December last year, the Australian National University published its Australian Election Study, reporting on a survey of how 2508 people had voted at the May 2022 election. The study explained the source of support for the so-called teal independents like this: “Of those teal voters surveyed by the ANU, 31 per cent had voted for Labor at the 2019 election, 24 per cent for the Greens, and (only) 18 per cent for the Coalition,” with 23 per cent having voted for “others” in 2019.

This assertion went uncontested at the time and now has fallen into popular mythology. As recently as Tuesday (4 April) in the Sydney Morning Herald, Nick Bryant, analysing the Liberals’ defeat in Aston* said: “For the Liberals, the teal challenge is twofold. Obviously, it needs to win back voters who defected from the Liberals. But, as the Australian Election Study showed, less than one in five teal voters previously voted for the Coalition. The overwhelming majority of teal voters were tactical Labor and Greens supporters.”

The reality of the teal vote in the six seats the independents actually won from the Liberal Party in 2022 is markedly different. The Liberal Party would be well-advised to look at the Australian Electoral Commission figures, rather than reading surveys.

In 2022 in Wentworth, North Sydney and Mackellar (NSW), Goldstein and Kooyong (Vic) and Curtin (WA), the teal primary vote ranged from 25 per cent in North Sydney up to 40 per cent in Kooyong. The range in the other four seats was between 29 per cent and 38 per cent.

The previous (2019) Liberal primary vote in these six seats ranged from 54 per cent in Curtin, down to 47 per cent in Wentworth. At the May 2022 election, the fall in the Liberal primary vote ranged from seven to 14 per cent. In four of the six seats, the Liberal vote fell more than 10 per cent.

In North Sydney the Liberal primary vote dropped from 52 per cent to 38 per cent. That’s depicted as a “swing” of 14 per cent, but it also means a whopping 27 per cent of people (one in four) who voted Liberal in 2019 went elsewhere in 2022.

In four of the six seats, more than 20 per cent (one in five) of people who voted Liberal in 2019, deserted them in 2022. In the other two seats, 14-15 per cent (one in seven) of 2019 Liberal voters didn’t back up in 2022.

The ANU’s assertion that the teal vote consisted of only 18 per cent of former Liberal voters, with 55 per cent of teal voters being former Labor and Green supporters, is improbable.

In the six new teal seats, looking at the falls in Liberal support, and noting that the combined Labor and Green primary votes in 2019 were between 18 and 42 per cent, it’s reasonable to suggest (per the ANU study) that in Wentworth and Kooyong the 2022 teal vote did comprise less than 20 per cent ex-Libs.

However, in the four other seats the 2019 Liberals look to have made up between 32 per cent (Mackellar) and 56 per cent (North Sydney) of the teal vote. How so? Continuing to use North Sydney as the example, in May 2022 teal candidate Kylea Tink’s primary vote was 25 per cent. As noted, the Liberal primary vote dropped 14 points, from 52 to 38 per cent, between 2019 and 2022.

The Labor primary voted dropped only four points, from 25 to 21 per cent, and the Greens dropped five points, from 14 to nine per cent. The “other” vote dropped just two points, from nine, to seven per cent.

The total of these “declines” precisely equals the 25 per cent Tink (the teal) gained. The combined Labor/Green drop was nine points, compared to the Liberals’ 14 points.

If we apply the ANU study findings to determine the make up of Tink’s 25 per cent, it would be thus: ex Liberals: 5; ex Labor: 8; ex Green: 6; ex “other”: 6.

The question is: if 14 out of 52 people left the Liberal Party, and the ANU says only 5 of them went to the teals, where did the rest of them go? Not to the ALP, the Greens or “others”, all of whom lost primary votes from 2019 to 2022 (11 per cent between them).

Hence, simplistically, if we look at the decline in each party’s vote in North Sydney and express it as a percentage of what Tink gained, the likely make up of the “source” of Tink’s vote is: ex Liberal 56 per cent (compared to ANU’s 18 per cent); ex Labor 16 per cent (compared to ANU’s 31 per cent); ex Greens 20 per cent (not far off ANU’s 24 per cent); and ex “other” eight per cent (well short ANU’s 23 per cent).

Using the same approach, it is probable that in Goldstein and Kooyong the teal vote consisted of more than 60 per cent ex Labor and Green voters, but in Mackellar, North Sydney and Curtin the combined ex Labor/Green component of the teal vote is more likely to be in the mid-30s to early-40s (per cent) – well short of the ANU’s 55 per cent.

Wentworth becomes more difficult to compare and analyse because it had been contested in 2019 (but lost by) its sitting independent (Kerryn Phelps). Bluntly, the real figures, albeit probably at their extreme in North Sydney, are considerably at odds with what the ANU gleaned from its survey respondents.

Of course, we’ll never know precisely which voters flipped to other parties (and between parties) from 2019 to 2022; not even the Australian Electoral Commission can tell us that.

However, the point remains that in a majority of the seats the Liberals lost to the teals, one-in-four, or more, of their 2019 supporters deserted them; and in a majority of those teals’ seats, former Liberals comprise more than 30 (and up to 56) per cent of 2022 teal voters.

Be cautious about drawing conclusions from “polls”, even if they suit you, ahead of what a little more rigorous scrutiny of the facts might suggest.

This is something deeper for the Liberals (and commentators) to ponder than the idea that the teals’ success was built mostly on cunning Labor and Greens supporters voting “tactically”.

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