Polls don’t suggest a hung Parliament

May 2, 2022
Hand inserting a vote into a ballot box with Australian flag in background.
Voters who aren’t already on the party bus are unhappy about the direction it might be going. Image: iStock

Three weeks out from the federal election is too long to be confident of predicting the outcome, though the polls suggest Labor has every reason to be more optimistic at this stage than the Liberal-National coalition government. But for weeks now we have had both sides – perhaps all sides including the minor parties – warning that we could be in for a hung parliament.

Such a result would be welcomed by the minor parties one or more of whom could be seriously empowered by such a result, but dreaded by the majors.

For the Liberal and Labor leadership, those warnings are meant to help corral regular party voters and persuade those who are on the brink of committing that they should help secure a majority government so as to avoid the chaos of minority government.

Its an argument that may have had some effect decades ago, but is no longer persuasive. These days voters who aren’t already on the party bus are unhappy about the direction it might be going. And they aren’t at all trustful of those who were driving.

For many the idea of a hung parliament where minor parties and independents help shape government decision-making, and where the power of the Prime Minister and his or her ministers is reduced is quite attractive. Distrust of government is widespread in the community, and is increasing. Those warnings from on high about the risk of minority government may well be counter-productive in the minds of many uncommitted voters. For many that is an outcome they would welcome, if not relish.

Nor do most people give much credibility to the declarations of both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition that they wouldn’t do deals with independents. The fact is that if neither Labor nor the Coalition finishes up with at least 76 MPs (a majority) they will have to do a deal with someone in order to persuade the Governor-General that a majority of Members of the House of Representatives will support them in votes of confidence and in providing supply (getting a budget through Parliament).

Now that, as we have seen in the relatively recent past (the Gillard Government) doesn’t require a formal alliance with the independents or a minor party like the Greens or Katter’s. But it does need written assurances from those who hold the balance of power and getting those assurances would require ‘understandings’ about what the government would do for those who are prepared to put it in power and keep it there.

What is not required is a formal coalition agreement such as exists between the Liberal and National Parties at the federal level (where its content is kept a tight secret), or the ALP and the Greens in the ACT (which is publicly available). Those agreements are only necessary when power-sharing is involved, for example through the way cabinet posts are divided between the parties to the agreement. They also need to detail how party splits in Cabinet are to be resolved.

It hasn’t just been the party leaders raising the spectre of a hung parliament; its become quite popular also among commentators in the mainstream media and elsewhere. Many have done so because the published public opinion polls show both parties with primary votes in the 30s – unprecedented!

Unprecedented for the LNP, but not for Labor. But the fact that the share of the vote that the major parties are getting is low (and has been getting progressively lower for decades) does not necessarily mean that we are in for minority government.  Australia has preferential voting. So long as major party candidates are not outpolled in any electorate by more than one or perhaps two other candidates, they can still win if they attract sufficient preferences from candidates who receive smaller numbers of votes and are eliminated from the count.

Labor, for example, in recent years has been able to count on between 80 to 90 percent of the preferences of those who voted for the Greens. On the other hand the Liberals have been able to get about 75 per cent of those who gave their first preferences to One Nation and the United Australia Party. Nationally at the last election the proportion of preferences going to the major parties from those eliminated in the count was three to the ALP to two for the LNP.

That said, there is a difference in this election, but it is not responsible for significantly reducing the support for the ALP or LNP in the gross national or even state public opinion polls. This is the greatly increased support (but in relatively few seats) for what have been called the teal independents challenging Liberal Ministers and MPs in what used to be safe Liberal seats. If three or more of them can win, the possibility of a minority government (of whichever colour) would increase.

As mentioned earlier Labor’s national primary vote has been stuck in the 30s for more than a decade. It was a touch under 38 per cent in 2010 when Gillard won a plurality and then fell to 33.4 per cent in 2013, 34.7 per cent in 2016 and 33.3 per cent in 2019. In those four elections the LNP primary vote was 43.3, 45.2, 41.8 and 41.3 per cent.

Those figure may be compared with the current polling showing primary votes for both the major parties in about the mid-30s and calculations (the method varies with each polling organisation) giving the ALP a lead of about 6 percent (i.e. 53-47 after preferences).

Interpretations vary with most pointing to a slight narrowing of the gap between the parties in recent weeks. But there were a couple of curious reports in the Financial Review in the past week, based on the state breakdown of the results of its latest AFR/Ipsos poll, about what is happening in Queensland.

The first report said, ‘The Coalition’s belief that it will hold all or most of its seats in Queensland has been buttressed by the latest poll, which shows it is the best-performing state for the Morrison government at this stage.

‘The Australian Financial Review/ Ipsos poll conducted from Wednesday night to Saturday last week shows the two major parties tied at 50 per cent of the two-party preferred vote in the crunch state. If the 9 per cent of undecided voters are included, Labor just leads by 46 per cent to 45 per cent.

‘The result, which carries a margin of error of 4.9 per cent due to the relatively small sample size, is nonetheless consistent with the views from within the major parties, based on their own research, that Queensland could remain static when voters go to the polls on May 21.’

The second report, this weekend, explored the possibility that Labor might pick up a seat (or two or three) but repeated:

The Australian Financial Review/Ipsos poll earlier this week showed Labor’s primary vote in Queensland was only 29 per cent – the lowest of any state or territory. The two-party-preferred vote (excluding undecided voters) was split 50:50, the only state where Labor didn’t have a clear lead.’

Its true that the poll recorded Labor’s primary vote in Queensland as the lowest of all the States and that the calculated result after preferences was a 50:50 split. But a static outcome?

What the reports do not mention is that at the 2019 election, Labor’s share of the vote in Queensland, after preferences, was 41.56 per cent – which helps explain why it currently holds only 6 of the 30 seats from that state in the House of Representatives. But if it were to get 50 per cent, that would not be a ‘static’ result, that would be a stunning increase of about 8.4 per cent, enough to pick up quite a few seats, even allowing for the margin of error in the poll of almost 5 per cent.

Perhaps the Financial Review considers that its polling in this instance has produced a rogue result, or it has surveyed too few people (448) to produce a reliable result. Or it may be relying on the gut feelings of its writers and the party apparatchiks they consulted.

As mentioned earlier, it is early days yet, far too early to make predictions. But the figures give Labor a better chance in Queensland (and elsewhere) than the headlines and some of the commentary suggest, not only of winning, but winning with a clear majority.

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