The continuing collapse of the primary vote of the major parties

May 23, 2022
. Image: Flickr /

Labor’s primary vote in the election fell by just over half of one percent to its lowest level in recent history, but it still won an extraordinary victory in Saturday’s election. It did so mostly because the Liberals (minus the National Party) suffered an even larger fall, its vote dropping by over 4 per cent in its worst ever electoral performance.

But what determines the outcome of Australian elections is the vote candidates in individual electorates accumulate after preferences are distributed. Overall, Labor won the two-party preferred contest 52 per cent to 48, an improvement for Labor over the 2019 election of over three per cent.

That 4 per cent split in Labor’s favour was one to two per cent lower than what the last public opinion polls were saying, but it was well within their margin of error. However if you had been relying on the polls you would have been very surprised by the nature of the victory that Labor actually enjoyed.

So Labor, though its primary support has been eroded, can celebrate. The Liberals however have suffered an extraordinary defeat, losing seats to independents, the Greens and (in Western Australia) Labor, that were its base. Liberal heartland. The Liberal Party faces a very real existential crisis.

Finding someone to blame will be easy: Prime Minister Scott Morrison, bully and bulldozer, led the way, would not tolerate dissent, did not believe in compromise. He was responsible for holding up the selection and endorsement of Liberal candidates in crucial electorates in NSW and by doing so exacerbated divisions within his party.

His ‘strong’ mantra alienated Liberal voters who wanted the Government to do more on climate change and gender equality, so much so that he was forced to abandon Liberal MPs facing threats from the ‘teal independents’ and create a new strategy aimed at winning outer-suburban Labor seats. It didn’t work.

Finding an answer for the Liberals will not be easy. There appear to be as many Liberals advocating that the party move further to the right as there are those wanting it to return to its Menzian traditions.

There is an American political adage, ‘all politics is local’. There is a lot of truth in it, though one has to be a bit generous in defining ‘local’. In this election it applied to some individual electorates – such as Fowler in Western Sydney, where the Labor Party tried to find a seat for Kristina Keneally, but a huge swing appears to have resulted in her defeat, while in nearby Parramatta, the insertion of another Labor person from outside the electorate, Andrew Charlton, succeeded with a small increase in Labor’s vote.

On a larger scale it also applied to Western Australia’s metropolitan areas, where there were huge swings in Labor’s favour that effectively ensured it would take government, and in inner urban (comfortable to well-off) electorates in Sydney, where the ‘teal independents’ scored and similar areas in Brisbane, where the Greens appear to have beaten both Liberal and Labor sitting MPs.

There’s a more Australian saying, about voters being influenced by the hip-pocket nerve. That could also apply more generally in this election. It went practically unnoticed but there was a different kind of polling barely reported at all last week that helps explain why some people voted for Labor rather than the Liberals. According to the IPSOS poll in the Financial Review the top election issue for more than half the people planning to vote Labor in this election was the cost of living – that’s 52 per cent of Labor voters, compared with 34 per cent at the 2019 election. Why so important? Because another poll, conducted by ANZ-Roy Morgan, a weekly measure of consumer confidence, fell by 1.3 per cent during the last week, taking confidence to its lowest level at any past election since polling on this issue began more than 20 years ago. And more voters thought Labor was more capable of managing the issue than the Liberals (32 per cent against 28 per cent, a reversal of the figures from the 2019 election.

Another important factor was the emergence of an important demographic voting pattern – the move away from the Liberal Party by professional women. Twenty or thirty years ago they were referred to as the ‘doctors wives’. Now they are the doctors – and the businesswomen and other well-educated women – rapidly on the way to becoming a majority of their age group. It was from their ranks that the ‘teal independents’ and their community supporters emerged.

I suspect there is a further group of much younger women who helped change the parliament. IPSOS polls showed that in Queensland there was far stronger support for the Greens than elsewhere, and also that young people were strongly supporting the Greens. The age group 18-24 went 28 per cent to the Greens, 35 per cent to Labor and just 15 per cent to Liberal. Women generally went 13 per cent to the Greens, men 11 per cent. It may be that Grace Tame, Brittany Higgins, Rachelle Miller and all enthused young women in particular to vote against the government, and a great many chose to do that by voting for the Greens.

One result of the election will be welcomed by everyone in the Parliament – the failure of Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party to make any real impact, despite his $80 million spend. In 2019 Palmer directed much of his advertising against the Labor Party – this time he was more even-handed and he devoted a lot of attention to promoting as Australia’s next Prime Minister, former Liberal Craig Kelly. To no avail. Kelly failed to retain his seat, recording about 8 percent of the vote. Palmer’s own bid to return to the Parliament, this time as a Senator for Queensland, also appears to have failed. On first figures it seems Queensland will elect two Liberal, two Labor, and one Green Senator plus (probably) Pauline Hanson. Palmer is still in the race, but trailing.

Palmer’s twice-proven inability to buy the federal election, means there will be less incentive for the new government to do anything to restrict election spending in the future, as has happened in some states. Unfortunately.

Both the United Australia Party and Pauline Hanson’s One Nation failed to make any real impressions on the outcome of the election. The UAL gained 4.26 per cent of the vote, up 0.83 per cent, while One Nation went up by almost 2 per cent to just under 5 per cent – though it did so by contesting more seats. In those places where it had large votes in 2019, its vote fell heavily.

One of the questions the Liberals will be asking in the next months is whether it is worth their while becoming more conservative in an attempt to grab some of these votes. At the risk, of course, of losing more votes to the centre.

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