The last opinion poll I saw had Labor at 52 and the Coalition at 48, both figures in the two-party-preferred style. There have been three opinion poll results since the Budget, two of which have a 2 per cent gain or thereabouts for the Coalition, the other a gain to Labor. Given that the conventional error margin in such polling is around 3 per cent, those outcomes would be within the error margin. Conventional’ means just that — it is a convention, not greatly to be relied upon. Oh, having watched Clive Palmer’s expensive television campaign for the new United Australia Party, I was interested to see that the Roy Morgan poll gave it 1.5 per cent. That could be meaningful were most of the votes to come from Queensland. The Greens are at 13.5 per cent, while One Nation is at 4 per cent. About ten per cent want to vote for Independents and ‘micro’ parties.
Some opinion poll results can be way out of line, and when that happens ‘adjustments’ are made so that the outcome looks more sensible. Sounds a bit like temperature measurements? Indeed, there is a real similarity. But this essay is about the coming election, and while there will be some to-ing and fro-ing about who has the best climate-change policy, the gravamen of the short official election campaign — that is, from the time the Governor-General declares the date until the day itself, about a month or a little more — will be about education, health, budgets, tax cuts, border controls, immigration, population policy, energy and which party and which leader the electorate as a whole feels safer with.
I did a lot of work fifty years ago in trying to establish just how important an apparently divisive great issue, in this case ‘Vietnam’, was in the electoral shift from 1967 to 1969. Vietnam was indeed a powerful divider in those years, with Moratorium marches, peaceful and less peaceful protests, lots of Parliamentary talk, kilometres of newsprint and a great deal of television and radio. Yet after a close analysis of changes in attitude and changes in voting intention (1967) and vote (1969) it became clear that movements went in both directions. Voters certainly went to Labor, but some who had been Labor intenders moved to the Coalition. Why? Because their attitudes to the war in Vietnam had hardened. Labor had a net gain only: it lost supporters as well as gaining rather more.
Not only that, the Vietnam issue, though far and away the most newsworthy, was seen by only 8 per cent of the sample as really important to them. What was much more important to the electorate were economic issues, and which party would deal with them more effectively. Then came social welfare matters, like pensions and health, and then education. Sound familiar? I think there are strong similarities. In 1969 there was a biggish swing to Labor, but the Coalition survived because it had enjoyed a triumphant victory in 1966, and had a substantial buffer in seats. Today the Coalition has no buffer at all, and I expect Labor to win unless something extraordinary happens in the next five weeks. Mr Scott Morrison is well ahead of Mr Shorten as preferred Prime Minister, but the view of the leaders didn’t mean all that much in 1969, and I don’t think will mean much more fifty years later in May (18thor 25that the time of writing). The leader poll results (and Mr Shorten has hardly ever been ahead) give colour to those who think the Government knows what it is doing, and the Prime Minister must know everything the Government knows.
States and Territories make up eight smaller domains, and the 52-48 ‘Australian’ outcome is their average. It’s once again a bit like global temperature, which means nothing much to anyone who is not fixated on whether or not the planet is warming. In Canberra I am much more interested in our local weather and its fluctuations. So I am similarly interested in what the likely election result will be in our three House seats and two Senate seats. My guess, for what it is worth (a nursing home is not the best place to learn other people’s voting intentions!) is three Labor MPs and one each of the Senate seats to Labor and the Liberals. On the whole, the polling organisations don’t have large enough samples to justify releasing State and Territory results, though NSW and Victoria probably would qualify.
There has been a good deal of ‘You did it too!’ in the campaign so far. Labor has been complaining over the past few months about what it sees as excessive spending of taxpayers’ money on advertising what ‘the Australian Government’ has been doing to make us all richer, better able to employ new staff, and the rest. The Coalition’s response is simply to say, first, that the spending has been within the rules, and second, that Labor spent half a billion the same way when it was last in office. What the rules are I am not quite sure, and neither side has gone into it. Having worked as part of ‘the Australian Government’ in the past, I didn’t actually see these ads as party political, which astonished some of my former civil servant friends. But I just didn’t. Bored with them, absolutely, but as partisan sallies, no. Maybe I am more innocent than I like to think.
Andrew Leigh, a friend but not my local MP, has posted the following on his website newsletter: ‘Over the past six years, the Liberals have installed a revolving door in the Prime Minister’s suite. Meanwhile, Labor has had just one leader, one shadow treasurer, one shadow health minister, one shadow attorney-general, one shadow climate change minister, and one shadow immigration minister. For that matter, I’ve been our shadow assistant treasurer throughout that time: responsible for revenue, competition and charities.’ Well, Andrew conveniently forgot that from 2007 to 2016 there was a revolving door in the Labor Government’s Prime Ministerial suite — Rudd, Gillard, Rudd, then after 2013, Shorten. My general sense is that there was about the same amount of knifing on both sides, that both have been guilty of much the same amount of poor behaviour, and that each has contributed in much the same amount to a widespread sense within the electorate that parliamentarians are too much interested in themselves, and not enough in our national problems.
And that brings me to a sort of summary. My guess is that as the election gets closer there will be a smallish movement back to the Government we actually have, on the ground of ‘Better the devil we know…’ That is commonly the case when there are no great issues at stake, which I think is the case at the moment. The Budget has returned to the black, no doubt with some more ‘adjustments’ to make that happen, the economy is in decent shape if not exactly flourishing, and each side is promising goodies to almost everyone. Why would you choose one side over the other, if you were not already rusted on to one or other of them? One reason is that you might be bored with the group in power. Another might be that while you don’t find Mr Shorten especially attractive, he has at least been plugging the same line for the past six years, while his less sensible colleagues, and he has his fair share of them, have kept quiet for the most part, at least as far as television and radio news goes.
Two age-old dicta from the political past. First, ‘Vote early, vote often!’ and second, ‘Whoever you vote for a politician always gets in. Vote Informal!’ I don’t in fact endorse either of them.