Government and governance | Australia

2 September 2019

With the release of preference flow data from the 2019 election now public, Australia’s major parties must consider how to appeal to minor party voters in crucial seats, Bob McMullan writes.

The Australian Electoral Commission just released some very interesting figures which suggest Clive Palmer may have done the Labor Party more damage than Pauline Hanson in determining the outcome of the 2019 federal election.

The AEC has just released figures for the two-party preferred preference flows at the last election.

In 59 seats contested by both Pauline Hanson’s One Nation and Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party (UAP), the UAP recorded a lower preference flow to the ALP than One Nation in 43 of them.

For the UAP in particular, there was a very wide range of preference distribution outcomes according to the AEC figures.

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The lowest percentage was 20.1 per cent in Berowra, however, the real outlier was Chris Bowen’s seat of McMahon where the figures suggest he received 61.1 per cent of UAP preferences on a TPP basis. There may be some local explanation for this, because of all the seats analysed only three recorded more than 50 per cent preference flow to the ALP. All three are safe Labor seats, Watson and Gorton are the other two.

However, rather than focusing on the outliers, the significant data is about those around the median proportion. The overwhelming majority of results were in the range from 29 per cent to 40 per cent. The unweighted average was approximately 34.5 and the median number was approximately 33.8.

Of course, a full understanding of the Palmer effect would require knowledge of the primary voting history of UAP voters, and the factors which influenced them on this occasion.

However, the preference data does give an insight into the impact of Clive Palmer’s $50 million in advertising and the consequences for the Labor Party of this unprecedented spending.

It is not possible with confidence to attribute results in particular seats to the differences in preference distribution, however, it is clear that if the UAP preferences had flowed to Labor as strongly as those of One Nation, the result in a seat like Lyons would have been much closer.

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The UAP is not the only minor party to consider. The figures show the strong flow of Green preferences to Labor. However, there are strong variations here as well.

In my home seat of Canberra, Labor recorded the highest TPP preference flow from the Greens at 93.2 per cent. In the rural NSW seat of Parkes, the flow was only 63.3 per cent.

As these results are two-party preferred, the differentials cannot be explained by the number or nature of the other parties involved in a particular electorate.

Taken together, these figures raise some interesting questions for the major parties.

If preference flows to Labor had been around the maximum from the Greens and the UAP the results in close seats such as Bass and Chisholm could have been different.

Therefore, the parties may need to ask themselves: Should we make more of an effort to focus on preference flows from minor parties? Should the ALP be conscious of the potential importance of One Nation preferences, or should it focus on maximising Green preferences? The reverse applies to the coalition parties.

They can do this without compromising principles. It should be possible for the Labor Party to criticise Pauline Hanson’s bigotry without tarring all her voters with the same brush. Similarly, the Liberals and Nationals should be able to criticise the Green’s without suggesting that everyone who votes Green is about to invade farmers’ properties.

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It is, of course, always dangerous to focus on strategies or tactics which refer exclusively to what might have affected the outcome of the last election. It is as foolish as generals focusing on how to win the last war rather than the next one.

Clive Palmer and the UAP probably fall into the ‘last war’ category. However, the Greens and One Nation are likely to be around for a while.

Therefore, the generic questions matter, even if the specifics of particular minor parties may not.

These figures as presented by the AEC raise some questions, and it will be interesting to see if any future tactics or strategies suggest either side of politics has found an answer to those questions.

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