Picking elections is a mug’s game

Which way will Australians vote? Recent history says you can't trust the polls

John Hewson

Government and governance | Australia

2 July 2016

The marathon eight-week Australian federal election campaign has finally drawn to a close with odds on for a Coalition victory, but recent history shows you can’t trust the polls, says John Hewson.

Elections are mostly driven by the emotions of “fear” or “hope”. While there have been elements of both in this very long campaign, it is most difficult to judge just how they will contribute to the outcome.

Most noticeably, the electorate really hasn’t engaged in this campaign. The Leaders’ Debates and Forums have received little direct audience attention. For example, the first debate, surprisingly conducted in prime time on a Sunday evening, only attracted about 17 per cent of the TV audience, crowded out by The Voice, Master Chef, and House Rules.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten has campaigned well with his slogan “Putting People First”, staying pretty much on his focus group-driven messages on education and health. However, as these messages didn’t really cut through, he upped the anti with his “Mediscare” campaign.

He has run the “spendometer” very hard, relative to Malcolm Turnbull. This is quite a risky strategy, as it simultaneously causes concern that he will have to raise taxes to fund these commitments, yet also questions whether he is really a “fiscal conservative”, who can be “trusted” to run the economy.

By comparison, Turnbull has run a very tight, focused, low-risk campaign, hammering his “Jobs and Growth” plan, simply trying to confirm the electorate’s ingrained perception that the LNP is better able to manage the economy. While he too has resorted to a scare campaign, on asylum seeker boats, he went to it much later, and with much less intensity.

Neither side has been prepared to go into very much detail to back up their slogans, even where they have taken policy positions significantly different from each other.

For example, Shorten on negative gearing and capital gains tax, and on climate change, Turnbull on just how the corporate tax cuts will work through, into which industries, what jobs, and so on.

So, a key question is whether either side has done much more than simply consolidate their traditional bases?  Whether they have actually succeeded in swinging many voters across?

I suspect that this time the scare campaigns probably haven’t made much of a difference – “fear” will not be much of a factor in the overall campaign outcome, although there could be individual exceptions, most likely Pauline Hanson in the Senate.

However, there are two complicating factors. One is that the major parties are generally on the nose, which makes minor parties and independents more attractive as a “protest vote”. This will be important in the outcome of the Senate vote where we could see some six to nine crossbenchers – I doubt the Greens will improve their vote, but Xenophon could get three to four, along with the likes of Hanson, Hinch, and Lambie.

The most difficult call is whether Xenophon will win any seats in the Lower House, not only in South Australia, but beyond. He has targeted Mayo and Grey. The Greens may still win Batman despite the preference deal designed to save incumbent Labor MP David Feeney.

The other factor is Western Australia, where the Barnett Government is particularly on the nose, and issues such as the GST distribution are biting. Although the Government has only one seat, Cowan, with a margin under 5 per cent, it holds another five under 10 per cent, so if a particular WA swing is on, a bunch of seats could fall.

However, overall, Turnbull has probably offered more “hope” than Shorten. His ascendency to the leadership over Abbott came with almost spectacular expectations. He has clearly fallen well short of those expectations, and disappointed many. The collapse in his poll standing and is his lead as preferred Prime Minister, has been significant, although he is still well ahead of Shorten.

If he is returned with a workable majority it will be because he is being given the benefit of the doubt, the hope that the “Old Malcolm” will reappear, and deliver good and stable government.

On balance, on the basis of the polls and the betting odds, Malcolm will be returned but lose six to eight seats net in the process.

But, on the basis of the recent Brexit experience, only a mug would rely on polls and betting odds!

This piece was also published in the Southern Highland News.

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Citation

Hewson, John. 2016. "Picking Elections Is A Mug’S Game - Policy Forum". Policy Forum. http://www.policyforum.net/picking-elections-mugs-game/.

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