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Conservative voters are surprisingly direct

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by John Pyke

In 1999 Prime Minister Howard made it clear that, though he did not want a republic, the Parliamentary-selection ‘model’ that was proposed was, to him, the least unacceptable model of a republic.  One might naturally expect that the voters who habitually vote for the PM’s party and its coalition ally also felt that this was the least unacceptable model, and that if they voted ‘No’ to the model being offered in 1999 they would be even more likely to vote ‘No’ to a more ‘radical’ model.

HOWEVER, the best available evidence shows exactly the reverse – if voters who identify themselves as Liberal Party or National Party voters are ever to vote ‘Yes’ to a republic, it will be when they are offered a republic where the people directly elect the President!  Conservative voters’ preferences as to a republic are totally different from the leading conservative politicians’ preferences.

What’s my evidence for this?  The figures below are derived from the Australian Referendum Survey conducted in 1999 by Gow, Bean and McAllister, just a few months after the referendum.  The original data is held on the Social Science Data Archives at (registration required).  Analysis tools are provided with which one can cross-correlate the answers to different questions. One can run the programs to find out how respondents’ stance on a republic varies with party preference and how many people with a certain first preference have a certain second preference, and that is what I have done.

First, we can look at how first preferences, as between direct election (DE), Parliamentary selection (PS), or keeping the monarchy, varied as between the supporters of the various parties:

Table 1: First preferences

Party identification No of respnts Republic with direct election of Pres (DE) [A]      % Republic with  Pres selected by Parlt (PS) [B]   % Retain Queen% Don’t know (or care?) %
National 84 45.2 11.9 41.7 1.2
One Nation 53 58.5 0 39.6 1.9
No answer1 31 51.6 9.7 35.5 3.2
Liberal 1070 48.0 16.7 33.0 2.2
“No party”1 427 49.6 22.0 24.1 4.2
Labor 1149 59.4 23.8 14.7 2.0
Aust Democrts 118 55.1 31.4 11.9 1.7
Greens 91 54.9 34.1 4.4 6.6
Other party 10 90 10 0 0
Total/overall%  30332 53.4 20.8 23.4 2.5

1 The question on party ID provided for a ‘no party’ answer, so those who expressly answered ‘no party’ are coded differently from those who left the answer blank.  The position of the ‘no party’ people in the table is consistent with them being mainly swinging voters.

2 3431 people responded to the Survey, but the cross-correlation program ignored those who failed to answer the relevant questions, leaving 3033 responses.  The accuracy of the Survey is discussed on the web page cited below.

Interesting, eh?  There are differences between the followers of the different parties, but they are less than you might expect.  (I have put the parties in decreasing order of tendency to monarchism, so that the patterns are easier to see.)   Among supporters of the coalition and ON, the percentage who are monarchists is indeed higher than among those who support other parties, but they are still a minority even in the supporters of those parties.  The interesting, and perhaps surprising, thing is that support for DE doesn’t fall below 45% among any party’s supporters.  The more significant variation between parties is how the remainder of their supporters split between monarchy and PS.  The ‘right-wing’ voters combine relatively high support for the monarchy with particularly strong opposition to parliamentary selection of a President.  This surprised me at first but I suppose the reason is that there are two strong negative instincts motivating conservatives – ‘don't change anything’ and ‘don't  trust government’.  Among conservative voters, those who do not manifest the first instinct on this issue tend to manifest the other one.

Next, of those who prefer one or other model for a republic, how dogmatic are they?  How many would accept the other model as second preference, if it is the only republic on offer, and how many would keep the Queen if they can’t get the republic they want – and how does this vary with party preference?   To work this out, I did a 3-way cross-correlation of the answers to party, first preference and second preference.  The results, as to the overall population, are shown in the next table:
Table 2 DE,or no change!b  DE with PS 2nd pref [C] PS with DE 2nd pref [D] PS,or no change!b 
Total/o’all 28.5 24.9 16.0 4.8

b Those who stated no 2nd preference, or who obstinately repeated their 1st preference as their 2nd, were added to those whose stated 2nd preference was “retain the Queen”.   I think we can assume they were saying “give me my preference or I’ll hold my breath and turn purple!”

The party-by-party breakup of these figures is shown on my web page, cited below.  However, the table below may be more useful.  [Columns A and B are copied from Table 1, and C and D from the full web version of Table 2.]
Table 3 Would logically vote for PS… Would logically vote for DE…
Party as 1st pref[col B] as 2nd pref[col C] Total as 1st pref[col A] as 2nd pref[col D] Total
National 11.9 11.9 23.8 45.2 10.7 55.9
OneNation 0 15.1 15.1 58.5 0 58.5
Not answered 9.7 29.0 38.7 51.6 9.7 60.3
Liberal 16.7 20.9 37.6 48.0 11.5 59.5
No party 22.0 18.3 40.3 49.6 15.5 65.1
Labor 23.8 31.1 54.9 59.4 20.2 79.6
AustDems 31.4 32.2 63.6 55.1 21.2 76.3
Greens 34.1 29.7 63.8 54.9 27.5 72.4
“Other” 10 20 30 90 10 100
Overall % 20. 8 24.3 45.1 53.4 15.6 69.0

You will note that the ‘predicted’ vote for a PS model agrees exactly with the actual ‘Yes’ vote in 1999 – as discussed on my web page, there were a few sources of possible error but they seem to have cancelled out here!  [I have calculated it in other ways and the answers vary from 44.9% to 45.6% - all pretty close to right.]  The table shows some very interesting things about that 45% of the population.  One worrying thing is that it shows that only a minority of them were voting for the proposal because they really liked it; more were voting ‘Yes’ for their second preference.  The other thing is that it is clear that the referendum failed because the great majority of conservative voters voted ‘No’, not because a majority of them were monarchists but because they felt the ‘wrong’ republic was being offered.  On the other hand the table also shows that if a reasonable direct-election proposal is ever put to the people, it will be supported by a majority of voters for every party  - an even greater majority than in 1999 from voters of the ‘left’, and a smaller but quite definite majority from conservative voters.

This creates a dilemma for some members of the ARM, especially for few whose attitude is “parliamentary selection or nothing”.  We can try to draft a better PS model, and to campaign more effectively for it.  We can try to persuade those who voted ‘No’ last time that at least some of their opposition was based on misunderstanding of the particular proposal and ignorance of the fact that such systems work quite well in other republics – see my ‘Hysteria’ chapter cited below.  If we can improve the ‘Yes’ vote by 7 or 8% the republic may win a majority overall and a majority in a majority of States.  The problem is that it will still be a narrow majority, and almost certainly it will still be made up of large majorities from the parties of the ‘left’ while a majority of conservative voters will still have voted ‘No’.  While the stated grounds for opposition to the 1999 proposal may have been largely irrational, the opposition was also based on an instinctual feeling that is particularly strong among conservative voters – don’t give more power to a government.  If a renewed PS proposal gets narrowly passed over the continuing opposition of a majority of conservative voters, it will not be a good basis for the ready acceptance of the legitimacy of a new constitutional system.

The alternative is to accept that some sort of direct-election model is the one that has to be offered next time.  It is true that there is some fear about this in about 5% of the population – also based on ignorance of the way that real republican constitutions work in real republican countries (again see the Hysteria chapter) – but if we want a republic to be approved by a large majority of the people, and across the voters for all political parties, that is what will have to be offered.


John Pyke is a law lecturer at Queensland University of Technology. This article was first published, in an abridged form, in 'Armlet' in 2007.

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