Politics Analysis

Kids now don’t want to vote (and other fun facts about Australian elections)

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Cartoon by Mark David/@markdavidcartoons

The surge in support for Labor and the teal independents in last year’s federal election has come from the tenacity of seniors, rather than the idealism of youth, reports Alan Austin.

HOW DID the COVID-19 pandemic impact democracy last year?

Could bedridden patients still vote in the May Election? Why do South Australia’s electorates have average populations 58% greater than Tasmania’s? And which party has most improved its voter support since 2019?

These and other intriguing questions can be answered with detailed election data from the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC). Among several challenges the outcomes highlight, engaging young voters stands out.

Triumph of the teals in 2022

Ten independent MPs won seats in the House of Representatives, by far the most in history. This is up from none in 1980, 1983, 1984 and 1987; one in 1990 and 1998; two in 1993 and 2007; three in 2001 and 2004; four in 2010, 2013 and 2016; and five in 1996 and 2019. (Note: Bob Katter, Clive Palmer and the Centre Alliance are counted as independents. The Greens are a party.)

But this needs some unpacking. The AEC reports that 97 independent candidates stood in 72 seats. That is a win rate of just over 10%. The Liberal party, in contrast, contested 108 seats and won 27, a success rate of 25%. Labor gained 77 members having contested all 151 seats, a win rate of 51%. The Nationals and Queensland Lib Nats won 31 having contested 45, a creditable 69% success rate.

Curiously, the surge of the teals was not replicated in Victoria’s October Election. Independents contested 71 of the 88 lower house seats but did not win any. We shall see what happens next month in NSW.

Gratifying for the Greens, laudable for Labor

Anti-Labor commentators were quick to report the overall swing against Labor of 0.76% compared with the 2019 Election. They noted that Labor lost the primary vote by 3.1%. One crowed that Labor "got the lowest primary vote since 1910", which is pretty right.

Some suggested the election was a defeat for both Labor and the Coalition.

These misread the reality.

Voting data shows many rusted-on Labor voters, including dedicated party members, voted for teal independents in safe Liberal seats like Goldstein, Kooyong, Wentworth and Warringah. (Well, they used to be safe. Maybe not any more.)

In Kooyong, for example, Labor's primary vote last May was a puny 6.9%, down from 20% in 2016 and 22% in 2013. This reflects Labor supporters being smart and voting strategically; not abandoning their commitment to Labor.

This is confirmed by measuring the swings in the 79 contests where no independents stood.
Over those 79 seats, Labor gained a modest swing of 0.22%. Not bad. The Greens performed better, achieving a surge of 2.9%. Impressive. The Coalition, in contrast, copped a swing against of minus 5.3%. Ouch! All the minor parties combined improved their support by 1.4%.

Coalition drubbing

The Liberal-National Coalition won 57 seats in 2022, the lowest since securing just 50 against Bob Hawke’s Labor Party in 1983.

Unequal electorates favoured the Coalition

Across the 151 lower house electorates, populations vary significantly by state. Tasmania, which swung decisively to the Coalition in 2022, has five electorates with 80,466 registered voters on average. Western Australia, which swung by more than 10% against the Coalition, has 15 seats with an average of 118,265 voters. South Australia, which swung to Labor by 4%, has ten with an average of 127,205 voters.

This could be evened up by consolidating Tassie into four seats and inserting an extra seat into either WA or SA. The reason this hasn’t happened, and won’t, is that section 24 of the Constitution guarantees every original state a minimum of five seats.

Voting trends by age

Voters aged 65 and above comprised 24.2% of all voters, despite being only 21.9% of the adult population. This continues a steady increase in senior engagement from just 18.8% in 2007 to 21.2% in 2013, then to 23% in 2019.

In contrast, voters aged 18 to 24 who comprise 11.0% of the population only contributed 9.9% of votes. This continues the decline in participation from 11.3% in 2007 to 10.5% in 2013, and 10.3% in 2019.

Impact of the pandemic

If elderly citizens were most affected by COVID-19 last year and were also the demographic most supporting a change of government, it is possible the pandemic aided the Coalition by preventing sick seniors from voting.

To its credit, however, the AEC took great efforts to maximise votes cast.

AEC Commissioner Tom Rogers reported that a record 121,000 electoral workers were employed nationwide. For the first time, COVID-affected voters could vote by telephone. Around 75,000 voters did so. More than 5.5 million voted early. Diplomatic mail bags were used to deliver postal votes from Aussies stranded abroad.

Likely longevity of Albo’s Labor Government

Commentators advise that on the 2022 configuration of seats, the Coalition cannot win the election due in 2025, are a long shot for 2028 and will probably lose again in 2031. That would give Prime Minister Albanese, or his successor in the event of a leadership change, a run of twelve years.

That is not unprecedented. John Howard won four successive elections for the Coalition from 1996 to 2004. Bob Hawke and Paul Keating won five for Labor from 1983 to 1993. The record is nine straight wins for the Coalition led by Robert Menzies, Harold Holt and John Gorton from 1949 to 1969.

Prospects for success will be enhanced by engaging younger Australians. 

Alan Austin is an Independent Australia columnist and freelance journalist. You can follow him on Twitter @alanaustin001.

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