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Vote-changing issues

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by Professor John Warhurst


Political outcomes are more often determined by the relative intensity of individual views rather than the arithmetic of raw public opinion. That needs to be born in mind as we embark upon a federal election campaign.

IT IS A FACT of politics that is often overlooked. Whether it is political issues or political leadership it is not just what the electorate thinks about the matter but how strongly they think about it that has an impact. In the case of Julia Gillard or Tony Abbott and/or in the case of the economy, the mining tax, climate change or asylum seekers, it is the strength of opinion that matters.

More particularly it is the likelihood of a voter changing their vote that matters. The bedrock of electoral support is deep identification with one party or another. Voters do change their minds from the previous election or from their general disposition but they do not do it easily. It is the potential vote-changers that really matter in politics. Among other things, this gives potential power to minorities in the community if they are determined enough to swing from one side to the other.

Those voters inclined or willing to change their vote have special leverage; those issues that might cause such voters to change their minds also have special leverage. That explains the attention given to categories of voters such as so-called “doctors’ wives” (previously Liberal voters) or “Howard’s battlers” ( previously Labor voters). It explains the self-congratulations in party circles when particular categories such as “professionals” or “Catholics” are detached from their traditional voting patterns.

This point can be explained by reference to the republic issue. Gillard has just signalled that her government, if re-elected, will not hold a referendum on the republic question during the next term, 2010-2013.  She explained that in her view the republic, while inevitable, was not yet a burning issue, that a community consensus was needed and that there must be a greater degree of evident activism and engagement in the electorate. Gillard argued that moving the republic issue forward should not be about political leadership but about community initiative.

Why would she say this given that Labor’s platform is republican and that Australians favour a republic by a margin of 60:40, a majority confirmed again and again in opinion polls? If her advisers have been reading the polls, and I’m sure they have been, she will know that not enough Australians have a sense of urgency about the republic. Of the 60% in favour only about half strongly favour a republic. They are the ones that matter politically.

Gillard would also look at the party political position, knowing that the Leader of the Opposition, Abbott, is a monarchist and has stated that Australia will not become a republic in his lifetime. Republicans have nowhere to take their vote in so far as the two major parties are concerned. The Liberals are not an option at the moment.

In a nutshell Labor does not believe that the republic is a vote-changer. It does not believe that many Labor-oriented republicans will desert the party over its inaction on the issue. Nor does it believe that, if Labor was actively pursuing the republic issue, that enough Liberal republicans would be attracted across to them.


Australian Greens leader, Senator Bob Brown.

The Greens are the most actively republican party at the moment. Senator Bob Brown moved a motion last year for a plebiscite to be held at the time of the 2010 election. The bill was rebuffed by the major parties. It remains to be seen whether republicans are attracted across to the Greens from Labor and the Liberals. If they are the issue becomes a vote-changer. If not then republicans are for the moment stuck without a way to express their views in an election.

Republicans who are attracted to the Greens have two options under Australia’s preferential voting system. They effectively have two votes. They can make a pro-republic statement and then return to their party of first choice; or they can vote Green and then switch their vote to the other major party. The former is a soft option in the House of Representatives but not in the Senate. The latter makes them real vote changers and signals the intensity of their views.

Such thinking can be applied in a wider way to this election. In regards to Gillard and Abbott themselves, opinions about them in the electorate really only matter electorally if they are intense enough to make pro-Gillard Liberals (perhaps women or secular humanists) vote Labor or make pro-Abbott Laborites (perhaps mine workers or social conservatives) vote Liberal.

In regards to other issues are there any vote-changers? The major parties are conscious of potential vote-changers and this drives their rush to the centre-ground. Gillard is taking the risk that social progressives will not desert Labor over social policy on questions such as asylum seekers and/or climate change in response to her conservative policies or lack of any policies at all. She is taking the risk that if such voters do move to the Greens that it will be just a soft vote change and that their second preferences will come back to Labor. At the same time, she wants to neutralise any issues, like the mining tax, that will loosen the ties of some other voters to Labor.

Gillard wants policies or perceived policies that enable her to retain the allegiance of both traditional Labor working families and social progressives. That is a complicated juggling act. She will succeed with some voters. The only voters likely to change their vote are those with extremely strong beliefs.

(John Warhurst is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and Deputy Chair of the Australian Republican Movement.)

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