Gerard Henderson has a rather turgid opinion piece in today’s SMH analysing Labor leader Mark Latham’s honeymoon period with the media. Most of it is fairly unremarkable stuff, but the following passage struck me as worthy of discussion:
Elections in Australia are invariably decided by people who in most other democracies would not vote, or who, if they choose to back a minor party or independent, would not express a preference for either of the major parties. This is due to the unique federal electoral system, which comprises compulsory and preferential voting – introduced in 1924 and 1918 respectively.
In other words, it is the essentially uncommitted and/or uninterested – living in marginal seats – who decide election outcomes in Australia. This makes the Australian electorate, as a whole, wary of change. Since the end of the Pacific War, the Government has changed hands only five times – 1949 (Menzies), 1972 (Gough Whitlam), 1975 (Fraser), 1983 (Hawke) and 1996 (Howard). The outcome in each case was determined by the change in allegiance of essentially non-political voters, along with a proportion of newly enrolled electors. …
Latham’s short-term task is to poll better than Beazley did in 1998 and 2001. The outcome will be decided by voters, not very interested in politics, who live in the outer suburbs and regional areas.
Such is Australian politics.
I assume that Henderson’s remarks are well-grounded in credible research findings, but can anyone point me towards such research?
My own “gut” feeling is that, although the “uninterested” voter phenomenon is very real (and accounts in large part for the success of Howard’s Tampa/children overboard strategy at the last federal election), there is also a substantial cohort of “swinging” voters who are at least somewhat interested and engaged with the political process, and whose votes may change in response to a rather more thoughtful evaluation of party performance and policy than Henderson suggests. Then again, maybe I’m just projecting my own political behaviour onto a wider section of the public than is justified. I have always been a fairly close observer of Australian politics, and yet I’ve been a “swinging” voter for most of my adult life, punctuated by almost a decade of committed ALP membership between 1984 and 1994. I wonder how many other bloggers and Troppo readers would categorise themselves as “swinging/uncommitted” voters, and how much the blogosphere differs from the general Australian norm? Feel free to ‘fess up in the comment box.
Update – John Quiggin picks up on the same passage from Henderson’s article, and (like me) doubts his assertion about the centrality of the “uninterested” voter.