Uncommitted or don’t give a rat’s?

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.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Jim
Jim
2022 years ago

Ken,
I ‘ve never seen research suggesting anything like that. My own personal,unscientific and therefore completely subjective view is that the number of “swinging voters” – an unfortunate term – is growing.
In fact Howard remarked on this recently when he said words to the effect that voters were becoming less partisan and more discerning in their voting patterns.
In my own family,parents and grandparents have backed Labor all their lives and always will.They can criticise Labor (and frequently do) but would simply never dream of voting any differently. Mark Latham could announce the permanent awarding of the State of Origin series to NSW and they wouldn’t change their mind.
They’d probably be bloody tested though!
My impression is that this blind tribal loyalty is breaking down to some extent and voters are prepared to vote the policies or the leader rather than past allegiance.
Hopefully this will make for better government rather than more sophisticated spin.
As to your challenge well… Bless me Father for I have sinned;I voted Labor at every local,state (Qld), and federal election until 1998 and haven’t since!
What’s my pennance?

Father Mork
Father Mork
2022 years ago

The fruits of the sin are punishment enough, my son.

Jim
Jim
2022 years ago

Mea culpa.

wen
wen
2022 years ago

In my own family,parents and grandparents have backed Labor all their lives and always will.They can criticise Labor (and frequently do) but would simply never dream of voting any differently. Mark Latham could announce the permanent awarding of the State of Origin series to NSW and they wouldn’t change their mind.

This is what they tell you, Jim, but can they really be trusted? My Grandma – a professed committed Labor supporter, the matriarch of a family of staunch Labor supporters – admitted after my Grandfather died that she had, in fact, never ever voted for those Labor ruffians – and never ever would… The things women do to keep the peace….

Jim
Jim
2022 years ago

Hey Wen – now you’ve got me wondering. I thought I was the only valiant political deviant in our mob.
Maybe there are a few underground dissenters?

Norman
Norman
2022 years ago

I recall U.S. research [admittedly some time back now]that consitently showed swinging voters tended to be less well informed on issues than those who voted consitently for the same Party. There was an extremely well informed minority within the swinging voters who also tended to be more vocal and articulate when it came to discussing issues, which probably helped produce the image of swingers in general being better informed.
A second regular, and interesting, finding was that elected representatives [whether they were progressive or conservative]tended on the whole to be less conservative than the voters they represented. I still recall vividly how depressing I found that at the time.
Finally, a consequence of compulsory voting that was seen as one factor in Menzies long run [and still may well be relevant, even if to a lesser degree these days?] was its effect of bringing unhappy followers of the Party in power — who in other countries would have remained at home, muttering about their Party’s failure to do enough — into the polling booth, at which point they couldn’t bear to do anything that helped the “evil socialists”.
Oh yes. It wasn’t only a matter of women voting differently from what they told their husbands. Menzies regularly received far more votes than anyone admitted to where I grew up, while the reverse occurred in some of my acquaintances’ suburbs.

Scott Wickstein
2022 years ago

I’ve been a solid Liberal voter from the start, but I’ll take a close look at Latham and if he’s okay I will consider voting ALP for once.

Howard really has nothing more to offer. He won’t deregulate anything more, so there’s no natural edge to the Liberal Party to keep me staying there.

Basically, if the ALP can persuade me that they won’t stuff up the economy, I will probably switch.

murph
2022 years ago

Basically, if the ALP can persuade me that they won’t stuff up the economy, I will probably switch

Oh they’ll persuade plenty of people but if they get in I’m cashing it all in and pissing off. There’ll be too many cs’s of this world with there heads in the trough. As I’ve said before, Latham may well be an individual who would be a good choice but he has a party full of parasites.

Dave Ricardo
Dave Ricardo
2022 years ago

“but if they get in I’m cashing it all in and pissing off.”

If you promise never to come back, I will pay your departure tax.

murph
2022 years ago

Yeah. You probably bloody owe me something anyway.

Anyway, who says I’ll be leaving by plane?

Robert
2022 years ago

Murph, I don’t care whether you leave by plane or if you swim, but you’ve just inspired me to campaign even harder for a Labor victory.

James HAmilton
James HAmilton
2022 years ago

I think many Labor supporters would be increasing the chances of their party taking government if they campaigned less hard.

Antony
Antony
2022 years ago

In the 1970s and 1980s I remember an English professor of political science, whose name escapes me, used to visit Australia at election time to observe what went on. I recall two particular comments he made. Firstly, he predicted that it would be a Labor government, not a Liberal/National government that would undertake the first privatisations, a predication that turned out to be spot on. Secondly, I remember him saying that a person’s first vote was the most important as the voter would tend to vote the same way in all future elections. This sounds quite plausible to me and I wonder if anyone knows any research that proves or disproves this proposition.

I recall that Menzies developed quite a following with younger voters, who liked his style and repartee, while older voters tended to recall the faults of his earlier years. The first vote effect may partly account for the Coalition’s continuing electoral success after Menzies’ retirement in 1966, which enabled it to keep power for another six years until Whitlam’s victory in 1972, notwithstanding its increasingly obvious internal decay.

If the voting pattern of a bunch of first-time voters does persist throughout their voting lives, this may bode ill for the Coalition in the medium to long term in that while the polls seem to indicate that the Coalition has the over 50s vote more or less sewn up, younger voters appear to be swinging Labor’s way.

I can’t resist ending with a statement of high principle: Only responsible people, like me, should have the vote. Young bastards shouldn’t vote. They’re irresponsible, as traffic accident statistics prove conclusively. Keep government in sound hands. Raise the minimum voting age! Harrumph!

Dave Ricardo
Dave Ricardo
2022 years ago

“an English professor of political science, whose name escapes me,”

It was David Butler. He was pretty good, too – much better than the only alternative at the time, Malcolm Mackerras.

Dave Ricardo
Dave Ricardo
2022 years ago

“an English professor of political science, whose name escapes me,”

It was David Butler. He was pretty good, too – much better than the only alternative at the time, Malcolm Mackerras.

Dave Ricardo
Dave Ricardo
2022 years ago

Antony, it was David Butler.

Dave Ricardo
Dave Ricardo
2022 years ago

Sorry about that. But it looked like my posts weren’t posting.

Homer Paxton
Homer Paxton
2022 years ago

the butler did it!

James Hamilton
James Hamilton
2022 years ago

Ah, youth.

I remember when I was young voting for the Australian Democrats in the Senate because while I tended to support the Coalition I did not want them to win control of the Senate.

If memory serves younger voters tend to support ALP but there is a significant chunk of RWDBs (Right Wing Death Brats?) out there. Bigger than you imagine after listening to JJJ.

Antony
Antony
2022 years ago

Dave, thanks for the advice. I thought his name was Butler, but I couldn’t remember his first name and thought that perhaps my mind had become confused by the various positions taken in recent years by the Queen’s current representative in Tasmania.

On winning elections, I’m reminded of some advice from the old master in this regard, Sir Robert Menzies, which was recorded on tape by David McNicoll when he interviewed Sir Robert on April 3, 1974. (As an aside, McNicoll told me that Billy McMahon, who was condemned by Menzies at one point as “a contemptible squirt”

Norman
Norman
2022 years ago

Butler wass correct about that first vote, but this interpretaion is a good example of confusing seeing a consequence as the cause. The causal factor is the collection of reasons combining to predispose the voter to voting a particular way in that first election. Its those factors, NOT merely the first vote per se, that are most relevant.
Sadly, Hamilton’s advice to some of Labor’s most energetic “supporters” do NOT campaign is spot on, but unlikely to be heeded.