March 3, 2022

Federal politics

Preferential treatment

By Russell Marks
Image of United Australia Party leader Clive Palmer. Image © Bianca De Marchi / AAP Images

United Australia Party leader Clive Palmer. Image © Bianca De Marchi / AAP Images

Polls have for months been predicting a Labor landslide at the next election, but what role might the United Australia Party play when it comes to preferences?

“Alarm bells ring,” reported The Australian’s page-four headline at the end of January. The first Newspoll of the year gave Labor a triumphant 12-point lead in the two-party-preferred stakes. Just over 1500 online respondents told the polling company that just 34 per cent of them would be preferencing a Coalition party first at the approaching election, down from 40 per cent in the middle of last year. For the first 18 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Newspoll had reported that the Coalition and Labor were neck and neck. But the last eight months have seen the Coalition’s vote drop off a cliff.

The lowest primary vote to win a federal election in the modern two-party era was 38 per cent, achieved by Labor in 2010, following which Julia Gillard’s administration couldn’t form government in its own right, but managed to woo a couple of ex-Nationals independents. John Howard’s Coalition also snuck over the line at the GST election in 1998 with 39.5 per cent of the primary vote. But they’re the exceptions that prove the general rule: parties that poll less than 40 per cent of the primary vote find it very difficult to form government. That late January Newspoll had Labor sitting pretty on 41 per cent. A fortnight later, things were much the same: Newspoll reported primary votes at 34 per cent for the Coalition and 41 per cent for Labor, though the two-party-preferred vote had narrowed slightly to 10 points.

Can these numbers be right? Is Labor really heading for a resounding victory, led by the unlikeliest of prime ministers in Anthony Albanese? Those who hope that’s the case have built up a narrative to explain the data. Bereft of any legislative agenda beyond that forced on it by Jacqui Lambie, religious right-wingers or Peter Dutton, the Morrison government has concentrated on its core business – pork-barrelling – while its prime minister has blundered from one gender-related own-goal to another. Scotty from Marketing has become, in Labor’s focus-group inspired phraseology, Scott the Salesman, a snake-oil merchant peddling little more than platitudes and rhetoric until someone asks him a difficult question, at which point he stops the interview or walks away from the press conference. Hollow governments are eventually found out, which is what’s happening to this one.

The narrative fits the evidence. But is it enough to explain why the Coalition’s voters are deserting it for Albanese’s Labor Party? I have a friend who doubles, at election time, as my own personal Eden-Monaro: he doesn’t pay attention to the minutiae of Canberra-bubble politics, his political knowledge is mediated entirely through commercial news, and he traditionally votes Labor, but historically he’s known when a swing is on. The first time he noticed the Coalition in any kind of strife was when the government ballsed-up Novak Djokovic’s visa ahead of January’s Australian Open. “Until then I thought Morrison had been doing an okay job,” he told me. “At least since the bushfires.” He remains far from convinced by the prospect of PM Albanese.

But Eden-Monaro’s status as the nation’s bellwether seat ended in 2016, and there’s no guarantee that my own poll (sample size: 1) is more accurate than Newspoll, despite that company’s (far from unique) error in 2019. The most recent polls by Roy Morgan and Resolve Strategic report the Coalition’s primary vote at a figure even lower than Newspoll’s.

But if the primary vote remains the easiest path to electoral victory – and the most lucrative (each party or independent that receives more than four per cent of the primary vote will have their electioneering costs “reimbursed” at a rate of $2.914 per vote) – it’s a very 20th-century basis of psephological analysis. The primary vote was a sound predictor of election outcomes when, as in 1993, nearly nine in every 10 voters put a “1” next to a Labor or Coalition party candidate. That proportion has been on the slide ever since. In 2019 more than a quarter of all voters gave their first preference to a minor party or independent. Preferences have mattered since 1918, but now they really matter.

And they complicate the work of polling companies. Newspoll continues to operate in the traditional way: it asks respondents for their first preference, then extrapolates preferences from the way they flowed in 2019. So: if an election were held tomorrow, 34 per cent would vote for the Coalition first, 41 per cent would vote Labor, 8 per cent would vote Greens and 3 per cent would vote One Nation. (14 per cent would vote for someone else, which I’ll come back to later.) Using preference flows at the 2019 election, Newspoll predicts that, after preferences, 55 per cent of voters would favour Labor over the Coalition. Assuming the swing across all seats is more or less uniform, Labor would double the minimum swing it needs to form a majority government.

The biggest unknown factor in the Coalition’s poll collapse since June has been the United Australia Party, which has already reportedly spent $30 million on pre-election advertising. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to go anywhere without seeing those yellow billboards. Guardian Australia reports the party has spent $2.83 million just on YouTube this year – and is planning to spend much more. The whole show is financed by Clive Palmer, now Australia’s seventh-richest person via his Singapore-based mining company Mineralogy. The $84 million he spent on the 2019 election netted him no seats, but this time he’s running candidates in every seat and is deliberately courting the anti-vaxxer vote – or at least the vote of those opposed to vaccine mandates, which amounts to much the same thing. Palmer is an uber-rich man frustrated by what he defines as government “overreach” (such as labour laws). Like Donald Trump, he’s tapping into a well of similar discontent experienced by a vocal minority. “We can never trust the Liberals, Labor, the Greens or the Nationals again” is infinitely more cynical than the Australian Democrats’ old motto “Keep the bastards honest”. Unlike Trump, he’s been unable to take over a major party, so he’s financing his own.

Polling companies have been publishing first-preference voting intentions for the Greens and One Nation, but not for the UAP. For those hoping for a Labor win, if only to put the nine-year-old Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison shitshow mercifully to rest, there’s a nightmare scenario. What if the 14 per cent who intend to vote “other” are mostly voting UAP? What if the drop in the Coalition’s primary vote has been caused by anti-vaxxers leaving it for the UAP? If the UAP gets, say, seven per cent of the vote and directs it all back to the Coalition, the government could yet be headed for a fourth term.

Newspoll seems to have scuttled that possibility. This week’s Newspoll published, for the first time this term, a separate first-preference intention for the UAP. Despite Palmer’s millions and Craig Kelly’s ubiquity on Sky News Australia, it’s still only sitting at 4 per cent: an increase of just 0.57 percentage points on its 2019 election result. These voters include Coalition refugees, but some of them are so angry with the government they might just preference Labor out of spite. “I just don’t trust them anymore,” UAP candidate Jefferson Earl told the ABC recently. “I used to vote Liberal all the time but I found myself voting for the UAP in 2019.” A third of UAP voters preferenced Labor in 2019. But UAP preferences may not matter. A recent News Corp survey has a third of all voters intending to shift their vote this election – including 11 per cent of those who previously voted for the Coalition who say they’ll vote Labor this time. The government isn’t so much leaking voters to minor parties. It’s leaking them to the Opposition. That’s electorally fatal.

The other nightmare scenario, of course, is that most of this drift from the Coalition to Labor is in seats already held by the Labor Party, and which missed out on all the pork-barrelled grant cash. Meanwhile, voters in marginal seats have been showered with pork-barrelled confetti via at least seven schemes that have seen ministers approve grants for blatantly political reasons and regardless of objective criteria. If the five per cent who voted Labor in 2019 and who – according to News Corp – are intending to vote Coalition this time are concentrated in marginal seats, the election will be a lot closer than it currently looks. This kind of detailed seat-by-seat polling isn’t being published yet, so we can’t know how uniform the predicted 7.5 per cent swing – that’s William Bowe’s figure, averaged from the four published polls – will be across the electorate.

The Guardian Essential poll, which gets respondents to allocate their own two-party preferences, has Labor leading 49–45 (six per cent say they’re undecided). Roy Morgan’s latest poll, which also asks respondents to allocate two-party preferences, has Labor on a whopping 57–43 lead, which must surely be wrong. All companies have Labor ahead in most states – including Queensland – though Essential reports that the Coalition has its nose in front in New South Wales and has dramatically narrowed the gap in Victoria this year. If these mini trends in the two most populous states are keeping Coalition hopes alive, the betting markets haven’t noticed. Notwithstanding the polling companies’ collective failure in 2019, no government has ever recovered from this far behind in the polls this close to an election.

All indications at this stage are that Anthony Albanese will become just the fourth Labor politician – and surely the least likely, after Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke and Kevin Rudd – to lead the party into government from Opposition since World War Two. No doubt part of the reason we’re finding this so difficult to imagine is that it’s not at all clear what an Albanese government would actually do differently, beyond create a federal anti-corruption commission and (hopefully) stop the pork-barrelling. If the polls can be believed, voters are saying that even that much would be very welcome, thank you.

Russell Marks

Russell Marks is a lawyer and an adjunct research fellow at La Trobe University. He is the author of Crime and Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System (Black Inc., 2015). 

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