Other than an obvious affinity for politics, federal Labor’s deputy leader Richard Marles and British Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson don’t have a great amount in common.
In recent times, however, both men have identified a new attribute that has emerged in the wake of their respective elections – the hover factor.
The British and Australian elections were similar insofar as Labour/Labor oppositions failed to unseat conservative governments which, on paper, deserved to be tossed given both had behaved appallingly and bowled up three prime ministers in four years.
Yet the conservatives won both contests, due largely to traditional low-income Labor/Labour voters switching sides. But only after significant hesitation in the polling booth.
Two days after the British election, Johnson travelled to Tony Blair’s old northern-English seat of Sedgefield, held by Labour since 1935, to thank those who had shifted.
“I know how difficult it was, and it can be, to make that kind of decision. And I can imagine people’s pencils hovering over the ballot paper and wavering, before coming down for us, the Conservatives,” he said.
“I know that people may have been breaking the voting habits of generations to vote for us; and I want the people of the north-east to know that we in the Conservative Party, and I, will repay your trust.”
The hover factor
Back in October, Marles, too, spoke of those Labor voters whose hands hovered over the ballot paper as they agonised over their decision.
He spoke of a coalminer he met at an ALP branch meeting in Moranbah in the seat of Capricornia, one of the swag of Queensland coal seats, which rejected Labor emphatically at the May 18 election.
“A third-generation coalminer, who was Labor born-and-raised, through and through, told me of his inner angst at what would normally be a matter- of-fact putting a ‘one’ in the Labor square,” Marles said.
“To the point where he laboured over the ballot paper in his hand for 10 minutes, just staring at it.
“Because, he wondered to himself, ‘why would I vote for Labor, when Labor
aren’t for me?’ ”
In the end, the man voted for Labor but it was, said Marles, a vote “cast not out of hope but despair”.
The miner’s concern was Labor’s anti-aspirational message. Hundreds of thousands like him also hovered before voting Liberal.
Since the British election, sections of the commentariat have bloviated that it served as another wake-up call for Australian Labor.
However, Labor had already woken up and was not the least bit surprised at the drubbing handed out to the hapless Jeremy Corbyn.
Clear and simple message
About three weeks before that election, Labor’s new national secretary, Paul Erickson, returned from Britain convinced Corbyn would be defeated by the same voters who turned on Australian Labor.
“There were significant differences between the UK election and ours, but from the voters’ perspective the picture was similar,” Erickson says.
“Labour made big spending promises that ultimately unnerved many of the voters they were designed to appeal to, and didn’t bring their campaign together into a compelling narrative that met the electorate where it is.
“This contrasted with a clear and simple message on constant repeat from the conservative side of politics.”
As politics enters a new year and a new decade, the instability that marred the past 10 years seems over. A new battle has begun – for the centre.
Scott Morrison has his nose in front but just as Labor’s challenge is to win back those voters who deserted it, Morrison’s challenge is to keep them.
As this newspaper observed on the eve of the federal election, Labor was making its task harder than it otherwise should have been against what had been a rabble of a government.
Winning back the people’s trust and satisfaction is one of the most urgent challenges facing our political leaders and institutions.
— Professor Ian McAllister, ANU
The tightening opinion polls and the deadlocked qualitative analysis showed Labor’s tax and redistribution agenda had given progressive middle voters pause for thought when they otherwise would have dumped the Coalition without a second thought.
People who cared passionately about the environment and climate change, two policy fails for the Coalition, also cared about their personal economic circumstances.
Neither party had overwhelmingly appealed to a progressive middle, which wants the environment taken seriously, along with a small-government approach to economic management.
For the middle, it was a case of having to make a choice between which priority they value most. They hovered before opting for the economy.
Morrison is aware of the power of the centre and the need to woo it.
Atypically for a conservative, he is a strong supporter of compulsory voting because he believes it keeps Australian politics centred and far less radical than that in Britain and the United States, where non-compulsory voting requires parties to appeal to the fringes just to prod people into turning up.
And look at the polarised mess they have become.
Won in the middle
Morrison noted recently that compulsory voting ensures everyone turns up and limits the influence of the fringes on the left and right.
Malcolm Turnbull, whose oft-stated mantra that elections are won in the middle, was the last prime minister to appeal overtly to the centre. He was an economic conservative but socially and environmentally aware.
Before him, it was Kevin Rudd. Both Rudd and Turnbull at their height enjoyed stratospheric public approval ratings. But they failed on delivery.
Going forward, Labor leader Anthony Albanese has openly acknowledged his party is striving for economic credibility in order to shift back to the centre.
The poor figures released in the mid-year budget update just before Christmas give Labor hope on this front that it can neutralise what is a traditional Coalition strength.
“They won’t vote for you if they think you are a risk,” said a Labor strategist.
“It’s not about ideology. They want to know you won’t wreck the joint.”
At the same time, Morrison is seriously lacking on the environmental front and efforts to redress this shortfall are less obvious.
This is being highlighted by the ravaging effects of climate change, which has the nation firmly in its grip. Yet many in the Coalition are still too frightened or stubborn to even acknowledge climate change is a driving factor.
With neither side successfully appealing to the middle, the electorate is polarised and trust in government is terrible.
In early December, a major post-election study by the Australian National University found trust in government was at its lowest level on record, with just one in four Australians saying they had confidence in their political leaders and institutions.
Confidence in the state of our democracy was at similar crisis levels.
“I’ve been studying elections for 40 years, and never have I seen such poor returns for public trust in and satisfaction with democratic institutions,” lead researcher Professor Ian McAllister says.
The findings, he says, “were a clear warning the nation’s politicians needed to do better in their efforts to represent and win the confidence of everyday Australians.
“With faith in democracy taking major hits all over the globe, winning back the people’s trust and satisfaction would appear to be one of the most pressing and urgent challenges facing our political leaders and institutions.”
Least worse option
The study reinforced the fact that neither party appealed on both the economy and the environment.
The Coalition had a strong advantage when it came to voters’ perceptions on who could manage the economy, while Labor had the advantage on environmental issues.
“Voters swung to the Coalition based on the economy, tax and leadership. Voters swung to Labor on the environment,” says Dr Jill Sheppard who worked on the study.
“What the study shows is that a key concern for voters was the economy. And this is what tipped the balance in favour of the Coalition.”
Similarly, a post-election study conducted in late May by JWS Research found those who voted for the victor did so predominantly on issues of economic management (25 per cent), while those who voted for Labor were motivated predominantly by climate change (30 per cent).
Respected researcher Tony Mitchelmore of Visibility Consultants says he was not the least bit surprised by the ANU findings regarding trust.
You seem to have this situation at the moment where people are more at the extremes. It’s a contest of who do you least like.
— Tony Mitchelore, Visibility Consultants
“I’ve been saying that strongly for some time,” he says.
While Morrison won the election and the Coalition has maintained a lead in the polls ever since, Mitchelmore says, “it’s more precarious for Morrison than he realises”.
“The underlying disgruntlement on all the issues, which drove the expectation of change [at the last election], the economy, climate change, are still there.
“Labor lost that election but it doesn’t mean people are happy with the government.
“Morrison was the least worse option, or they were more scared of [Bill] Shorten.”
Mitchelmore is not a big fan of quantitative polling, the type that gives you percentages for parties and leaders. His strength is qualitative polling, otherwise known as focus groups.
So much so, that he and the late Neil Lawrence masterminded South Australian Labor’s highly improbable victory in 2014 using nothing but messages gleaned from focus groups.
Mitchelmore says the focus groups he’s doing at the moment detect a frustration with both major parties not connecting with the centre.
“It rings absolutely true with what I see in focus groups,” he says. “You seem to have this situation at the moment where people are more at the extremes. It’s a contest of who do you least like.”
Climate change reluctance
He finds it perplexing and says if someone were to start a political party today from scratch, it would be fairly straightforward.
“They have to listen to the people and not to the extremes of their parties,” he says.
Mitchelmore likened the climate change reluctance inside the Coalition to those who were out of touch with community sentiment on same-sex marriage.
“They are being held hostage by their base. It’s not research driven.”
Yet, while climate change is a signature concern, he says “the economy triumphs”.
“People want action on climate change for sure but the economy and cost of living and jobs and private health cover all still dominate.”
Neutralising the Coalition on economic management, as Kevin Rudd managed to do before the 2007 election with his “I’m an economic conservative” commercials, is a “condition of entry”, says Mitchelmore.
“That’s where Albo is trying to get to as well.”
Turnbull would have been more successful had he been able to stretch his legs on the environment and social issues “but his party held him back from that”.
As the summer progresses and the droughts and fires worsen, the line between the economy and the climate will, however, continue to blur.
In 2007, John Howard lost power in part because he was viewed as being out of touch on climate change at the same time Australia was in the midst of a severe drought.
“It was a big card for Labor to play in ’07,” Mitchelmore says.
“The place was in drought, dam levels were dangerously low, [desalination] plants were being built.”
Mitchelmore sees similarities ahead of the next election, especially as this drought is more severe and shows no sign of abating.
“It’s getting there again. Everyone’s backyard looks terrible, I love my lawn. It’s dangerous for Morrison to be ideological on the issue”
Ill-timed holidays aside, Morrison is attuned to the electoral concerns over climate but it remains to be seen whether his party will allow him to respond as necessary.
The battle for the centre is under way.
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