The Eden-Monaro project: voters say we are getting too presidential

Many voters wouldn’t be keen to have a beer with either Tony Abbott or Kevin Rudd. AAP/Lukas Coch

Australian politics is becoming too “presidential”, in the view of participants in our Eden-Monaro focus group. And, they believe, this election has been going on too long.

In their first discussion since Kevin Rudd called the September 7 poll most participants, regardless of political persuasion, were unhappy that there was such a focus on the leaders when it was the party and its policies or local candidates that people voted for.

“Unfortunately our politics are becoming more like the USA every election,” said an older Moruya woman, who does not identify with a party, when people were asked whether they thought Australian politics was becoming too presidential. A Liberal supporter from Eden said “our leaders’ antics are becoming more like the USA presidential show. Remember we vote for a party not an individual.”

A Liberal-voting man from Sunshine Bay said: “we need to remember that we do not elect a leader. It’s the winning party that does that and, as we’ve seen all too frequently recently, they can do so whenever they please.”

A few people made the point that it was the leaders themselves, not Australian politics generally, that were becoming more presidential. “Kevin 747 is changing to a presidential style because that’s how good he thinks he is”, said a man from Bendoura who votes Liberal.

When people were asked to nominate their three most important issues in deciding how they would vote, leadership was actually well down the list.

Voters divided largely on party lines about the performance of the leaders, and who’d be the better PM. Labor voters saw Kevin Rudd as a better communicator who understood the average Australian and could be trusted; Liberal supporters thought Abbott, though untested, was trustworthy, humble and had the business sense and abilities to govern the country.

But would they like to have a beer with one of these guys? In many cases, no thanks.

A man from Jerrabomberra put it succinctly: “Truth be known, I’d prefer to wash my hair or do the ironing instead of having a drink with either of them”.

When asked to nominate a choice, others, mainly Labor supporters would prefer a drink with Rudd because he was seen as the more personable and approachable. “He knows how to party!” said a middle aged Tuross Heads woman who votes ALP. But a Liberal woman from Eden said: “A Drink? Would choke if it was with KR, and he would expect me to pay for it!”

The seemingly endless electioneering is taking its toll of voter patience, in Eden-Monaro as in the country. A Queanbeyan Labor voter said “I turn off the news as much as possible”; a young Greens supporter from Berridale confessed, “I just want it finished – I’m sick of it already”.

Liberal supporters believed the election was important for the country and them personally and agreed with Abbott’s statement that it is the most important election of a generation. They predicted the Coalition would win. While some were less certain about the Liberal candidate Peter Hendy carrying Eden-Monaro, others thought he would be successful.

But Labor and Green backers didn’t regard the election as important for them personally and rejected the notion it was the most important for a generation. There was a degree of cynicism about how much would actually change for these participants and they felt it was difficult for a party to achieve long term goals in three years. These people believed Labor would win and Mike Kelly would hold the seat.

A Green voter from Braidwood resorted to the old joke. “Whoever you vote for, a politician gets in”.

Both leaders are focusing heavily on the economy at the election and when asked to nominate (from a provided list) the three most important issues in deciding how they would vote, the Eden-Monaro voters put management of the economy at the top (14) This was followed by protecting the environment (9), ensuring the quality of Australia’s health system (9) and Australian jobs and protection of local industries (8).

People mostly split along party lines when discussing Rudd’s ability to manage the economy. Labor, independent and Green voters said he was doing it well now and he had managed the GFC fallout effectively. But Liberals were critical of his economic performance then and now, saying the only reason Australia got through the GFC was because the Coalition had left a considerable surplus – which Rudd had spent unwisely.

Liberal supporters thought the economy fragile; they were more likely to suggest cutting spending rather than raising taxes to get the budget into surplus. Labor and Green backers, while saying the economy was not as strong as it could be, were more positive about it. They were cautious about cutting spending and preferred raising taxes – they felt a rapid return to surplus was not important if it meant that people would be hit with cuts to health and education.

Voters were divided about whether action on climate change was an important election issue. Greens, Labor and independent voters felt it was crucial that it be addressed effectively and were frustrated it was not being taken seriously and not enough was being done.

But some participants, regardless of their politics, said it was not an important issue for the election. A few believed it was no longer an issue because the carbon tax had been scrapped and an emissions trading scheme was being introduced (next year). This was seen to be a fairer system with less impact on individual finances.

The female Labor voter from Tuross Heads said: “Carbon tax was created to appease the Greens and hung parliament. ETS is better measure”.

Others argued action on climate change was important but not necessarily an election issue – matters such as jobs were more significant. “Climate is not a priority for the election: it should be handled after the election when everything has calmed down”, said a middle aged woman from Merimbula.

Climate sceptic Liberals didn’t see the need for any action. “Sydney Harbour is a flooded river valley”, said a Liberal woman from Eden. “Change is ever present”.

Regardless of their vote, people recognised that the issue of asylum seekers was complex.They thought it an important election issue but divided on party lines on whether the policies of both sides would be effective in stopping the boats.

While there was support from people who identified as Labor, Green, and Liberal for the ALP policy (“Rudd at least understands the changes occurring offshore”, said a Queanbeyan Liberal), there was also a high level of criticism. Some were concerned that Rudd’s policy simply shifted the problem to other countries. These participants either had no knowledge of Abbott’s policy or thought that turning back boats was inhumane.

Liberal voters were critical of Rudd’s policy, saying it wouldn’t be effective and was another example of making policy without thinking it through. Some blamed him personally for the many arrivals and the deaths at sea. Abbott’s policy was seen as more effective. “PNG is a Christian country and having a a huge influx of Muslims would be destabilising”, said a Narooma Liberal voter.

This focus group discussion saw the level of partisanship sharpen.

Either people were more open, or the divisions are becoming clear as voting day approaches. Participant reported seeing a greater level of activity locally although it was not consistent across the electorate.

THE RESEARCH: The Eden-Monaro online focus group is conducted by Essential Research (with recruitment by Your Source) for the University of Canberra’s ANZSOG Institute for Governance in conjunction with The Conversation.

The group’s views will be tracked up to the election.

Twenty four participants took part in the discussion last Wednesday andThursday. This was the fourth of six planned discussions.

READERS’ QUESTIONS: We invite residents in Eden-Monaro to submit questions to be put to Mike Kelly or Peter Hendy (or both). Email toMatt.Dawson@Theconversation.edu.au We will pass on a selection. Please include your name and district: we will give the candidate your district but not your name. Replies will be published later in the campaign.