The Indi Project: Soft voters say Turnbull better leader to handle a Trump presidency

Support for Cathy McGowan has strengthened notably since the last focus group discussion in May. Cathy McGowan

Soft voters in the Victorian seat of Indi are strengthening their support for independent member Cathy McGowan, but many are inclined to balance that out by opting for the Coalition in the Senate.

At a time when it is expected the election will see a significant number of micro-players in the upper house, the second round of the Indi Project’s focus group research found some of these soft voters looking for stability there.

A 53-year-old Wangaratta laboratory technician said: “I want my Senate rep to be working for a better long-term Australia, even if it is bad for my local area. Conversely, I want my [House of Representatives member] to work for my little Indi area, to help me in everyday ways.”

A younger male part-time customer-service representative from Wodonga felt “Cathy will get things done for our area. I think the major parties will be able to implement greater change in the Senate.”

Round two of the qualitative study, commissioned by the University of Canberra’s Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis and conducted by Landscape Research, was done online last Wednesday and Thursday nights. The 25 “soft voters” aged 18-71, 12 of them women, included retirees, full and part-time workers, small-business owners, those engaged with home duties, and students voting for the first time. About half had been in one of the first focus groups a fortnight before. “Soft” voters haven’t decided definitely for whom they will vote.

Support for McGowan had strengthened notably since the May 24 discussions, though some voters still struggle with what she stands for. She “needs to outline a more specific platform”; “I need to see more of her ideas”.

Feeling against the Liberals’ Sophie Mirabella – who lost the seat to McGowan – was intense before and has worsened. “She comes across as negative and her body language says a lot during this campaign,” said a childcare worker. Soft Liberal voters are leaning to her only because she represents the Liberal Party.

The Nationals’ Marty Corboy failed to get much traction in the fortnight in capitalising on Mirabella’s unpopularity among soft Coalition voters. Many still know little of him; his right-wing views on issues such as abortion, climate change and same-sex marriage have put off some.

While the ALP is putting the Liberals ahead of the Nationals on its how-to-vote cards in three seats where there is a Liberal-Nationals contest, it has placed Corboy (at number eight) ahead of Mirabella (at nine). Pre-polling starts on Tuesday.

Nationally, neither Malcolm Turnbull nor Bill Shorten is inspiring these Indi soft voters. For some it’s a question of who is the least worst. “Both [Liberal and Labor] are terrible at managing their money … I just feel Turnbull is less terrible,” said a young Yackandandah tradie.

These soft voters, like the Australian electorate generally, are jaded after the prime ministerial merry-go-round of recent years, the 2010-13 hung parliament, and what they see as tricky preference deals.

Trust has been eroded (though they keep things in perspective, with favourable comparisons to overseas). “The current revolving door of prime ministers, done without the consent of the public, means they can’t achieve anything meaningful in such a short time,” said one male student; according to a another, “The fact that we haven’t had a full-term prime minister since 2007 shows me that the parties are getting greedier and more detached from the people’s interests.”

The group was polarised about the possibility a hung parliament – whether it would result in independents twisting the government’s arm into bad decisions or would be a chance for them to keep the bastards honest.

On one view “too many independents will cause chaos in parliament” and “it can mean that the majority party may need to compromise too much”. On the other hand, “it would bring a fresh set of eyes to the table who might offer something others have missed”; “we have a lot of independents with really innovative and sensible policies – if they are able to implement some of those policies, perhaps more will be done for our country.”

Notwithstanding these differing views, many of these soft voters are confident of McGowan’s ability and integrity to make sensible choices if in a balance of power situation.

A first-time voter saw a paradox in this election: “It’s so ironic given that the election was made a double dissolution to remove the independents in the Senate, only for the Parliament to likely become dominated by them.”

Participants were asked who they would vote for from McGowan, Mirabella, or Corboy if the election were that day. It must be stressed the result has no statistical validity. But the trend is interesting. The primary vote for McGowan was three times as strong as that for Corboy and four times that for Mirabella, who received the lowest number of both primary votes and preferences out of the three candidates.

In the May 24 round, the results on first preferences were McGowan 35%, Mirabella 24%, Corboy 24%, others 18%. In this round McGowan received 16 votes (64%), Corboy five (20%), and Mirabella four (16%). In their allocation of second preferences, McGowan received five (20%), Corboy 11 (44%), and Mirabella nine (36%).

When participants were asked for a Senate vote, total Coalition support was 50% (Liberals 10, Nationals two), with 25% support for independents (six). Labor (three), Greens (two) and other minor parties (one) combined made up the remaining 25%. (One participant dropped out of the discussion before the Senate vote.)

“The strength of the Coalition vote in the Senate is likely a reflection of soft voters’ desire for stability in government (while supporting a good local representative in McGowan), the traditional conservative nature of the seat, the stated disaffection with the lower house candidate Mirabella, and either lack of knowledge about or dislike for the ‘far-right’ views of the Nationals candidate Corboy,” the researcher said in her report.

Over halfway into the campaign, these Indi soft voters remained disengaged from the election. “We just seem to have two parties waffling on about not much in general,” observed one participant; another said, “all they seem to be doing is finding fault with each other”.

There is cynicism about the campaign being more of the same. “Just dissing on each other,” observed a middle-aged factory worker, adding “each year it’s the same”.

For a retired small business owner it was “the same old same old. More schools, better health care, tax variation. As for a plan, they will offer whatever it takes to win the election.”

The Liberals’ “growth and jobs” mantra and Labor’s social policy agenda are getting some cut-through; so are the attacks on Labor’s big spending. But campaign promises are being met by these voters with disdain and distrust – politicians in the past have failed to act to deliver on their promises and now they are here with another round.

A semi-retired older woman from Beechworth cut to the chase: “The parties, all of them, always have ‘a plan’ when they are fighting … an election. The hard bit is getting them to stick to their promises, or even remember the ‘plan’ when they get into power. Too many times we are made promises, only to have those promises either put on the backburner, or not fulfilled at all.”

The discussion canvassed specific issues, including superannuation, where tax concessions for the wealthy will be cut whoever wins the election, and the Coalition’s plan to bring down company tax over a decade.

Superannuation is seen largely as a vehicle for the rich; many younger voters dismissed it because they are a long way from retirement – a 48-year-old male factory worker said “still ten years away for me”. One or two who’d be affected were narky. “But the dominant view is that the proposed super changes will remove a perk for the rich (and something many of these soft voters are unable to access) and they are therefore supportive of the move,” the researcher concluded.

There was uncertainty about the impact of the company tax move and a mix of views. Many were supportive of tax cuts for small business, but had reservations about the same concession for big business.

“On balance, it appears as if Labor’s framing of this policy has been effective, with many opposed and expecting ‘big business’ to pay more or at least ‘their fair share’,” the report said. “Trickle down economics hasn’t worked anywhere else,” a middle-aged man opined; a stay-at-home mother said “everything seems geared to help the big guys”, while a middle-aged female predicted “any jobs created will only be casual, or small part-time”, adding that part-time jobs didn’t create growth – “they only make employment numbers look good for politicians”.

A Wodonga retiree believed “reducing company tax on big business will only increase their profits and will have marginal impact on small companies who are struggling to pay any tax at all. I do not support universal tax cuts but rather increased tax on the most profitable and lower tax on small business.”

The discussion also tested views on the implications for Australia if Donald Trump became the US president, and whether Turnbull or Shorten would be the better leader to deal with him.

These voters were hostile to Trump and concerned about him. “Batshit crazy” was the blunt assessment of a small business owner from Killara. A Wodonga part-time educator declared Trump “an arrogant chauvinist and not smart enough to understand how ill-equipped he is to run a country”. A male retiree described him as “a terrible danger to the world if elected”.

There was some concern about Trump, if president, starting a war – with the implications for Australia. “Trump is the sort of person who will declare war on other countries readily, and that could have a big effect on us,” a student said.

Turnbull was regarded by many as the better leader to handle Trump, with Turnbull’s business experience and money cited by some as reasons. “Turnbull, because he is more business-minded”; “Trump is more likely to respect his money”; “they seem to be cut from the same cloth, they are both savvy businessmen”. Turnbull “would stand up for the Australian policies and not be bluffed by Trump”. Only one or two thought Shorten would do a better job.

A few thought neither would be up to the challenge, and looked to the past. “Can we bring back John Howard or even Kevin Rudd to deal with him?” an older woman asked rhetorically, while another lamented: “Actually what a pity Bob Hawke isn’t around anymore – he would give Donald a run for his money!”