The Indi Project: ‘Soft’ voters trust Turnbull over Shorten to run the country

Older people in the Indi focus group regarded Malcolm Turnbull as the more charismatic, but felt Bill Shorten was ‘more for the regular Joe’. AAP

Malcolm Turnbull is overwhelmingly more trusted than Bill Shorten to lead the country, and also is seen as the better campaigner, in the final round of Indi focus group research among “soft” voters in the seat.

Despite the major parties being out of favour with many of these “soft” voters, people are impressed with Turnbull’s charisma, previous business acumen and moderate personal views on issues such as same-sex marriage and climate change.

Two focus groups were held in Wodonga on June 21, the campaign’s penultimate week, with people from various locations. One group had eight voters aged 60-77; the other, ten people aged 23-53. Some participants had been in one or both previous tranches of the study done for the University of Canberra’s Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis by Landscape Research. Soft voters were defined as people who had not definitely decided their vote.

While there was division among older voters about the leaders’ performance in the campaign (a 4-4 split on who had performed best), younger voters mostly gave it to Turnbull (7-3).

Older people regarded Turnbull as the more charismatic, but felt Shorten was “more for the regular Joe” – not that these voters have had any opportunity to see either leader in the flesh during the campaign.

Nobody would have expected Shorten to go to Indi, because Labor is a minor player there. But Turnbull’s absence is notable – reflecting in part the Liberals’ judgement about the prospects of their candidate Sophie Mirabella, who lost the seat to independent Cathy McGowan in 2013 and is now fighting what is considered a doomed battle to come back.

“It all comes down to this confidence, this savoir faire,” said an older voter of Turnbull. Another said: “He’s certainly more charismatic and more capable than Shorten of expressing an opinion”.

Comments in the younger group included: “Turnbull dressed to impress”; “Turnbull seems like he’s more financially savvy and has a longer-term view - more articulate”; “bit more positive than Shorten”.

After more than six weeks of the campaign Shorten was still an unknown quantity for some, particularly older voters. “Out of a line-up I could tell you who Turnbull was – I couldn’t pick Shorten, unless it was a line-up of two and Turnbull was the other one,” said an older voter; another said “You just don’t know what you’re going to get with him”. A younger voter couldn’t “even picture Shorten”.

His union background was among other negatives about Shorten, including one specific local instance. “He was involved in [a union intervention] down in Cobram [in the Murray electorate] a few years ago and he messed it up and it’s still messed up.”

A 77-year-old retired truck driver from Wodonga said: “I don’t go much for Shorten. I’ve been a union man all my life but I sort of can’t trust what I see of him … I’ve voted Labor all my life but I’m changing this year”.

When they discussed who they trusted more to lead the country the older voters broke 5-3 for Turnbull, while the split in the younger group was 8-2, making a total of 13-5 in support of Turnbull.

Turnbull was “more calm and well-spoken [with] longer-term thinking,” said one in the younger group; another found him “a bit more honest and transparent”. Those who said they would trust Shorten more to lead said they’d like him given “a go” and they felt he was more in touch with average Australians. “Shorten comes across as straightforward and honest.”

The focus groups met before the Brexit decision but when Shorten was ramping up his claims that a Liberal government would privatise Medicare. This was cutting through with these voters, just as they were starting to take notice of some issues in the campaign.

Many thought Shorten’s proposition was plausible, especially because of the Liberals’ perceived past “form”. “Medicare Locals are all gone … They said they weren’t going to shut those down”; “Turnbull’s come out and said he wouldn’t privatise Medicare, but he hasn’t said he wouldn’t privatise aspects of it. I think that’s the issue.”

Some questioned the logic and practicality of privatisation, thinking this was just a Labor scare campaign, or dismissing it because it would be suicidal for the Liberals. “Which company’s going to take on Medicare anyway? Isn’t it a drain on the country?”; “on balance I don’t think the Coalition would be brave enough to privatise Medicare”.

The groups canvassed same-sex marriage – on which the government promises a plebiscite while the opposition pledges to legalise it in a Labor government’s first 100 days. Mostly the issue has remained on the fringes of the campaign. In both groups there was some confusion about the difference between a “plebiscite” and a “referendum”, but other participants were able to explain the distinction to those who didn’t know.

Younger voters were generally in favour of same-sex marriage, and so didn’t see the need for a plebiscite. “Just do it”; “it’s the way of the future”; “[the plebiscite is] a very expensive way of addressing something that I see as inevitable.”

Among soft older voters, some agree with same-sex marriage, some are totally opposed on religious grounds, while others want to have a voice. “I don’t want just the politicians to decide. It’s such a big change to our social fabric, that I want to have a say.”

Some older voters opposed a plebiscite, feeling the politicians should sort the issue. Others felt a plebiscite was a waste because politicians could still vote any way they wanted. Later in the week, a debate broke out nationally when Turnbull said that if the plebiscite was carried cabinet ministers would have a free vote on the enabling legislation (although he was confident it would be overwhelmingly passed).

Among older voters, there was a recognition a plebiscite was a solution to Turnbull’s bind – in being caught between those opponents of same-sex marriage in Liberal ranks and his own support for it.

In this campaign Turnbull has unrelentingly made “jobs and growth” his mantra. By the second last week the Indi soft voters were aware of it but thought it lacked meat, wondering how the jobs were going to be created. Labor’s policy of offering businesses assistance to take on an unemployed person got some attention from older soft voters, with some sceptical that it would create jobs.

Older voters noticed the Labor launch, which had been held in Sydney at the start of the week. “I had a bloody good laugh,” said a semi-retired woman from Beechworth. “In what world has the Labor party ever been united in the last five years? I mean, they’re spruiking unity? Pl-ease. My goodness, all of a sudden they love each other?”

The environment, education and retirement income were issues that older voters had expected to hear about during the campaign but little had registered with them. This is despite education in particular being at the heart of the Shorten pitch. It’s likely that different segments of the population tune into particular issues of relevance to them; also, a lot of propaganda is very targeted in modern campaigns, now that parties have so much data about individual voters.

When asked who would win the election, many of these voters predicted a hung parliament. Pushed for a winner, all but one of the older participants thought the Coalition more likely than Labor, while the younger ones split evenly.

McGowan’s refusal to say who she would support if the parliament were hung polarised these soft voters. They were divided over who she should side with, if the situation arose; some said it should be the Coalition because of the generally conservative nature of Indi; others said the ALP (“Cathy seems a bit more aligned with Labor”).

Some thought she was just like other politicians, in keeping things close to her chest to get more votes from people who mightn’t like her leaning. Others believed it was a good thing because she was waiting to see the result.

These voters are not thinking in terms of how their futures would be affected by a change of government. There is a sense that they expect “business as usual” whoever wins. “In spite of their deep cynicism about politicians and party politics, soft Indi voters actually implicitly trust the Australian democratic process to deliver a ‘stable’ outcome – so much so that for many it doesn’t matter who wins,” the researcher said in her report on the discussions.

But there is a desire among some for whoever wins to get control of the Senate. In this, Indi voters probably differ from electors elsewhere, given the high support in recent polls for “micro” players. The Indi voters seem to be balancing their backing for an independent in the House of Representatives with a wish for stability, reflected in their thinking about the Senate.

As previously, participants were asked who they would vote for. This time they filled out a full mock ballot paper. The results in this qualitative research have no statistical validity but once again indicate interesting points. “To some degree, voting in Indi is being driven by who soft voters know they DON’T want to vote for,” the researcher said. “Many participants actually started voting from number ten [there are ten candidates] and eliminated those they felt they didn’t want to vote for.”

Mirabella was placed tenth by five of the 18 voters in the groups, and first by just three. The first preference choices were: McGowan 12 (67%), Mirabella three (17%), the Nationals’ Marty Corboy two (11%), with a minor candidate receiving the other vote. Over the three tranches McGowan has strengthened her position among focus group participants, especially between the first and second rounds.

When people were asked for second preferences, the results were: McGowan two, Mirabella two, Corboy one, the Greens’ Jenny O'Connor five, Labor’s Eric Kerr two, with the rest scattered among minor candidates.

On all the present indications, McGowan is expected to comfortably retain Indi, after preferences.

The researcher summed up the nature of this contest: “Indi is a race of personality, of incidents around the personalities, of who’s been seen out and about. There is little in the way of policy or issues that is captivating voters.”