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Finding a compass on why voters vote the way they do

Who has the voter’s eocnomic interests at heart plays the biggest role in determining voter allegiance. AAP/Theron Kirkman

Graham Richardson, the legendary Labor numbers man, pronounced last week that “if I was religious, I would pray that my long-held view that Labor will be slaughtered under Gillard’s leadership would be proven wrong.”

With so much noise around opinion polls, it is worthwhile reflecting on what motivates voters.

It’s difficult for even the most ardent of Labor supporters to argue with Richardson’s assessment. But there is cause for raising some hope for Labor supporters, and some reason to warn the Liberal party against premature hubris.

Most Australian voters seem to be “rusted-on” to a particular party - that is, we reflect consistently high levels of “party identification”.

Over an extended period, when political scientists have conducted surveys asking the question - “generally speaking, do you usually think of yourself as Liberal, Labor, National or what?” - 70 to 80% of voters opt for one of the major parties and another 10 to 20% for minor parties. The chart below tracks responses, and it should be considered that at the last four national elections, Labor averages 38% and the Liberals 36%.

Australian National Political Attitudes Survey 1969; Australian National Political Attitudes Survey 1979 and Australian Election Study, 1987 to 2010

Clearly federal Labor (not to mention the embattled NSW and Queensland branches) would love to see their primary vote at that level, instead of the current low 30s.

On closer examination we find that the “strength” of the so-called rusted-on voters declines for the “very strong” option. However when combined with “fairly strong” voters, it is clear that the parties do have their respective “heartland vote” and that Labor may have cause to believe over the next six months that it might begin to resonate again.

The question asked - “would you call yourself a very strong, fairly strong, or not very strong supporter of that party?” - is modelled in the graph below.

Australian National Political Attitudes Survey Wave I 1967 and Wave II 1969; Australian National Political Attitudes Survey 1979 and Australian Election Study, 1987 to 2010

This survey data - despite it being over a long period of time - points to the reality that parties need to reassure their heartland voters they resonate the values that first forged a voter’s party identification.

With regards to the current shambolic ALP, such data points to the task Gillard and her revamped ministry obviously confront. They must reaffirm core political, social and economic values and forge a level of competency in government that has so far - oddly given the experience of the Hawke-Keating era - deserted them.

One might offer different interpretations as to why so many voters seem so loyal. One possibility is that rusted-on-ness merely reflects many voters being unthinking and habitual in their lack of engagement with politics - in effect, just being apathetic. Alternatively, it might instead reflect something ranging from an informed and engaged commitment, through to a vague, but nevertheless comforting sense voters seek when they weigh up the political values embodied in a particular party.

It might thus be no more mysterious than the way in which most people seem to maintain their basic outlook on life experience. Beginning early on with family political outlooks derived in the working life experiences of pre-1970s such as the male bread winner, and in more recent times, simply from one’s parents. Of course, such political socialisation is mediated by one’s experience where education and occupation play a significant role in guiding how we weight up the political values the parties offer.

In a nutshell, the kind of continuity of party loyalty reflects a consistent judgement that the particular party one identifies with manages, on balance and most of the time, to best represents the voter’s economic interests.

In recent times this “economic determinism” shaping our choice of party on polling day is increasingly mediated by how we assess the capacity for political leadership, and indeed, the raw competency or not of a prime minister, premier or opposition leader.

In the mix as well is party unity – the truism of the phrase “if you cannot govern yourself, you cannot govern the country” is clearly cutting into the capacity for loyalty to party among Labor voters.

Also, standing aside from these factors is political luck, for nothing helps a government (or opposition) if scandal, disunity and raw incompetence visits their opponents. Clearly opposition leader Tony Abbott has lately enjoyed unprecedented luck.

Nevertheless, as we voters watch national politics over the next few months in the lead-up to the election, the policies the major parties tout may begin to overshadow the Rudd-Gillard tussle and open the way for a more typical election campaign from mid-August.

Those who follow national politics closely tend to bemoan the apparent convergence of the major parties in terms of their political values and policies. However, when asked in surveys voters simply do not share this assessment. Consistently they detect “difference”, but noticeably the “degree” of difference has eroded over time.

The question asked and modelled on the graph below is:

Considering everything the Labor Party and the Liberal Party stand for, would you say there is a good deal of difference between the parties, some differences between the parties, not much difference between the parties, no difference between the parties?

Australian National Political Attitudes Survey Wave I 1967 and Wave II 1969; Australian National Political Attitudes Survey 1979 and Australian Election Study, 1993 to 2010

Much more could be said about voter motivation. But my point here is to suggest that while a coalition government looks almost certain post-September, there remains hope for Labor that its well of rusted-on voters may be plumbed better than current polls indicate.

With the federal budget due in May, a reversal of such dire voter judgement may follow, as it traditionally does at this point of the electoral cycle. John Howard, for instance, managed that in 2001 as he tackled the threat that Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party posed to his side of politics.

But Howard led a united government, and with treasurer Peter Costello had mastered the art of political communication. This is something that Rudd and Gillard failed to develop. With Rudd seemingly now marginalised, Gillard has the chance to reassure Labor’s rusted-on base that the government’s core policies accord well with Labor “values”.

Clearly it is rather urgent for Gillard and her revamped ministry to appeal to Labor voters who are toying with desertion. In effect, these voters - while disappointed by the Gillard government’s competency - are also uncomfortable with their assessment of Abbott’s core political values and/or his capacity for economic management. That is the task ahead, beginning with May’s federal budget and the prospect of affirming Labor values that underpin the policies the budget seeks to advance.

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