“Soft” voters who took part in focus groups in the Sydney seat of Wentworth this week were probably speaking for a vast number of Australians when they vented their disgruntlement with the two leaders who are fighting out this election.
These voters didn’t like Scott Morrison one bit. But they couldn’t think of much positive to say about Anthony Albanese.
They do have another course open to them in this eastern suburbs seat. A high profile independent, Allegra Spender, is the main challenger to Liberal incumbent Dave Sharma, who won the seat in 2019 from another independent, Kerryn Phelps.
But going down the Spender route was also raising questions for the undecideds.
In our second report on The Wentworth Project, sponsored by the University of Canberra’s Centre for Change Governance and The Conversation, we bring the results of the focus group research conducted by Landscape Research, on April 11 and 12, immediately after Morrison called the May 21 election.
Two groups, totalling 15 electors aged 26-68 (including a younger and an older group), were comprised of “soft” voters who hadn’t yet made up their minds who they’d vote for or who were considering switching their vote.
Focus group research is designed to tap into attitudes and is not predictive.
An earlier poll of 1036 Wentworth voters conducted March 19-21 found Morrison unpopular, Albanese as preferred PM and climate change topping the issues people said would influence their vote. The focus groups dug deeper.
Participants excoriated Morrison personally – although notably many credited the government for its management of the economy, national security and the pandemic.
“I don’t believe a word of what he says,” declared a 46-year-old woman from Paddington. Distrust was a common theme. “The biggest thing for me […] is him not fulfilling the election promise on the integrity commission (male, 34). "I don’t feel as if I can trust him when I hear him” (male, 30). “He’s too late to the party on so many things” (male, 64).
Specific criticisms were raised about how Morrison speaks about women, the way the religious discrimination bill was handled, and apparent partisanship in the initial allocation of funding after the northern NSW floods.
Older soft voters were enthusiastic about the suggestion of a leadership change to treasurer and Liberal deputy Josh Frydenberg. Unsurprisingly, Morrison is not campaigning in Wentworth; Frydenberg is.
For his part, Albanese is seen largely as a career politician, who lacks policy. Lingering concerns were expressed about his ties to the left and the unions. His lapse on the campaign’s first day, when he didn’t know the unemployment and cash rates, had been noted.
There was disappointment (not prompted but volunteered) from several women about his response to the allegations the late senator Kimberley Kitching had been bullied by female colleagues. (Albanese refused to call an inquiry.)
“I don’t trust Morrison but I certainly don’t trust Albanese [..] the fact that he won’t even look into [the Kitching matter] worries me. What are you hiding?” said a 48-year-old single mother and part-time receptionist from North Bondi.
Albanese’s small target strategy “inspires fear of what he’s going to be like and if he has some crazy ideas that he’s going to show after he gets elected” (female, 46). “He’s not very clear communicating [his agenda] at the moment, like it seems very opaque. […] That just makes me nervous that either he doesn’t know or it’s not good” (female, 39).
With substantial negativity around both leaders, when pressed for a conclusion, for these soft voters it is a case of deciding who they dislike less. Nine opted for Albanese while six preferred Morrison, as the most trusted to lead the country.
Despite their disillusionment with the country’s leaders, these soft voters from this affluent electorate were more likely to feel Australia was headed in the right direction rather than the wrong one. They pointed to the strong economy, low unemployment, infrastructure development, quality of life, and better performance compared to most countries in handling COVID.
But those who felt the country was going the wrong way highlighted the erosion of the home ownership dream, short-termism and lack of vision in political leadership, lack of transparency and signs of corruption in public office, a decline in educational standards and aged care failures.
Climate change topped the list when Wentworth voters were asked in the March poll which of several issues would have most influence on their vote. The focus group participants pointed to increasing natural disasters, not enough effort to persuade international big emitters to curb their ways and the need for more support for renewable energy and other carbon reduction technologies such as electric cars.
“We’ve had so many natural disasters in a very short time. It’s very scary,” said a 61-year-old retired female health practitioner from North Bondi.
“I’d really like to see a significant boost in infrastructure to support electric vehicles. I just don’t understand why Australia is dragging on that so badly” (male, 57). “We don’t seem to be pulling our weight in terms of changing the world perspective on climate change,” (male, 64).
But a 46-year-old mother of three felt too much emphasis was being placed on climate change and that it was harmful to the mental health of young people who were worried about the future. “In Australia, we have such a minuscule contribution to worldwide greenhouse gas emissions.[…] I wonder why we’re not talking about climate change resilience rather than net zero,” she said.
A broad range of issues was brought out as requiring addressing: energy security and alternatives to fossil fuels (including nuclear energy), national debt, defence and national security, corruption, unemployment, housing affordability, the cost of living, inflation, child care, health, aged care, education, the COVID response, and immigration.
But participants struggled to think of federally-related issues that needed to be addressed in Wentworth. When pressed, they pointed to housing affordability, job security, local employment, and aged care.
At the grass roots level, views about Sharma range from “bland” to being seen as a good local member. There’s a sense he’s been able to be all things to all people. But among these soft voters there’s a feeling of uncertainty about what he stands for, especially given that as a moderate he’s sought to distance himself from the right on issues such as climate change and the rights of transgender people (he was one of the Liberals who crossed the floor over trans rights on the religious discrimination legislation).
“He is strikingly unknown to me,” said a young fraud analyst from Rose Bay.
“He says what he thinks his constituents want to hear. I don’t know that you really can figure out who Dave Sharma really is (female, 48). "He takes feedback and seems to act on it. But I don’t think he’s been very effective when it comes to the crunch at the top level. So, even though he may disagree with things that the Liberal Party stands for, he doesn’t really enable any change” (female, 51). “Good local member […] somebody who will stand up and have a different opinion” (male, 62).
A 61-year-old woman who identifies herself as Jewish got to the crux of the problem faced by some voters. “I like Dave Sharma. I like the fact that he’s experienced in a lot of areas. [ …] And he is pro-Israel. If it was just a matter of voting for him, I would, but unfortunately he comes attached to Scott Morrison”.
Spender, despite her eastern suburbs credentials and her Liberal family background (both her father and her grandfather were in the federal parliament), is still not well known. Her appeal is mainly that she is seen at her core as a “Liberal” who is running on more moderate policies. But her non-committal position on preferences and who she’d support in parliament raises questions.
“I think she sounds to me like she’s a one-issue politician […] I also am very suspicious of her actual leanings, because I don’t like that all these independents are actually funded by one organisation. I just think that’s a bit dodgy,” said a university worker from Queen’s Park. “The fact that she hasn’t been upfront straightaway saying who her preferences are going to – that to me is the major concern” (female, 61.)
“I just think of her being more like a moderate Liberal but outside the party. She seems to have the same beliefs,” (male, 52). “She definitely seems very passionate about climate and improving integrity” (female, 51).
While not at all predictive, on a two-candidate Sharma versus Spender basis, in the younger group three were leaning towards Sharma and four towards Spender. The older group was equally divided, four for each.
Sharma’s support is taking a knock from Morrison’s unpopularity and the grievances against the government. “At this stage [I’m] leaning towards Dave Sharma, although I have to say I’m struggling with the leadership and Morrison,” said a retired corporate property manager from Clovelly. Sharma is being helped by the Liberals’ traditional reputation on the economy and the current good numbers backing that up.
Spender is seen as a viable alternative for disenchanted Liberal voters as well as appealing to swing voters. Liberal Democrat candidate Daniel Lewkovitz, CEO of Australian security and life safety firm Calamity, is also viewed as an alternative by some disaffected Liberals.
We will check in on how our soft voters are seeing things later in the campaign.
The opposition has announced a Labor government would legislate for an anti-corruption commission by the end of this year.
After Scott Morrison made it clear this week he will not alter his model for an integrity body and would only introduce legislation if Labor supported it, Anthony Albanese has accelerated Labor’s plans.
Previously Labor was committed to bringing in the commission in its first term.
The government’s model has been widely criticised for a lack of teeth and other flaws.
Albanese said: “A National Anti-Corruption Commission would be one of the first priorities of a government I lead.
"Mr Morrison has delayed and obfuscated for over three years – and then this week it became clear he has absolutely no intention of honouring his promise to deliver a National Anti-Corruption Commission at all. So the question for Mr Morrison is – why do you fear an anti-corruption commission? What is it you’re afraid they will find?”
Meanwhile Western Australian Liberal senator Ben Small has resigned from the Senate after finding he had New Zealand citizenship. At the time of Small’s birth his mother was an Australian citizen and his father, who was born in New Zealand, was a permanent resident.
He said on Friday that he had now renounced “any New Zealand citizenship rights” and he would contest the election.