Professor sees the voters coming

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Political scientist Prof Ian McAllister… The large Senate ballot papers are “bizarre”. Photo by Brent McDonald
Political scientist Prof Ian McAllister… The large Senate ballot papers are “bizarre”. Photo by Brent McDonald
 AS we wait in the eerie post-election calm to see who has won the ACT’s second Senate position, one could be forgiven for being slightly overwhelmed by the whole process and wondering what exactly happened.

Over coming months, political scientist Prof Ian McAllister will be going some way to figuring that out, from 12,000 questionnaires mailed out to voters and others sent to major-party candidates, as part of the Australian Election Study (AES).

The AES post-election surveys have gone out with the same questions since 1987, with some additions and some data added in from up to 20 years before that, providing what McAllister describes as “the most sophisticated and exhaustive set of data ever collected in Australia on the dynamics of political behaviour”.

Of course, the simple information about where all the votes went is there for all to see on the Electoral Commission’s Virtual Tally Room website, and even though there was a change of government, it was not quite the dramatic revolution it was described as by some pundits.

“As with all of these things some of the media said this was a landslide, an earth-shattering event and so on, but the percentage of the vote that actually changed [from last election] was only about 3 or 4 per cent,” says Prof McAllister.

“Now, on a scale of nought to 100, that’s obviously not a lot, and it emphasises the long-term stability of the system.”

The long-term research shows that political views change quite slowly over many years in the minds of most Australians, which is why it doesn’t take much for the term “landslide” to be thrown around.

It’s hard to say whether the recent result represents a rejection of anything as specific as the NBN or the carbon price, but the Coalition’s win is certainly not surprising, given there has been a downward trend in Labor’s first-preference vote at each election since Kevin ‘O7 came to power six years ago.

Labor candidates got a little over 4 per cent fewer primary votes this year than in the 2010 election, while the Coalition vote went up by less than 2 per cent.

In a similar way, Labor’s primary vote dropped 5.4 per cent between the 2007 election that spelled the end of the Howard years, and the 2010 stalemate that led Julia Gillard to form a minority government, while in the same period the Coalition gained only about 1.3 per cent nationally.

“Another thing that was interesting [about the 2013 election] was that people mainly responded to not liking Labor by voting for third parties and protest parties, rather than voting for the Liberals,” says Prof McAllister.

He adds that about 75-80 per cent of first-preference votes for the Greens are usually transferred to Labor, “and their vote was dying this time so the Labor Party didn’t benefit so much from those preferences”.

As in the past, this election has also drawn attention to peculiarities of our voting system, especially in the Senate, where preference deals have helped fringe candidates win very few primary votes, in some cases less than one per cent.

Prof McAllister says the introduction of above-the-line voting in 1984 made the Senate system operate very differently to how it was originally designed.

“This suddenly transformed it from being a very proportional system to something that allows the parties to ‘game it’ much more,” he says. “The information burden this places on voters is huge. I mean, I’m actually amazed that some people still manage to fill it all out.”

He adds that Australia’s “bizarre” Senate ballot papers are so large they have become popular collectibles among his political science colleagues from overseas.

The problem is that to make an informed choice, voters have to either find out about each candidate – no mean feat in NSW, for example, which had 110 this year – or figure out where each party directed their preferences.

And even though details of the complex preference deals are available online, McAllister argues it is unrealistic to expect most above-the-line voters to have a clear understanding of where their vote might eventually end up.

Various reforms are being discussed but as the professor points out, any that are enacted will be developed under the influence of the major parties.

“The interesting thing about electoral systems and how they’re designed is they’re set up for the convenience of politicians, not for the convenience of voters,” says McAllister.

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