A recent article by The Australian’s George Megalogenis claiming a link between voting and house prices has received quite a bit of approval from some commentators. This is surprising. For a start, it is pretty Sydney-centric (even to the point of making a silly claim that the government never wins without carrying NSW, forgetting the victories of the Melbourne Establishment’s favourite son in 1951, 1954 and 1961). Strong house prices may correlate with better government polling in WA but not in Queensland, and house prices are certainly not explaining the very strong Labor swing on in SA. The theory may not even apply in Sydney. The two-tier housing market there, with prices still buoyant in blue-ribbon Liberal seats, should not be assumed to translate to a better government performance. This next election may be less about Labor regaining its heartland than the Liberals losing theirs.

The real problem with the article is that it is yet another attempt to see voting as driven by the ‘hip-pocket’ nerve. This is a strange (and rather cynical) way of viewing the electorate, as though it was just a collection of isolated individual households totting up their bills to decide whom to vote for. It neither explains why hip-pocket issues work at some times but not others and why indeed people will sometimes vote on such issues against their financial interest (eg swapping tax cuts for reduced services).

It would seem more sensible to view voting behaviour in Australia as like anywhere else; influenced by international, national and local issues and how people see themselves in relation to them. Occasionally such issues impact voting directly, or translate through more immediate concerns. For example, the reaction against state spending in the Whitlam years translated to the popularity of Fraser’s tax cuts in the late 1970s. More recently, the doubt over Latham’s position on national security in 2004 translated to one of interest rates, even though the interest rate issue on its own made little sense (it could not explain why Labor won two elections after interest rates hit their peak in 1989 but lost one on the same record 15 years later).

Indeed, this year the hip-pocket nerve has been a very bad guide to electoral behaviour. Commentators expected the budget’s tax cuts this year to translate to a bounce – and they are still waiting. The trouble is, the government has no major theme to translate to the hip-pocket. Without it, any giveaway is treated as just a normal part of running the economy and an election, rather than related to one party or the other. The only ‘hip-pocket’ issue that had resonance was Rudd’s campaign on housing affordability and grocery prices. But this was more an anti-politics attack on detached politicians and their statistics than the cost-of living as such – or as Rudd put it, “The statistical averages don’t reflect the day-to-day realities that so many families face.”

With nothing to campaign on, the government is now hoping that the economy will be come to the rescue (Megalogenis’s comment that no government has ever lost after 16 years of uninterrupted economic growth is meaningless because this is the first time we have ever had such sustained growth since Federation), but it is struggling to explain why Rudd would be any different running it. Indeed, it is interesting to see one of the strongest proponents that the election will come down to nothing more than the wallet is Tony Abbott. With no agenda left, the power of the hip-pocket is becoming the last hope of even one of Howard’s most ideological Ministers as they head to defeat.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Saturday, 21 July 2007.

Filed under Media analysis

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