It’s the Liberals’ vote that is soft

Wednesday, 26 September 2007 

Lateline did a bit of mis-reporting of the other night’s speech by Sol Lebovic, the founder of Newspoll, if the transcript of it is a guide. Presented as ‘good news for the government’ it seemed like yet another dismissing of the strong Labor leads being reported in the polls, which has been so widespread this year that it is even being done by those who produced the polls, such as Lebovic’s successor. However, the transcript suggests he was saying something much more interesting that gets closer to the truth.

It is not so much that Labor’s vote is soft, but that both parties are detached from their core voters. This is something that has been ebbing in and out of the Australian political scene since the late 1980s when some of the key issues that tied Labor and non-Labor parties to their respective core voters, union power and state spending, stopped differentiating them. Since then both parties have been struggling with the loss of their core agendas and an eroding of their supporter bases. Even more than that, they have had to contend with an anti-politician mood that questions what they are actually in Canberra for, something minor parties and independents have played on with varying success over recent years.

However, Sol’s problem is that he has not carried his analysis through to what it means in this election. Lets start with the survey of polls carried out by the organisation he founded, split between safe and marginal seats. It shows the term ‘marginal’ is mis-leading because in such seats Labor enjoys a 16% lead, something that would be considered unassailable this close to an election. The real marginal seats are what were formerly the government’s safe ones. Here the vote has collapsed since the last election to the point where, incredibly, during April-July the government was actually behind Labor at 48-52.

The problem is not even so much the size of the swing but the government’s policy vacuum means that it has no agenda to lock into its supporter base and so has no real sense where its core base actually is. This makes it different to the sort of landslides Labor suffered in 1975 and 1966, and even to some extent the one in 1996.

Labor’s response to the loss of their agenda has been to personalise their campaign and replace a political agenda with the values of their leader, something they tried in 2004, but are managing more successfully now. Partly it is working better because Rudd is more adept at using the anti-politician mood to his benefit. But more importantly, a shift in the international situation more favourable to Labor gives that personal campaign some substance. At the same time Labor has done well to hold onto its core at the same time with its vague anti-Workchoices campaign (its margin in its safe seats is now a whopping 69/31), although the reality that Labor has left its traditional values for good keeps popping up in intriguingly personal ways.

It is the Liberals, who have been hiding behind the international situation since 9/11, that are this time more exposed to a ‘soft’ vote. Their banging on about non-existent union power is an attempt to shore it up and could partly explain the recent claw back of its vote in safe coalition seats (but where it still only leads by a slim 51/49 margin). However, its impact will be limited, because the threat of union power even less reflects the reality of industrial relations than Labor’s scare campaign against an employment contract that hardly any employers use. At least Labor’s campaign touches on the real insecurity that has been a feature of employment conditions of its core supporters since well before Howard and AWAs.

The corrosive effect of this on the government and its campaign has emerged periodically through the year. It is why Howard’s warning of annihilation back in May back-fired on party morale. It has led to the sporadic collapse in confidence in the leadership such as we saw a fortnight ago that media commentators continue to mis-read as a leadership challenge. It is why the coalition is unsure on their hold on blue-ribbon seats like Kooyong and Goldstein in Melbourne and why the Environment Minister over-reacted to a campaign on a Tasmanian pulp mill in his own seat in Wentworth. It is not only why we have such a large number of coalition MPs retiring, but also why Howard is pleading for one in an SA seat with a 12% margin to stay on. Even with a coalition ritual as time honoured as yesterday’s announcement of a subsidy to the farmers, the mixed response of their traditional supporter base is couched in terms of a climate change agenda that would be more suitable to Labor.

Howard makes a show of touring what is a nominally marginal (but probably safe Labor) seat like Eden Monaro, but it is for the same reason he told the party room it was in play, more for appearance and morale than that the government thinks it is winnable. As the election campaign gets underway it is likely to become clearer that, like Howard’s increasingly frequent trips back to Bennelong, the Liberals are less campaigning for government than their political survival.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Wednesday, 26 September 2007.

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