In today’s SMH, Gerard Henderson repeats all the standard claims about swinging voters, for example
Elections in Australia are invariably decided by people who in most other democracies would not vote, or who, if they choose to back a minor party or independent, would not express a preference for either of the major parties. This is due to the unique federal electoral system, which comprises compulsory and preferential voting – introduced in 1924 and 1918 respectively.
In other words, it is the essentially uncommitted and/or uninterested – living in marginal seats – who decide election outcomes in Australia … Since the end of the Pacific War, the Government has changed hands only five times – 1949 (Menzies), 1972 (Gough Whitlam), 1975 (Fraser), 1983 (Hawke) and 1996 (Howard). The outcome in each case was determined by the change in allegiance of essentially non-political voters, along with a proportion of newly enrolled electors.
There’s a trivial sense in which all of this true, just as the outcome of a cricket match [at least if it isn’t drawn] is always decided by the last ball. And in a constituency-based system with only two parties capable of winning seats, it’s broadly speaking correct that only marginal seats count – however, swings are more variable these days so more seats are marginal.
Apart from that, however, Henderson’s analysis is (to the extent that it was ever valid), totally out of date. The implied picture is one in which most voters, and all who take a serious interest in politics, are committed supporters of one major party or the other, in roughly equal numbers. Hence, the remainder, the ‘swingers’ determine the outcome.
This was always a problematic viewpoint. As Henderson’s own family experience during the Split (he has an interesting piece on this in the latest Sydney Institute newsletter) people can and do make permanent changes in their political allegiance. A conversion of this kind is far more valuable to the gaining party than winning a swinging voter for a single election.
More importantly, the number of “rusted-on” major party voters has declined drastically. Both sides have recorded votes of 35 per cent or below in their worst recent outings, which puts an absolute upper bound of 70 per cent voters committed to one party or the other. But even within this group, there are almost certainly some who changed over time, or voted on a specific issues. For example, Keating lost lots of hardcore Labor voters in the 1996 election, but he undoubtedly gained some “cafe latte” votes with his cultural agenda – many of these will not be so attracted to Latham, while the former hardcore may return.
Henderson is particularly unsatisfactory when it comes to the minor parties. He notes that most Green preferences go to Labor, but there’s a big difference between getting a primary vote and getting 70 per cent of second preferences. To be precise, on these numbers the average Green vote is worth 0.4 first preferences votes to Labor.
More importantly, since minor party preferences are now crucial, what basis does Henderson have for equating minor party voters with “the uncommitted or uninterested”? The decision to vote for a minor party means that the voter has rejected both of the obvious choices, which normally implies some degree of interest in the process. It’s hard to argue that Democrat and Green voters as a group are less interested in politics than major party voters, whatever you might think of the results of their interest. Even One Nation voters, who are on average closer to Henderson’s idea of the apolitical swinger, were expressing a (negative) interest in political ‘business as usual’ when they abandoned their traditional allegiances to vote for Pauline.