Election preview: Australia

As local readers will be only too well aware, Australia goes to the polls on Saturday to pass judgement on its Liberal/National Party (“Coalition”) government, in office since 2013. The polls all forecast a Labor victory, as they did in 2019; they were wrong then, and they could be again.

In 2019, the Coalition under prime minister Scott Morrison won 41.4% of the vote (51.5% two-party-preferred) and 77 of the 151 seats in the House of Representatives. Its Labor opposition won 33.3% and 68 seats. Three minor parties and three independents won the remaining six seats. Since then, redistributions have abolished a Coalition seat (Stirling, in Western Australia) and created a new Labor seat (Hawke, in Victoria), so the effective starting point is 76-69-6.

That means that the government only needs to lose one seat to lose its overall majority, which would require a uniform swing of just 0.4%. One of the minor party representatives, Bob Katter in Kennedy, would be a fairly reliable vote for the Coalition if needed, but that pushes the required swing up only slightly, to 0.5%. (See Antony Green’s version of the pendulum here.)

Beyond that point, things get interesting. Another two of the minor party or independent members (Andrew Wilkie in Clark and Greens’ leader Adam Bandt in Melbourne) would almost certainly support a Labor government. The other three, however – Helen Haines in Indi, Rebekha Sharkie in Mayo and Zali Steggall in Warringah – sit for what would otherwise be Liberal seats, but are largely hostile to the government.

If they held the balance of power, it seems likely that they would act together, and that they would be able to reach agreement with Labor leader Anthony Albanese to put a minority Labor government in office. And there’s a strong prospect that they will be joined by more of the same: a number of previously safe Coalition seats are being targeted by independents who are rated a strong chance.*

Most of these independents, often described as “teals” after the color of their campaign material, occupy much the same ideological space: middle class, progressive but not radical, especially exercised by the twin issues of climate change and corruption in government. Most of them are women, alienated by the misogynist culture of the Coalition (and, to some extent, of Labor as well).

Once upon a time people like this would have been at home in the Liberal Party, but its shift to the right since the 1996 election of John Howard has put paid to that. They may harbor ambitions that they can drag it back to the centre if it is forced to be part of a bidding war for government; failing that, they may become the nucleus of a more permanent rival.

But if the polls are right, the “teals” will not matter this time, and Labor will win the seven extra seats it needs (on a 3.2% uniform swing) for a majority, or at least the five (only 0.1% less) that would leave it only needing Bandt and Wilkie. Three years ago, I explained why one might be less than confident about the polls:

Are there any corresponding reasons to think the Coalition might do better than expected? The main one is the well-established rule in Australia that close elections go to the government. No party since 1949 has won from opposition with less than 52% of the two-party-preferred vote. …

More intangibly, there’s the pessimism induced in many on the left by the last few years of political developments around the world, and particularly the 2016 presidential election in the United States – where, in a broadly similar contest to this one, the right-wing populist candidate overcame the verdict of polls, pundits and betting markets to win just enough votes in the right places for a victory with a minority of the vote.

Those things still apply, reinforced by the 2019 result itself, when the polls missed the mark and the Coalition made up ground. This year’s polls have been better for Labor than they were then, but not so much so as to put the question beyond doubt, and there are some signs of a late swing back towards the government.

It’s important also to remember that this is not a fully democratic electoral system; the party that loses the two-party-preferred vote may still win a majority, as it did in 1990 and 1998. If it’s close, everything comes down to how individual seats happen to fall, and that may depend on issues that are far removed from the main national narrative.

The betting market still has Labor as a strong favorite: slightly better than two to one on at Sportsbet this morning, with the Coalition at about five to three against. If individual seats were to all follow their betting, Labor would win 77, the Coalition 66 and others seven, with one (Robertson) a dead heat. But there are still plenty of seats on both sides where the favorite has only a very narrow edge.

Last time around there was much discussion of the effect of the huge increase in pre-poll voting. That increase has continued, amplified by the effect of Covid-19; although pre-poll voting began a week later, by Tuesday it had already caught up to the same stage as in 2019, and another 663,000 of them were taken yesterday. (Antony Green is tracking the figures here.) There has also been a big jump in postal voting.

For the government, that’s a mixed blessing. It means that a late swing towards it is of limited value, since so many people have already voted. But pre-poll (and especially postal) voters tend to favor the Coalition, and there’s a lingering suspicion that maybe there’s something in the experience itself that shifts people towards voting that way, and that this may help to explain the government’s survival in 2019.

I was going to say something about the Senate, but this post is already too long, so I’ll try to add that tomorrow. Also tomorrow, an effort to explain why it all matters.

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* Disclosure: I have been campaigning for one of them, Monique Ryan in Kooyong. More about that tomorrow.

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