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The Punch: Why the election has got nothing to do with you

27 Jul 2010

First Published on The Punch 27/07/2010

If you are a political junkie like me, chances are you found Sunday night’s debate a little like watching a nil-nil draw without even the climax of the penalty shoot-out. About the only thing more boring than the debate is the pundits who say the debate was boring.

It’s the curse of Australian elections, if you are engaged in politics and have a defined set of ideological values, then the campaign has very little to do with you.

Put another way, if you are reading The Punch the parties don’t really care what you think.

Election campaigns are about the growing number of Australians who are not highly engaged in politics, those who say they make their mind up on who they are going to vote for in the course of the campaign, many on the day they vote. Go on, be honest, how many of you readers can put yourself in this category?

When do you think you will make your decision about which party to vote for?When do you think you will make your decision about which party to vote for?

Think about this – most elections are decided on a Two Party Preferred of between 50-50 and 53-47 – anything more is a drubbing. That’s a spread of just seven per cent.  Yet today somewhere between 26 per cent and 49 per cent of the electorate (if you count those who are leaning one way but are not yet committed) say their votes are still in play.

What do we know about these people? First, they are the same people who answer ‘don’t know’ to lots of questions in polls, which makes it hard to profile them. But they are more likely to be young voters, where nearly two thirds say they have not made up their mind.

Secondly, they are less likely to have a strong political identification – that is a brand loyalty to a major party either inherited or discovered. This pushes debate towards the centre – a mythical place where the undecided voters are grouped in most polls.  I’m not sure if this is a far description of where these undecided actually lie. In reality, they have a series of strong, sometimes contradictory views – they just don’t see either side of politics as holding a mortgage on the solutions.

Thirdly, they are less likely to be regular consumers of political news – meaning that parties need to find ways to reach them, be it the priority grab in the nightly news, direct engagement at the letterbox or ideally a discussion that actually prompts discussion with friends and family. These discussions are less likely to be driven by technical policy such as building a new energy base for the economy or revamping the education system as something small and iconic – like cash for clangers or a free tool kit for apprentices.

Fourth, this is no place for showbiz – the centre ground wants leaders who will assure them they won’t do anything reckless. It’s why big ideological gestures, as well as little personal idiosyncrasies like wearing Speedos, are regraded with suspicious. It requires a degree of self censorship in the interest of reassuring the centre – for Abbott it means professing industrial relations reform won’t occur despite his conviction this is needed; for Gillard it means holding up action on climate change in the face of scientific consensus that urgent action is needed now.

Finally, in the midst of all this playing to the Centre, the parties will still need to convince voters that in some way they are different; that theirs is the party that is really on their side. Traditionally, the fault lines were Labor for working people and the Liberals for small business. This faded during the Howard era, up until the point he bought back WorkChoices. (which is why Labor will continue to hammer away on this issue).

The election will be determined by the leader who can convince this section of the public that they are the safest pair of hands; sober, sensible,  commonsense solutions – not too negative, not too ideologically driven, not too up themselves. It takes a lot of technical skill – but inspiring people does not count as a key requirement.

So is there a different way? It has always been regarded as a no go area for the Left of Australian politics, but imagine how the election would play out if leaders had to convince people like you and me to stump up to vote. Political parties in Australia have a captive audience, they don’t need to inspire people to vote because it is illegal not to – all they need to do is convince people they are the less of two evils.

There are many flaws with US politics, but it’s worth thinking about whether the idea of voluntary voting is one of them – if forcing the candidates to inspire people to turn out to vote wouldn’t raise the standard of political debate. It’s more costly, tougher to organise, more intensive, but maybe it would make our debates –and the entire campaign – a little more inspiring for those of us who actually care.

Peter Lewis, Director EMC