OPINION / Crispin Hull on the Three-Way Race in the Federal Election

Yes, there was a “gaffe” last week and Labor’s wide but shallow support in the opinion polls this week looked a little bit shallower. But this week’s polls did not change one fundamental in this supposed two-horse race – the 6 to 7 percentage point drop in the Coalition primary vote since 2019.

This has been consistent across many polls over at least the past 18 months and cannot be explained by polling margins of error. And it was repeated this week despite Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese’s meaningless failure to recall the unemployment rate or base interest rate.

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You see, we do not have a two-horse (two-leader) race, or even a two-party race. For the first time we have a three-way race, and the third horse is a dark horse indeed. It is a collection of minor parties and independents who could easily change the face of Australian politics.

This is because with the drop in Coalition first preferences, the three horses sit almost equal: 35 Coalition, 34 Labor and 31 the rest.

This Coalition first-preference fall has not gone to Labor and been lost, nor has it gone to right-wing fringe parties like One Nation and United Australia to be returned via preferences. It has mostly gone to independents.

In the 2019 election, the Coalition got 41 per cent of the vote and 51 per cent of the seats. Labor got 32 per cent of the vote and 45 per cent of the seats. Independents and minors got fully 27 per cent of the vote but just 4 per cent of the seats.

The major parties got 23 per cent more of the total seats than their vote would warrant and the independents and minors got 23 per cent less of the total seats than their vote would warrant.

This imbalance occurs because an overall average of 23 per cent does not provide enough occasions in electorates where the independent or minor party gets more votes than one or other of the major parties and then picks up enough preferences from the excluded major party to move ahead of the candidate from the other major-party.

In 2022 it could be much different. If the independents and minors are getting up to 31 per cent of the overall vote it will provide more occasions when they get more votes than one or other of the major parties.

This is particularly true of the Liberal Party in inner city electorates where many moderate or progressive voters with private-enterprise leanings are showing disquiet at the Liberal Party’s inexorable turn to the right since the days when John Howard made it plain that anyone left of the nave was not very welcome in his so-called “broad church”.

However, polling in individual electorates is notoriously unreliable. Polling companies have no incentive to pay for a sample size (of about 1000) to produce an accurate result when the relevance of the poll is so narrow. So, it is difficult to say how many more independent and minor party candidates will win seats, but it will be a safe bet to say it will be substantially more than the six seats in 2019.

Labor’s poll numbers might be wide and shallow, but the independents’ poll numbers appear to be deep and narrow.

Further, the Coalition’s primary vote will have a 3 in front of it for the first time. When it lost to Labor in 2007 its primary vote was 44.1 per cent. When it won in 2013 it was 45.2 and when it won in 2016 and 2019 it was 41.8 and 41.2 respectively.

So, it is going to be a mighty big ask for the Coalition to win a majority of seats with just 35 per cent of the primary vote. A big problem for the Coalition is that its preference flow from minors and independents is much lower than Labor’s. Virtually all Green preferences go to Labor, whereas a lot of One Nation preferences leak away from the Coalition.

The Coalition’s best hope is that now that the official campaign has begun, salesmanship, marketing slogans and propaganda will dominate, not policies that, in the words of John Stuart Mill, provide the greatest good for the greatest number.

Let’s take a few examples.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has to neutralise any impression that he messed during the pandemic or that he broke a promise to set up an integrity commission.

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His pandemic propaganda – based on a half-truth – is that he saved 40,000 lives. True, if you take the OECD death rate for 2020 and 2021 and apply it to Australia’s population, it would come out at 40,000.

But it was the state premiers who closed the borders and imposed lock-downs, not Morrison. He was constantly urging against lock-downs and closures, and when they ended in 2022, largely at Morrison’s insistence, the death toll went up. It is not well-understood that two-thirds of Australia’s covid deaths occurred in 2022, after Morrison’s opening up.

On the integrity commission, Morrison says he fulfilled his promise with detailed legislation but Labor stopped it. Wrong. His legislation was for a body he called an integrity commission, but it was virtually powerless and attacked for being so from legal and police professional bodies to former judges – people who should know.

Then with masterful propaganda techniques he calls Labor’s proposals three pages of fluff compared to his 300-pages of legislation and labels any effective integrity commission a “kangaroo court”.

Voters listen to sound bites and a good campaigner, as Morrison and before him Tony Abbott proved. But good campaigners do not make good Prime Ministers.

You can sell death with propaganda and advertising slogans. Ask the cigarette companies. Decades after tobacco advertisements were banned, people old enough to have listened to them can remember the tunes and ditties down to the last note and last word.

Unless enough voters see through this, the Coalition can win. But unless Morrison’s propaganda results in the Coalition’s primary vote having a four in front of it, a hung Parliament seems the most likely result.

The past six elections tell us that majority Government has not been won by a party with a primary vote lower than 40. I don’t think 2022 will be any different.

This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 19 April 2022.


Crispin Hull BA, LLB (Hons) | Property Convenor  |  ANU School of Legal Practice Lawyer of the Supreme Court of the ACT, on the Register of Practitioners kept by the High Court of Australia


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