Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The view from here: the Griffith by-election (3.5 in a series, and a full-stop)

...or, what went on in the mind of one voter. 

I did

I'm often asked, in the course of my day job, to 'predict' election outcomes; to interpret the opinion polls ; to tell us what people are thinking. Well, here's a truth: I can't really give any better sense of what people are thinking than the next person. We can estimate, guesstimate, prognosticate and offer possibilities but, when all is said and done, I can't be inside the heads of 97,000 or so potential voters on the day. So really, what will be will be. I shy away from the 'science' part of my political science disciplinary spectrum which seem to find answers to voting behaviours via the sorts of mathematical equations that ought to stay in the pages of my senior high school algebra textbooks. Good luck to my colleagues who do that stuff, their conclusions are always interesting but I just disagree with the path that gets them there. 

The analysis from all quarters after a by-election makes interesting reading. Some muffled grunts in agreement, some eyebrow raising at the wild guessing in the guise of 'authoritative opinion'. The latter often being in inverse proportion to the kilometres away from the actual boundaries of the said electorate. I feel, then, it is my solemn duty as a political observer to try and for you dear reader, a sense of what goes on in the mind of a voter in this critical (not critical), highly (over) analysed by-election. I have lived in this electorate for over twenty years; I was here when Kevin Rudd failed in his first campaign (1996) and I'm here at the end of his era as the member for Griffith. [Whether I remain a 'good burgher' or not will depend on the moniker the new member decides to use.] What follows is not particularly scientific,  and it is rather uncensored. It is no doubt, a variation on one of 80,275* or voters' minds the commentariat were so interested in on the by-election weekend. 

[*in the end, an 82% voter turnout; it compares favourably with the 34% voter turnout for the Tokyo Governor, which also happened on the weekend... #justsayin']

Let's put down a few variables and parameters through which you may choose to refine your lens on my lens on the voting process.

1. I am a swinging voter in that I rarely give one of the two major parties my first preference. I generally opt for a minor party (or independent) first and over time have probably alternated ALP and LPA candidates down the list, fairly evenly. I really don't see a lot of difference between the two once they swap the treasury for the opposition benches, or vice versa.

2. I have, as often as is practicable, voted at the same polling booth at each election and usually at about the same time. This is about as scientific as my voting gets, seeking some order of consistency. (It has mostly been a largely ALP booth during Kevin Rudd's terms.)

3. Partly because it is my job, but mostly because I am interested, I do take note of the material distributed by candidates. 

4. I am a member of a non-aligned union, as part of my professional engagement, the tertiary education union, the NTEU. Views on union participation matter. Bill Glasson made his name as the head of his professional association, the Australian Medical Association; Terri Butler is an employment and industrial relations partner with noted law firm, Maurice Blackburn. Both candidates then, had 'union' credentials, in a way.

5. Regular readers of this blog will know I have followed Kevin Rudd's career quite closely and hold particular views about his skills, management abilities, rhetoric v reality and other matters. Given Mr Rudd triggered the by-election by resigning after he was elected back in September, and I hold strong views about the importance and privilege of being elected to parliament, my vote, in the end, might have been influenced by that.

Tipping point paraphernalia: LNP top, ALP below
Professionally, I was also interested in how voting a second time within a few months might change one's vote: do you vote the same way because it is in effect, a re-run ballot? Do you have a chance to 'change your mind' given the outcome was or wasn't the one you wanted before? (These are particularly interesting questions in the case of the upcoming Western Australian Senate re-run election...so much to think about there.)

The LNP candidate, Dr Bill Glasson, basically picked up from where he left off in his 2013 campaign. His supporters, nicknamed 'Glasson's Gladiators' continued their occupation of street corners each Saturday morning (and with increasing frequency and appearances as the Saturday approached). The Glasson campaign had elements of the 'grassroots' support about it (if local opinion was anything to go by) though with the obvious backing of the party organisation. 

The ALP candidate, lawyer Terri Butler, pitched her campaign as being part of a young working family who understood the situation of many working families in the electorate. I think she did a reasonably good job over the term of the campaign to separate herself to a point from being a 'replacement' Kevin Rudd. 

In total, we again faced 11 candidates to choose from. The Greens ran with Geoff Ebbs again (having, apparently, briefly flirted withe the idea of running Andrew Bartlett). We also had interstate comedian Anthony Ackroyd standing for the Bullet Train Party, I guess to get some publicity (for the party, and himself). People I spoke to, by the way, found this a little too trivialising for the by-election. Maybe the response would have been a little less hostile, in a general election. 

Some of the independents, during the campaign, received some particularly strong profile-rasing coverage, although as the figures show, after the Greens captured their usual third spot with about 10% of the vote, all others hovered above or below the one percent mark. Voters continue to be reluctant to cast their votes outside the major two-party system. 

Polling places Returned: 48 of 48   Enrolment: 97,857   Turnout: 82.03%
Swing (%)
Stable Population Party
EBBS, Geoff
The Greens
WILLIAMS, Christopher
Family First Party
BOELE, Karel
ACKROYD, Anthony
Bullet Train For Australia
REID, Anne
Secular Party of Australia
Australian Labor Party (Qld)
THOMAS, Melanie
Pirate Party Australia
Katter's Australian Party
Liberal National Party (Qld)
Rise Up Australia Party
Socialist Alliance
Palmer United Party




Polling Places Returned: 48 of 48   Turnout: 82.03%
This Election (%)
Last Election (%)
Swing (%)



Source: Australian Electoral Commission, 2014.

We also note that for the second time, Bill Glasson received the most first preference votes and Terri Butler had to rely on the second preferences. This is a repeat of the September 2013 election where Kevin Rudd, despite a 5% swing against him, was elected on second preferences. 

So then, to the ballot box....

The first thing that struck me was that the rolls were on a laptop, all electronic, perhaps in the wake of higher security demanded after the WA Senate votes problem. We also received, for the first time I can remember, a sticker declaring we've voted (but with no 'ink-dipping' expectation to wear it--see above). The school P&C had their sausage sizzle up and running too, true Australian democratic practice.

It would be fair to say I go to the polling place with a range of things on my mind. Often, I have sorted my first preference but sometimes waver on which way to go with preferences. What struck me about this campaign was that as the campaign proceeded, Bill Glasson seemed to lose his naturalness and became very much a cog in the party machine. This was a change in his 2013 campaigning. It made it harder to be convinced that he could 'stand up' in Canberra as he insisted. Terri Butler seemed to get by with being Terri Butler and not Kevin Rudd. Given the distribution of preferences in the seat, it was probably always going to be hers to lose anyway. 

In the end, I preferenced both major parties down the list. I will tell you, dear reader, that there were changes in campaigning and yes, I did switch the order of preferences for the two main candidates, once I got there. 'Which way?', you ask. Well, I still value the anonymity of the 'secret ballot', so that's all you'll get from me. Ultimately, I was disappointed with the tone of the material which came our way, the photo above being but one example. Neither of the cards, posted to letterboxes, were obvious in their origins and only sad psephies like me looked for the 'authorised by' fine print to pick who was who. Memo to party headquarters: unnecessary tactic thanks. 

And yet, while I probably over-intellectualise the process, for every one of voters like me, I couldn't help but wonder about the other voters in my polling place at that time. The first time voters, people who have come from other countries, perhaps a little perplexed by the process. Or indeed, the woman next to me who struck up a conversation, utterly confused about how many times she had to fill in a paper, her insistence that there were only 10 candidates and why did all the how to vote cards tell her she must vote this way or that... (NB: No vote coaching happened during my polite exchange of explanation with this voter.)

I love my profession. I'm passionate about cultivating an understanding and engagement in our political processes with as many people as possible. I enjoy trying to work out people's motivations, interests, reasons for decisions. I think it is just a far more fuzzy 'science' than we are willing to sometimes admit (it's not the stuff of successful grant applications). It has me pursuing the spectrum of thought, ideas and philosophies down the ages as a means to understand our 'human condition'. And, I've found that unlike our present politicians and their campaign 'advisors' who seem to think the narrowcast bread-and-butter issues and a cultivation of envy and avarice are all that concern voters, digging a little deeper and exploring the ideas that make us who we are are the sorts of things that intrigue us, challenge us and re-engage us in our society.

It's a job, and someone has to do it.