Tuesday, September 21, 2010
MORE than 14 million Australians were on the rolls for the 2010 election. But almost a million of them decided not to vote. And of those who did, almost 730,000 voted informal.
Combine the two, and the conclusion jumps out at you. This election campaign turned off more voters than any other election for decades.
More precisely, it turned off more Labor voters than any other election for decades. Some voted for the Greens. Some voted informal. Some didn't bother to vote at all. But few crossed over to vote for the Coalition.
The official figures show a swing of 2.6 per cent from Labor to the Coalition. But that's just among those who lodged formal votes. And it misses two of the main reasons why Labor's vote fell. Hundreds of thousands of former Labor supporters either stayed away from the booths, or voted informal.
Election 2010 was the great turnoff: for Labor voters everywhere, and for Liberal voters in the south-eastern states: Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania. It set records of all kinds. For example:
More voters refused to vote than at any election since 1925, the first election at which voting was made compulsory. While the Australian Electoral Commission has yet to declare the count complete, the number of new votes being added is now minuscule, and the number not voting has risen from 5.2 per cent last time to 6.8 per cent, an 85-year high.
The boycott rate rose in every state and almost every electorate. But overwhelmingly, it rose most in safe Labor seats. Of the 30 seats with the biggest growth in the numbers not voting, 23 were Labor seats, six Coalition and one independent (Kennedy).
The informal vote was the second highest on record, rising from just under 4 per cent in 2007 to 5.6 per cent in 2010. Last time 511,000 voters cast informal votes. This time 729,000 did so. If Mark Latham has had no other influence on Australians, his suggestion on the 7.30 Report that Labor voters vote informal resonated powerfully all over the country.
But nowhere did it resonate more powerfully than in Latham's heartland of Western Sydney. In Blaxland, the Bankstown seat once represented by Paul Keating and now by the NSW Right's rising star Jason Clare, 14.1 per cent of votes cast were informal, up from 8.9 per cent in 2007. The 14 seats with the highest informal votes were all Labor seats in western Sydney.
The rising informal vote was not confined to western Sydney. The informal vote also rose in every state, and in almost every electorate. But again, of the 30 seats with the biggest growth in the informal vote, 25 were Labor seats and just five Coalition.
The only time more Australians have voted informal was at the 1984 election, but that was just a colossal mistake. That was the first election under the new system allowing us to number just one box in the Senate. The Electoral Commission advertised it heavily, but many voters were confused, and numbered just one box in the House as well.
This time the sharp increase in informal voting was clearly deliberate. It was a host of voters turned off by both sides and refusing to vote for either. But the electorate data shows clearly that, like those who stayed away, most of the 2010 informal voters were people who once voted Labor, and now were voting for nobody.
The Coalition gained huge swings its way in Sydney, all of Queensland and Western Australia. Yet despite its assertion that it somehow won the election, the reality is that it lost narrowly on the two-party preferred vote, because it polled disastrously in Melbourne, Adelaide, Victoria's regional cities and Tasmania.
In the three south-eastern states as a whole, it was the worst result for the Coalition since the 1940s. It polled just 44.7 per cent of the two-party preferred vote in Victoria, its lowest on record (and the Parliamentary Library's records go back to 1949). It polled 46.8 per cent in South Australia, where six months ago the state Liberals had won 52 per cent. And it won just 39.4 per cent of the vote in Tasmania the lowest vote the Coalition has ever recorded in any state.
In all three states, except in the handful of true rural seats left, the swings were to Labor. Had it even held its ground in these states at 2007 levels, the Coalition would now be in government. It was the loss of McEwen and La Trobe in Melbourne's outer suburbs that cost it the seats it needed to give the independents no real choice as to which side could provide stable government.
Yet the Coalition's post-mortems have not even acknowledged its collapse to record lows in south-eastern Australia, where three in every eight Australians live. Unless it admits its failure, and asks why it happened, there is a danger it will not learn the lessons.
The bottom line of all this was that, despite the very rapid growth in Australia's population, we cast fewer formal votes in the 2010 election than we had in 2007. And the only party to score a significant increase in its vote as a share of the enrolled voters was the Greens, itself primarily a protest party.
Election 2010 saw a massive turnoff from Labor. In 2007, 39.5 per cent of enrolled voters voted for Kevin Rudd. In 2010, only 33.4 per cent, just one in three, voted for Julia Gillard. That should have been an electoral landslide, but it didn't go in the usual way.
The Coalition's vote rose only by the barest margin. In 2007, 38.3 per cent of enrolled voters voted for John Howard. In 2010, a virtually unchanged 38.4 per cent voted for Tony Abbott. Instead, those deserting Labor voted Green, voted informal, or stayed at home.
The Greens' vote rose from 7.1 per cent of enrolled voters to 10.4 per cent. The informal vote on this measure rose from 3.7 to 5.2 per cent. And as we have seen, those refusing to vote rose from 5.2 to 6.8 per cent.
Two electorates tell the tale of disillusioned Labor voters. In the outer western Sydney seat of Fowler, where Labor has traditionally won massive majorities, barely 80 per cent of voters on the roll actually cast formal votes, down from 88 per cent in 2007. Of those who did vote, the commission's figures record a swing against Labor of 13 per cent, which tells you it was Labor's voters staying away or dropping empty ballot papers in the box.
In Blaxland, the percentage of enrolled voters casting formal votes was even lower, at 77 per cent. But the lowest turnout of all was in another Labor electorate where many people felt they had little to vote for: the outback Northern Territory seat of Lingiari.
In 2007, Lingiari achieved a historically high turnout of 77 per cent, as Aboriginal communities flocked to the booths to cast their votes against the Howard government's controversial intervention policies. The Coalition's vote in the communities, already a low 21 per cent in 2004, sank to 12 per cent in 2007.
In 2010, by contrast, many voters in Lingiari felt Labor had made little difference. The turnout rate alone dropped 5.4 per cent, the informal vote rose 2.7 per cent, and just 70 per cent of those on the roll cast a formal vote. Among those who did, the swing against Labor was 7.4 per cent.
Fowler had the biggest swing against Labor of any seat, but there were other big swings in a wide variety of places: 11 per cent in Malcolm Turnbull's seat of Wentworth (one of the few Liberal seats where the stay-at-home rate surged), 10.4 per cent in the outer Brisbane seat of Bowman, 10.3 per cent in Ian Macfarlane's seat on the Darling Downs, and 11.1 per cent in the WA wheatbelt seat of O'Connor, as Labor voters flocked to help rebel National Tony Crook unseat Wilson Tuckey.
Even in Gippsland, first-term National Party MP Darren Chester consolidated his hold with a 5.5 per cent swing. But that was untypical of Victoria, where the biggest swing was in Julia Gillard's own seat. There too, the turnout rate fell and the informal vote rose, but the Prime Minister still won a 6.6 per cent swing from grateful locals.
There were also safe Liberal seats where there are signs that disillusioned Liberals might have taken up Mark Latham's suggestion to vote for nobody. There were clusters of them on the Sunshine Coast and the Gold Coast, where formal votes plunged and the swings to the Coalition were minuscule. And in inner Adelaide, Labor almost pulled off an unprecedented win in Boothby, where the non-turnout rate doubled to 8.5 per cent.
Election 2010 was a negative campaign, where the leaders stood for less than ever before, and insulted voters' intelligence more than ever before. Both sides asked us to vote against their opponent, rather than giving us reasons to vote for them. And more than ever, voters especially, but not only, Labor voters responded by refusing to give their vote to either side.
ELECTION 2010: THE POST-MORTEM
2007 % 2010 % change %
Of those enrolled
VOTED LABOR 39.5 33.4 -6.1
VOTED COALITION 38.3 38.4 +0.1
VOTED GREEN 7.1 10.4 +3.3
VOTED OTHERS 6.1 5.8 -0.3
VOTED INFORMAL 3.7 5.2 +1.5
DID NOT VOTE 5.2 6.8 +1.6
NO FORMAL VOTE 9.0 12.0 +3.0