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Why the Public Doesn’t Trust Politicians and Why Scott Morrison Won the Election

About six months after every federal election the Australian National University publishes a report on why voters voted the way they did. The report is based on an extensive survey conducted just after the election so that voters’ decisions are fresh in their minds. The report on the 2019 election has just been released.

At the moment only 59% of voters are happy with the way democracy is working in Australia. This is the lowest figure since the late 1970’s when people were disillusioned and divided over the impact of the dismissal of the Whitlam Government. It compares badly with the 86% support for democracy exhibited after the election of the Rudd Government in 2007.

At the moment only 25% of voters believe that government can be trusted to look after their interests. More than half the voters think that governments look after a few big interests and only 12% believe that they govern for all the people.

What this reflects is the success of mantras such as ‘the Government looks after the big end of town’ and ‘climate policy is influenced by big coal’. Interestingly these are memes constantly promoted on social media which are accepted as true by voters but don’t seem to influence their vote in the same proportions as they affect their beliefs. Despite their beliefs they still elect conservative governments. Why is this the case?

According to the study two thirds of voters were focused on policy issues when they cast their vote. The most important issues were the economy, health and the environment. Electors preferred the Coalition on the economy, taxation and border protection and Labor on health, education and the environment. Interestingly as the election result showed, both sets of issues carried about equal weight. This is reflected in the fact that the Government has only a two seat majority.

Perhaps the real reason the Coalition won was the popularity of the leader. The survey found that Bill Shorten was the least popular leader in the last 30 years. On the other hand Scott Morrison was the most popular leader since Kevin Rudd in 2007, scoring 5.1 on a zero to 10 popularity scale (this compared with Shorten’s 4.0), despite the fact that nearly three quarters of voters disapproved of the way the Liberals handled the 2018 leadership change.

“There was a wide gap in the popularity of the two leaders and this is reflected in voter behavior with very few voters being drawn towards Labor based on leadership alone. Moreover, voters’ lack of trust in Shorten also fed into skepticism about the impact of Labor’s economic policies,” the report says.

The report also concludes that when it came to the crunch the voters put more store in economic management than they did in environmental policy.

The report is a typical piece of academic analysis: rigorous, objective but inadequate. It ignores the arcane arts of political campaigning. Scott Morrison’s team put on an electoral masterclass which showed that what counts is holding and shifting votes on the day. It requires ruthlessness: candidates who are going to fail (even ex-prime ministers) are deprived of support in favor of electorates that are in play. The team that masterminded Scott Morrison’s win will be hoping to do the same for Boris Johnson on Thursday. That election will be about a different set of issues but the formula for winning will be the same.

We will see if it works.

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