Nine months after the 2019 federal election, voters finally get a look at who funded the political parties’ campaigns.
The data reveals that big money matters in Australian elections more than ever, and donations are highly concentrated among a small number of powerful individuals, businesses and unions.
These are significant vulnerabilities in Australia’s democracy and reinforce why substantial reforms are needed to prevent wealthy interests from exercising too much influence in Australian politics.
Largest donations in Australian political history
The big story of the 2019 election was Clive Palmer, who donated A$84 million via his mining company Mineralogy to his own campaign – a figure that dwarfs all other donations as far back as the records go. The previous record – also held by Palmer – was A$15 million at the 2013 election.
While Palmer failed to win any seats last year, he ran a substantial anti-Labor advertising campaign, and claimed credit for the Coalition’s victory.
There are obviously many factors in an election win, but this raises a serious question: how much influence should we allow any single interest to hold over the national debate, especially during the critically important election period?
Several other large donors also emerged at this election. A A$4 million donation to the Liberal Party from the company Sugolena, owned by a private investor and philanthropist, takes the prize for the largest-ever non-Palmer donation.
Businessman Anthony Pratt donated about A$1.5 million to each of the major parties through his paper and packaging company Pratt Holdings. The hotels lobby, which has been influential in preventing pokies reforms in past state and federal elections, also donated about A$500,000 to the Coalition and A$800,000 to Labor.
While explicit quid pro quo is probably rare, the risk is in more subtle influences – that donors get more access to policymakers and their views are given more weight. These risks are exacerbated by a lack of transparency in dealings between policymakers and special interests.
Big money improves the chances of influence. But it also matters to election outcomes.
Looking back at the past five federal elections, an interesting correlation is evident: the party with the biggest war chest tends to form government.
It’s only a sample of five, and it’s unclear whether higher spending drives the election result or donors simply get behind the party most likely to win.
But in 2019, Labor was widely expected to win, so its smaller war chest supports the proposition that money assists in delivering power.
What policymakers should do to protect Australia’s democracy
Money in politics needs to be better regulated to reduce the risk of interest groups “buying” influence – and elections.
Real transparency is the first step. Half of private funding remains hidden from public view due to Australia’s high disclosure threshold and loopholes in the federal donations rules.
Only donations of more than A$14,000 need to be on the public record, and political parties don’t have to aggregate multiple donations below the threshold from the same donor – meaning major donors can simply split their donations to hide their identity.
Parliament should improve the transparency of political donations by
lowering the federal donations disclosure threshold to A$5,000, so all donations big enough to matter are on the public record;
requiring political parties to aggregate multiple donations from the same donor, so big donors can’t hide
requiring quicker release of donations data, so voters have information on who funds elections during the campaign – not nine months later.
These simple rule changes would bring Australia’s federal political donations regime in line with most states and OECD nations. The current regime leaves voters in the dark.
But the donations data shows transparency is not enough to protect Australia’s democracy from the influence of a handful of wealthy individuals. Ultimately, to reduce the influence of money in politics, parliament should introduce an expenditure cap during election campaigns.
Parties and candidates can currently spend as much money as they can raise, so big money means greater capacity to sell your message to voters.
Capping political expenditure by political parties – and third parties – would reduce the influence of wealthy individuals. And it would reduce the donations “arms race” between the major parties, giving senior politicians more time to do their job instead of chasing dollars.
At the May 18 election, the size of the lower house was expanded from 150 to 151 seats. The Coalition parties won 77 seats (up one since the 2016 election), Labor 68 (down one) and the crossbench six (up one). The Coalition government holds a three-seat majority.
Owing to redistributions and the loss of Wentworth to independent Kerryn Phelps at an October 2018 byelection, the Coalition notionally had 73 seats before the election, a one-seat advantage over Labor. Using this measure, the Coalition gained a net four seats in the election.
The Coalition gained the Queensland seats of Herbert and Longman, the Tasmanian seats of Braddon and Bass, and the New South Wales seat of Lindsay. Labor’s only offsetting gain was the NSW seat of Gilmore. Corangamite and Dunkley are not counted as Labor gains as they were redistributed into notional Labor seats.
Four of the six pre-election crossbenchers easily held their seats – Adam Bandt (Melbourne), Andrew Wilkie (Clark), Rebekha Sharkie (Mayo) and Bob Katter (Kennedy). The Liberals narrowly regained Wentworth from Phelps, but independent Zali Steggall thrashed Tony Abbott 57%-43% in Warringah. In Indi, independent Helen Haines succeeded retiring independent Cathy McGowan, defeating the Liberals by 51.4%-48.6%.
The Coalition easily defeated independent challengers in Cowper and Farrer.
While Bandt was re-elected, the Greens went backwards in their other inner-Melbourne target seats of Wills and Cooper. Only in Kooyong did the Greens manage to beat Labor into second.
The final primary votes were 41.4% Coalition (down 0.6%), 33.3% Labor (down 1.4%), 10.4% Greens (up 0.2%), 3.4% United Australia Party (UAP) and 3.1% One Nation (up 1.8%).
The final two-party vote was 51.5% for the Coalition to 48.5% for Labor, a 1.2% swing in the Coalition’s favour from the 2016 election. It is the first pro-government swing since the 2004 election.
It was expected the Coalition would do better once the 15 “non-classic” seats were included; these are seats where the final two candidates were not Coalition and Labor. However, 11 of these seats swung to Labor, including a 9.0% swing in Warringah and a 7.9% swing in Wentworth. Eight non-classics were inner-city electorates that tended to swing to Labor.
The table below shows the number of seats in each state and territory, the Coalition’s number of seats, the Coalition’s percentage of seats, the gains for the Coalition compared to the redistribution, the Coalition’s two-party vote, the swing to the Coalition in two-party terms, and the number of Labor seats.
Four of the six states recorded swings to the Coalition in the range from 0.9% to 1.6%. Victoria was the only state that swung to Labor, by 1.3%. Queensland had a 4.3% swing to the Coalition, far larger than any other state. Labor did well to win a majority of NSW seats despite losing the two-party vote convincingly.
Official turnout in the election was 91.9%, up 0.9% from 2016. Analyst Ben Raue says 96.8% of eligible voters were enrolled, the highest ever. That means effective turnout was 89.0% of the population, up 2.6%.
Education divide explains Coalition’s win
Not only did Steggall thump Abbott in Warringah, the electorate’s 9.0% swing to Labor on a two-party basis was the largest swing to Labor in the country. Abbott’s two-party vote percentage of 52.1% was by far the lowest for a conservative candidate against Labor since Warringah’s creation in 1922; the next lowest was 59.5% in 2007.
While Abbott did badly, other divisive Coalition MPs performed well. Barnaby Joyce won 54.8% of the primary vote in New England and gained a 1.2% two-party swing against Labor. Peter Dutton had a 3.0% two-party swing to him in Dickson, and George Christensen had a massive 11.2% two-party swing to him in Dawson, the second-largest for the Coalition nationally.
According to the 2016 census, 42% of those aged 16 and over in Warringah had at least a bachelor’s degree, compared with 22% in Australia overall. Just 13.5% had at least a bachelor’s degree in New England, 19% in Dickson and 12% in Dawson.
In Victoria, which swung to Labor, 24.3% of the population had at least a bachelor’s degree in 2016, the highest of any state in the nation.
The Grattan Institute has charted swings to Labor and the Coalition, taking into account wealth and tertiary education. Only polling booths in the top-income quintile swung to Labor; the other four income quintiles swung to the Coalition.
Areas with low levels of tertiary education swung strongly to the Coalition in NSW and Queensland, but less so in Victoria. There were solid swings to Labor in areas with high levels of tertiary education.
Some of the swings are explained by contrary swings in 2016, when the Coalition under Malcolm Turnbull performed relatively worse in lower-educated areas and better in higher-educated areas. However, Queensland’s 58.4% two-party vote for the Coalition was 1.4% better than at the 2013 election, even though the national result is 2.0% worse. The large swings to the Coalition in regional Queensland are probably partly due to the Adani coal mine issue.
Morrison’s appeal to lower-educated voters
Since becoming prime minister, Scott Morrison’s Newspoll ratings have been roughly neutral, with about as many people saying they are satisfied with him as those dissatisfied. After Morrison became leader, I suggested on my personal website that the Coalition would struggle with educated voters, and this occurred in the election. However, Morrison’s appeal to those with a lower level of education more than compensated.
In my opinion, the most important reason for the Coalition’s upset victory was that Morrison was both liked and trusted by lower-educated voters, while they neither liked nor trusted Labor leader Bill Shorten.
Earlier this month, The Guardian published a long report on the social media “death tax” scare campaign. While this and other Coalition scare campaigns may have had an impact on the result, they did so by playing into lower-educated voters’ distrust of Shorten. Had these voters trusted Shorten, such scare campaigns would have had less influence.
Labor also ran scare campaign ads attacking Morrison for deals with Clive Palmer and Pauline Hanson. But I believe these ads failed to resonate because lower-educated voters liked Morrison better.
I think Morrison won support from the lower-educated because they are sceptical of “inner-city elites”. The Coalition leader emphasised his non-elite attributes during the campaign, such as by playing sport and going to church. Turnbull was perceived as a member of the elite, which could explain swings to Labor in lower-educated areas in 2016.
Parallels can be drawn to the 2017 election in the UK. Labour performed far better than expected in the election, reducing the Conservatives to a minority government when they were expected to win easily. Labour had adopted a pro-Brexit position, which may have sent a message to lower-educated voters that they could support the party.
This offers an option for Australian Labor to try to win back support from lower-educated voters: adopt a hardline immigration policy. Votes that Labor would lose to the Greens by doing this would likely be returned as preferences.
See also my similar article on how Donald Trump won the US 2016 presidential election.
The problem with the polls
The table below shows all national polls released in the final week compared to the election result. A poll estimate within 1% of the actual result is in bold.
The polls did well on the One Nation and UAP votes, and were a little low on the Greens. The major source of error was that Labor’s vote was overstated and the Coalition’s was understated. Only Ipsos had Labor’s vote right, but it overstated the Greens vote by about three points – a common occurrence for Ipsos.
No poll since July 2018 had given the Coalition a primary vote of at least 40%. In the election, the Coalition parties received 41.4% of the vote.
Seat polls during the campaign were almost all from YouGov Galaxy, which conducts Newspoll. The Poll Bludger says these polls were, like the national polls, biased against the Coalition.
Analyst Peter Brent has calculated the two-party vote for all election-day and early votes. The gap between election day and early votes increased to 5.0% in 2019 from 4.6% in 2016. This does not imply that polls missed because of a dramatic late swing to the Coalition in the final days; it is much more likely the polls have been wrong for a long time.
Boris Johnson very likely to be Britain’s next PM, and left wins Danish election
I wrote for The Poll Bludger on June 14 that, after winning the support of 114 of the 313 Conservative MPs in the first round of voting, Boris Johnson is virtually assured of becoming the next British PM. Polls suggest he will boost the Conservative vote.
I also wrote on my personal website on June 6 about the left’s win in the Danish election. Also covered: a new Israeli election, the German Greens’ surge, and the left gaining a seat in the May 4 Tasmanian upper house periodical elections.
Can billionaires buy elections in Australia? In the 2019 election, Clive Palmer demonstrated they can certainly flood the print media, airwaves, social media and billboards with advertising and have an impact on the results through their preferences and negative advertising.
Apart from United Australia Party hype about how it was going to win government, most of the high-profile advertising in the 2019 campaign was negative. There is a longstanding 48-hour ban on political advertising in radio and broadcast media prior to polling day, but advertising on social media is not covered. The very useful Facebook Ad Library showed the kind of horrors being broadcast during the 48-hour blackout.
The Coalition was running many “death tax” ads on the Thursday and Friday. These were ads cut to show one Labor frontbencher after another saying the words “death tax”, when in fact they were denying a rumour about such a tax. Negativity, or even sheer invention, proved very effective.
By comparison, Labor ads on issues such as childcare or the gender pay gap – as well as its own negative ads aimed at the Coalition’s disunity and climate change policies – appeared to have little impact.
Lack of regulations at federal level
How have we arrived at a place where our elections are awash with paid advertising? Believe it or not, this has been a relatively recent phenomenon.
Elaborate precautions exist to prevent wealthy men practically purchasing seats: the expenditure of a senatorial candidate is limited to £250 and of a candidate for the other House to £100.
These expenditure limits became increasingly obsolete and were not enforced. They were discarded at the federal level after 1980, following a successful challenge to the election of three candidates in the Tasmanian seat of Denison for each having spent more than A$1,500 in the 1979 state election.
From that time, Australia has been notable for the laxity of its regulation of political finance. At the federal level, there are no restrictions on the size or source of donations to political parties, apart from the recent ban on foreign donations. And there are no limits on campaign expenditure or paid advertising, apart from the requirement for authorisation.
As a result, industry bodies wishing to fend off government regulation of guns or poker machines or financial advice are free to spend as much as they like on political donations and advertising.
There is also no “truth in advertising” requirement at the federal level, and the Australian Electoral Commission does not have the authority to approve electoral communications for publication. The only requirement in the Commonwealth Electoral Act is for authorisation, including of electronic advertising. Ultimately, it is up to the courts to enforce this, on a case by case basis.
This differs greatly from many countries in Europe, including the UK, Ireland and the Scandinavian countries, which have never allowed such paid political advertising. Two-thirds of European countries limit the amount a candidate can spend on a campaign, including advertising, and 43% limit the amount a party can spend.
This decision put a dampener on reform at the federal level. It is only recently the High Court has changed course to find that burdens on free speech can be legitimate if they serve another democratic purpose, such as political equality.
The constitutionality of regulating political donations was reaffirmed by the High Court in April 2019.
The government had passed amendments to the Commonwealth Electoral Act to enable Commonwealth law to override the tighter regulation of political donations at the state or territory level. This provision was overturned by the High Court and Queensland’s ban on developer donations was upheld. This was despite an attempt by the plaintiff, former LNP Queensland President Gary Spence, to argue it restricted freedom of political communication.
These High Court decisions open the way to possible future caps on expenditure and donations at the federal level, which could reduce the torrent of negative political advertising democracy is currently drowning in.
Impacts of unlimited spending on democracy
The lack of restrictions on political expenditure or donations at the federal level has contributed to perceptions that government is run primarily for the benefit of the big end of town. In 2016, 56% of respondents to the Australian Election Study believed this.
In addition, negative advertising further erodes the public’s faith in government. American political scientist Joseph Nye observed more than 20 years ago a relationship between negative advertising and loss of trust in political parties and government. In the Democracy 2025 survey conducted in Australia last year, respondents were asked about possible reforms to rebuild trust in government. It revealed strongest support for limits on political donations and campaign expenditure.
The laxity of political finance regulation at the federal level also creates loopholes at the state or territory level, where genuine progress has been made in limiting political expenditure by parties, candidates and lobbying groups.
It is equally important that allowing paid political advertising in electronic media drives up the costs of political campaigns and increases dependence on wealthy donors.
Australia could rein in the ever-increasing role of private money in its federal elections. Labor and the Greens are committed to greater transparency for political donations and spending caps on federal campaign expenditure, while the High Court has shown it is now unlikely to strike down reasonable (“proportionate”) regulation of political finance.
Democracy should be about political equality, not about the deep pockets of billionaires.
For some time now, Australian voters have rattled the cage of the political establishment. Frustrated with prime ministerial “coups”, political scandals and policy inertia, growing numbers have turned away from the major parties.
Does this mean minor parties and independent candidates will have a significant impact on the coming federal election?
Anti-major party sentiment doesn’t usually disrupt the numbers in parliament by much. Only five of 150 seats weren’t won by the major parties at the 2016 federal election, despite a national minor party/independent vote of over 23%. But a nationwide minor party Senate vote of over 35% in 2016 resulted in a record 20 crossbenchers – helped by a lower quota bar at a double dissolution election.
Familiar groups and faces are well placed to capitalise on this sentiment during the current election campaign.
Despite internal instability rocking its New South Wales branch, the Greens will hope to capitalise on growing progressive support (in Victoria especially) and an expected anti-Coalition swing to secure Senate influence.
Yet with recent Senate voting rule changes being tested for the first time at a normal half-Senate election, the Greens may in fact struggle to retain, let alone build on, their current nine Senate spots. Final Senate seats in most states will be fought over by a slew of (mainly right-wing) minor parties.
Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party (UAP), Pauline Hanson’s One Nation (PHON), and – unlikely as it seems – Fraser Anning’s new Conservative National Party will chase the “protest vote” in all states and (apart from PHON) territories.
But intense competition for the conservative vote means they and other minor parties stand only an outside chance of winning lower house seats. One exception is Bob Katter likely holding Kennedy in north Queensland for his eponymous Australian Party.
Still, an expected high minor party vote will keep the major parties – and the media – focused on preferencing arrangements throughout the campaign. These preferences will likely play a key role in electing minor party candidates to the Senate, potentially returning familiar faces like One Nation’s Malcolm Roberts from Queensland.
Deference to preferences
Recent opinion poll results have unexpectedly placed Palmer’s party ahead of the field of minor parties on the right. Months of saturation advertising, it seems, have imprinted the billionaire’s messaging on voters’ minds. Yet this sudden poll prominence, like Palmer’s billboard pledge to “make Australia great”, is largely illusory.
Nevertheless, both major parties have responded to this seeming upsurge in UAP support. The Coalition has hurriedly concluded a preferencing arrangement that sees Palmer and Prime Minister Scott Morrison somewhat “reconciled”. The deal might deliver much-needed preferences to Coalition MPs in marginal seats, particularly in Queensland. It also increases the chances of Palmer candidates – and the man himself – winning a Senate seat.
But these are big “maybes”. Minor party voters are renowned for following their own preference choices. In 2013, voters’ preferences from Palmer’s United Party candidates split only 54% the Coalition’s way.
Clearly stung by the attention being shown to Palmer, Hanson has announced PHON will preference Labor last in some key marginal seats held by Liberal incumbents. That includes Peter Dutton, whose seat of Dickson is under siege. In 2016, PHON took a different approach when it preferenced against sitting MPs, costing the Coalition its hold on Queensland seats like Herbert and Longman.
As part of the same deal, PHON will exchange preferences with the Nationals – whose leader Michael McCormack claimed “it just made sense” – lifting the Nationals’ hopes in marginal and at-risk regional seats.
Labor has also sealed a deal to boost its chances in marginal Victorian seats, concluding an arrangement with Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party. This will see Labor how-to-vote cards in tightly contested seats like Dunkley and Corangamite suggest second preferences go to Hinch’s Senate candidates ahead of the Greens (repeating Labor’s approach at the 2016 election).
But doing preference deals with minor parties carries reputational risks, as former Western Australia Premier Colin Barnett has warned. As has often been the case with personality-driven outfits, choosing suitable or qualified candidates easily brings minor parties undone.
Anning’s party has already stumbled badly. A pair of candidates in Victoria and the ACT has been called into question, and a party supporter allegedly assaulted journalists in Sydney.
Hanson’s party, no stranger to this pitfall, is still hosing down the controversy of the Al Jazeera taped conversations with party insiders, which has likely cost the party some support. Freshly released video footage has now forced Queensland Senate candidate, Steve Dickson, to resign in disgrace, in another blow to the often shambolic party’s standing.
Palmer’s candidates are similarly coming under scrutiny with doubts raised over citizenship qualifications, putting legitimate doubts into voters’ minds just as pre-polling has commenced.
Familiarity is key for independents
The best chances for independents are in lower house seats, yet there’s been only a dozen elected to parliament in the last several decades. Those who’ve broken through in election campaigns, like Kerryn Phelps at last year’s Wentworth byelection, typically benefit when there’s some controversy or ill-feeling towards an incumbent or their party.
But in the absence of full-on media glare of a high-profile by-election contest, Phelps might struggle to hold her seat – assuming the angst of local voters over Malcolm Turnbull’s deposing has dissipated.
Personal profile and high media interest puts Zali Steggall in with a chance to unseat Tony Abbott in Warringah. Likewise, a well-organised local campaign structure such as “Voices for Indi” behind Cathy McGowan’s hopeful successor, Helen Haines, can make the difference – though transition of support from one independent to another isn’t assured.
Newcomers on the ballot paper generally find the odds against them. Candidates with an established record and voter recognition, such as Andrew Wilkie in Tasmania’s Clark (like the Greens’ Adam Bandt in Melbourne and Centre Alliance’s Rebekha Sharkie in South Australia’s Mayo), enjoy an easier path to reelection.
Similarly, Rob Oakeshott is given a good chance of winning the New South Wales seat of Cowper from retiring Nationals MP, Luke Hartsuyker. He carries strong name recognition from his time as Independent MP for the neighbouring seat of Lyne.
But recognition alone mightn’t be enough for Julia Banks, the former Liberal MP for Chisholm in Victoria who is now challenging in Greg Hunt’s seat of Flinders. Her decision to preference Labor’s candidate above Hunt might turn away potential support from Liberal-leaning voters, yet could put the seat within Labor’s grasp.
The chances of an “independent tide” sweeping several seats this election is unlikely, in part due to the ability of major parties to drown out the competition. And counter to long speculation about the “march of the minors”, there could in fact be a reduced crossbench in both the lower house and Senate.
But voter dissatisfaction with the major parties persists, and minor party preferences are likely to play a critical role in many seats.
The prominence of minor parties will maintain an air of unpredictability for the remainder of the campaign, clouding an election outcome many saw not long ago as a foregone conclusion.
As head of the United Australia Party, Clive Palmer is no classic right-winger nor crotchety conservative. He is no angel either. He is often wrongly lumped in with Pauline Hanson and One Nation, and maybe even with the more recent retreads like Fraser Anning and Cory Bernardi.
But he is not like them. He is a big-spending, eccentric, brusque businessman espousing a strange mixture of populist musings. He is also eager to end the strangulation the major parties exert over policy options. On some issues he is more progressive than Labor (asylum seekers); on others he is more adventurous than the Coalition (taxation) – he is a protectionist nationalist without the xenophobic baggage.
So, just what is Palmer up to in this election campaign? After a fairly desultory campaign in 2013 when he won a single lower house seat and initially three senators, he sat out the 2016 federal election. Now, he’s back in full force, spending upwards of A$55 million before the election comes to an end. He’s standing candidates in every electorate and running a team in every senate constituency. Polling is showing him “influential” in many swing seats with support running into the mid-teens in some electorates.
Why is he spending so much of his own money on what looks like a pyrrhic campaign, even if he is elected to the Senate for Queensland?
Many people say Palmer has no policies, he stands for nothing except himself, and is just fanning a protest vote.
It’s true that Palmer tends to campaign with hackneyed slogans: “Make Australia Great”, “Aussies aren’t going to cop it any more” and “Let’s get something done for a change”, being the main three. He also authorises crass advertising – his prominent billboards and full-page poster-style advertisements feature himself, curtained in canary yellow, with the implicit message that the Liberals and Labor “don’t fight for you”. He is partial to hyperbole, and in the media often lives in a world of denial.
At the 2013 federal election, Palmer’s United Party released a slender raft of policy proposals. He opposed the carbon tax and supported tax reductions, but he also proposed a more compassionate policy towards asylum seekers, a conscience vote on same-sex marriage, free university places for residents, tax relief for mortgagees, regional wealth retention, and smaller government. Many of his 2013 policies reappear in recycled form in 2019.
He claims as his achievements to have stopped many of the “zombie” measures Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey tried to impose in the 2014 budget. These include: stopping GP co-payments of $7 per visit, opposing cuts to universities, preventing more social security cuts, opposing an increase in the eligible age for the age pension to 70 years, supporting climate change and renewable energy proposals, and supporting a ban on lobbyists and the removal of boat-arrival children from offshore detention. He also claimed credit for supporting the abolition of the carbon tax and the mining tax, and for bringing down Campbell Newman’s LNP government in Queensland.
This election, the UAP is proposing to increase pensions by 20% immediately (or $4,000 a year for each pensioner). It is advocating an extra $80 billion spending on health and a further $20 billion for education over the next parliament. Palmer continues to support mining development (with more onshore processing of commodities) and a zonal taxation system, with wealth generated in regions remaining in regions. He wants immediate investment in very fast trains.
The UAP is also fiercely criticising other mainstream party policies. For instance, Palmer opposes the “sell-off” of agricultural land to foreign buyers, targeting in particular Chinese government-owned companies for their aggressive purchasing strategies. His position is not xenophobic: he detests Chinese Communist Party business practices because of first-hand experience, but he is not against people of Chinese descent coming here or doing well.
He opposes the ALP’s tax policy, regarding it as insufficient and mostly deferred until after 2024. He wants all income tax rates reduced by 15% now, and for companies and small businesses to pay their tax bill at the end of the financial year once their earnings are finalised (thus abolishing the pernicious provisional tax paid quarterly in advance).
He also wants mortgagees to be able to get a tax offset for the first $10,000 of repayments to help first-home buyers. Furthermore, the UAP is campaigning for the abolition of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and ending the public profligacy of water buy-backs. Palmer claims that spending on the national broadband network has “wasted” $55 billion “and it still doesn’t work”.
Palmer’s revival in his electoral stocks has occurred despite him being embroiled in many controversies and untrustworthy business practices. These include the debacle over the Coolum Resort, which closed under his management, costing 600 jobs and leaving over 300 investors without their assets.
Many commentators who highlight Palmer’s record believe the preference deal with the Liberals and LNP could perhaps damage the Coalition vote. But although Labor will whinge to the closing of the polls on May 18, I expect the cross-preferencing arrangement to benefit both the LNP and the UAP.
Palmer may not win any lower house seats, but his preferences might determine who does in up to 20 seats. If his electoral support continues to grow, he may well secure two or three senate positions, almost back to where he was in 2013.
But he is coming under widespread attack as an illegitimate player by many commentators and media outlets as well as his political opponents. Most of the major papers and TV news outlets regularly slam his antics (Google “Clive Palmer’s Criticism”).
The key perhaps to understanding Palmer’s gravity-defying electoral support is that he is a “positive populist” rather than a largely negative populist along the lines of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, who has based her own protectionist stance much more explicitly on race and xenophobia. Indeed, Palmer eschews the racist policies and dog-whistling his rival right-of-centre competitors have delivered, including One Nation and Fraser Anning’s Conservatives.
Palmer carefully tailors his positive populist messages to appreciative audiences: his line that “something must be done” has resonated.
Certainly, some of Palmer’s electoral support at the ballot box will be simply a protest vote (and he will be aware of that). But perhaps some greater proportion will be voting for more genuine diversity from what the cartelised major parties are offering. Australia seems ripe for a more serious positive populism offered by Palmer and his UAP. The ultimate question will be whether the wheels will again fall of the wagon.
And what after the election? Palmer’s boast that he will form government is fanciful. He has long been anti-Labor and in this election is not directing preferences their way, so he may be well and truly ostracised by Labor if it wins office.
Alternatively, if the Coalition scrapes back in it will be partly obligated to his preferences and will have to accommodate whoever the UAP manages to get into parliament.
The last time Palmer held this power his influence quickly waned as his “team” mostly abandoned him. We will soon see if he has learnt from bitter experience.
This article is adapted from an earlier piece published in The Machinery of Government.
This year’s election will be the first in Australia where the parties will be advertising more on social and digital platforms than traditional media (TV, radio, newspapers and magazines).
There are a few key reasons for this. First, cost-wise, social media is far cheaper, sometimes as low as a few cents per click. Unlike heritage media, digital and social is extremely targeted, and can be done in the “dark,” so your opponents may not even be aware of the message you are pushing out.
Digital and social advertising can also be shared or even created by users themselves, further increasing the reach of a party’s messaging. This gets around the Australian Electoral Commission rules on advertising – technically they are not ads since no party is paying for them to be shared on people’s feeds.
Throw into the mix laws on political advertising – which allow parties to advertise up to and on election day on social media, but not traditional media – and we are likely seeing the first largely digitally driven election campaign in Australian political history.
From a campaign perspective, Palmer is ticking many of the right boxes: a mix of different platforms on digital and social; heritage media ads for mass market awareness featuring candidates selected from the middle; the use of memes and user-generated content; and even text messaging.
Despite the ubiquity of his ads, though, Palmer is still struggling to connect with most voters. This demonstrates a very important aspect to any advertising campaign: the actual brand still needs to be seen as offering real value to voters.
The UAP has used text messaging like this one below, for example, to try to change its negative perception with voters by delivering positive campaign promises.
The ‘Grim Reaper’ strategy and micro-targeting
One of the most effective ads ever done in Australia was the “Grim Reaper” AIDS awareness campaign in 1987, which showed how well “scare campaigns” and negative messaging can work, given the right context and framing. The ad’s micro-messaging was another aspect that worked so well: it personalised the issue and made it tangible to anyone sexually active.
Basically, negative messaging works on the theory that what you fear, you will avoid – or the “fight or flight response”. Negative political ads highlight the level of risk and consequence of a certain party’s policies – and then emphasise how to avoid this by not voting for them.
Trouble is, most ads on TV are losing their potency. As attitudes towards political messaging and brands become increasingly negative, voters are less likely to watch ads in their entirety. Many people also don’t see them as being personally relevant.
Social media, though, provides an excellent delivery mechanism for these types of messages. Digital ads can be personalised and focused on issues that voters have already expressed an interest in and therefore find relevant to their lives.
Social media ads can also be altered to be even more targeted as the campaign goes on, based on voter responses. And their speed of production – only taking a matter of hours to produce and place online – allows digital advertising to do what heritage no longer can and provide a more fluid, grassroots dynamic to campaigning.
That said, even on social media, negative advertising is not as effective if it just comes from the party itself. But when combined with information from third-party sources, such as from the media, this can increase the effectiveness. For example, the Liberal Party used the 10 Network image in this ad to support its claims on Labor’s tax policies.
The major parties are aware of this and are creating ads specifically targeting this demographic on Snapchat, WhatsApp and Instagram. Some of these are “dark social” ads (meaning they can only be seen by the target market) or are user-made so not to be subject to disclosure rules.
For more general audiences, Labor has created ads like this one on Facebook that highlight issues young voters are concerned about, such as wage increases and penalty rates. Ads like this also attempt to engage with these voters by asking them to sign petitions – a form of experiential marketing that’s proved highly effective with young audiences, as seen through platforms such as Change.org.
Groups like the Australian Youth Climate Coalition are tapping into experiential marketing by combining online advertising with a call for offline action on issues that appeal to young voters, such as climate change. Part-rock concert, part-protest, these events might remind some of the rallies that proved so popular during the Gough Whitlam era.
The increasing influence of lobbying groups
One of the more interesting developments of this election so far is the increasing sophistication, knowledge and strategies of political lobbying groups, or Australia’s equivalent to America’s PACs.
GetUp! is one such group, collecting A$12.8 million in donations in the last 12 months alone. Among the group’s tactics are direct phone calls to voters, partly achieved through “phone parties” where volunteers freely offer their time, phones and other resources to call people in targeted electorates. GetUp! has a goal of making 1 million phone calls in the lead-up to the election.
Other well-funded groups, such as the right-aligned Advance Australia, are also seeking to influence the narrative in the election, particularly in electorates like Warringah, where it has released ads against Tony Abbott’s challenger, Zali Steggall.
In part to counter the influence of lobbying groups, the Australian Council of Trade Unions has launched its own advertising campaign featuring working Australians describing how hard it is to make ends meet.
The rise of these groups in Australian politics opens a Pandora’s Box on just who can influence elections without even standing a single candidate – an issue that’s becoming part of politics now in many Western democracies. As many in politics would know, where there is money, there is power, and where there is power, there are those who are seeking to influence it.
With 19 days to go until election day, this week’s Newspoll, conducted April 26-28 from a sample of 2,140, gave Labor just a 51-49 lead, a one-point gain for the Coalition since last fortnight. Primary votes were 38% Coalition (down one), 37% Labor (down two), 9% Greens (steady), 5% for Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party (UAP) and 4% One Nation (steady).
Three weeks before the election, the UAP has been included in the party readout for the first time. Prior to this change, the tables show that the UAP had 2% support in the post-budget Newspoll and 3% last fortnight – they were previously published as Others. According to pollster David Briggs (paywalled), both UAP and One Nation preferences are assumed to flow at 60% to the Coalition.
Given results at the WA and Queensland 2017 elections and at the Longman 2018 federal byelection, where One Nation preferences flowed at over 60% to the Coalition, this assumption is justified for One Nation, and was the standard assumption from early 2018.
However, the UAP has no electoral record. At the 2013 election that Palmer contested under the Palmer United Party, PUP preferences split 53.7-46.3 to the Coalition. At that election, PUP recommended preferences to the Coalition in all House seats, the same situation as now, and the Labor government was on the nose.
45% were satisfied with Scott Morrison’s performance (steady) and 46% were dissatisfied (up two), for a net approval of -1. Bill Shorten’s net approval was up two points to -12, his best net approval since May 2016. Morrison led Shorten by 45-37 as better PM (46-35 last fortnight).
Morrison was trusted to keep campaign promises over Shorten by 41-38. In some evidence for UAP preferences splitting to the Coalition, UAP voters favoured Morrison on this question by 53-13, though this is from a subsample of about 100 UAP voters.
The change in party readout and the preference assumptions for UAP explain the narrowing in this poll from 52-48 to 51-49. But there has been a clear overall narrowing trend this year from the last three Newspolls of 2018, which were all 55-45 to Labor. Morrison’s relatively good ratings and greater distance from the events of last August are assisting the Coalition.
The Poll Bludger’s BludgerTrack currently has Labor winning 87 of the 151 seats on a 52.4-47.6 two party vote. The Coalition’s primary vote in Newspoll is 4% down from 2016, but preference changes since 2016 could assist the Coalition, and that is reflected in Newspoll. However, Ipsos polls have shown no difference between last election and respondent allocated preferences since Morrison became PM.
In economic news, the ABS reported on April 24 that there was zero inflation in the March quarter. While this was bad for the overall economy, it is good for consumers worried about the cost of living. Lower oil prices in late 2018 meant petrol prices fell in January, but have since increased.
YouGov Galaxy poll: 52-48 to Labor
A YouGov Galaxy poll for the Sunday News Ltd tabloids, conducted April 23-25 from a sample of 1,012, gave Labor a 52-48 lead, a one-point gain for the Coalition since late March. Primary votes were 37% Coalition (up two), 37% Labor (steady), 9% Greens (down one), 4% One Nation (down four), 4% UAP (steady) and 9% for all Others (up three). YouGov Galaxy also conducts Newspoll.
Voters were asked if they were impressed or unimpressed with the campaign performances of six party leaders, and all performed poorly. Morrison was the best with a 54-38 unimpressed score, Shorten had a 60-31 rating, Nationals leader Michael McCormack a 38-8 rating, Greens leader Richard Di Natale had a 44-13 unimpressed score, Pauline Hanson a 67-20 rating and Clive Palmer a horrible 69-17 unimpressed rating.
The many don’t knows for Di Natale and McCormack reflect that most people don’t know very much about them. While ratings for Morrison and Shorten would be based to some extent on their campaign performance, those for Hanson and Palmer are much more likely based on voters’ opinions of them before the campaign.
Palmer’s preference deal with the Coalition
Under a preference deal between Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party (UAP) and the Coalition, Palmer would direct preferences to the Coalition in House seats in return for Coalition preferences in the Senate. It is important to note that voters make the choices in both houses now, and can ignore preference recommendations.
In 2013, Palmer recommended preferences to the Coalition in all seats, and they flowed to the Coalition by a 53.7-46.3 margin; his party won 5.5% of the national vote in the House. While this split was not more pro-Coalition, analyst Peter Brent suggests that Palmer voters were more inclined to preference Labor, and the preference recommendations had some impact.
If the UAP won 4% of the national vote and their preference recommendations convinced 10% of their voters who would otherwise preference Labor to preference the Coalition, the Coalition’s national two party vote would by 0.4% higher than otherwise.
However, this analysis ignores the risk of doing a deal with someone as disliked by the general public as Palmer. In a January Herbert seat Newspoll, 65% had a negative view of Palmer, and just 24% a positive view.
So while a preference deal with Palmer could earn the Coalition some more preferences, it could also damage their overall primary vote, hurting them more than helping. Labor will attack Palmer over the sacked Queensland Nickel workers, and that could impact the Coalition’s support among people with a lower level of educational attainment.
Does early voting make a difference to the results?
Pre-poll voting booths for the election are open from today. Under Australia’s compulsory voting, people are required to vote, and those who vote early are unlikely to have voted differently if they voted on election day unless there was a dramatic late-campaign development. So there is likely to be little overall impact of early voting on the results. In voluntary voting systems like the US, early voting gives people who need to work on election day a greater opportunity to vote.
If one party was trending up in the polls as election day approached, early voters will decide their vote earlier, and so the trend will also be reflected in early votes.
While early voting overall has little impact, the types of people who vote early can differ markedly from the election day vote. Big pre-poll booths will not report until very late on election night, and the results could change significantly depending on those booths – as happened in the October Wentworth byelection.
The Coalition has made up ground in Newspoll, now trailing Labor by just 49-51%, compared with 48-52% a fortnight ago.
The tightening of the May 18 race, coming after Scott Morrison was seen to out-campaign Bill Shorten early on, will boost Coalition morale as pre-polling begins on Monday.
But both sides have lost support on their primary votes in the Newspoll, published in the Australian, while Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party is polling 5%, becoming the leading minor party behind the Greens.
Labor is down 2 points to 37%; the Coalition has fallen a point to 38%. The Greens remain on 9% and One Nation is static on 4%.
Shorten’s personal ratings are encouraging for him – he has had a 2 point rise to 39% in his satisfaction rating and reduced the gap on the better prime minister measure.
While Morrison still has a substantial lead as better PM, Shorten has increased his rating by 2 points to 37% and Morrison has fallen a point to 45%.
Morrison’s approval stayed on 45% while his disapproval was 46%, up 2 points, in the poll of 2136 voters taken Friday to Sunday.
Morrison and Shorten have arrived in Perth for Monday evening’s debate, their first face-to-face encounter of the campaign, which has under three weeks to run.
In a day of mega spending, Shorten on Sunday promised A$4 billion over three years to provide 887,000 families with relief on their child care costs; $2.4 billion over the forward estimates for a pensioner and seniors dental plan, and $537 million over the forward estimates to lift the pay of child care workers.
Under Labor’s dental plan, age pensioners and those holding a Commonwealth seniors’ health card would be entitled to up to $1000 worth of free essential dental care every two years. Some three million people would be eligible under the plan, which would expand Medicare.
Shorten told a rally of volunteers in Melbourne: “Under a Labor government, after May 18 if you’re a pensioner or a seniors health care card holder your dental work will be backed by Medicare for the rest of your life. This is the fair go in action”.
Shorten said an ALP government over the next eight years would boost the average wage of child care workers by about $11,300. This would be on top of any rise in the award rate.
It would be “a 20% pay rise for the early educators because we value early education,” he said.
“This is an investment in quality early education, for good jobs and a strong economy of the future.
“And this is an investment in pay equity for a female-dominated industry. A fair reward for a workforce that has about 96% women, has been undervalued and underpaid for too long.”
Labor says the pay rise would not increase child care fees because the government would fully fund it.
In an initiative on cyber security the government is announcing it would to invest $156 million “to protect older Australians, small businesses and national security assets from the risk of cyber-attacks”.
A range of measures to combat cyber crime would include developing “a comprehensive online cyber security training program providing practical cyber advice for small businesses, older Australians and Australian families”.
The government says cybercrime costs the economy more than $1 billion a year.
In the vulnerable state of Victoria, the government is sandbagging the Liberal heartland seats of Higgins and Kooyong with a promise of $260 million to eliminate a level crossing on busy Glenferrie road in the suburb of Kooyong.
The project would take the train line under the road. The crossing is technically in Higgins but right on the border of Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s seat of Kooyong. Frydenberg is being targeted by GetUp and various candidates especially on climate change.
In another Victorian seat, Flinders, Health Minister Greg Hunt has been dealt a blow by the decision of Liberal defector Julia Banks to preference Labor ahead of him.
Coalition campaign spokesman Simon Birmingham on Sunday accused her of walking away from her principles. “You’ve really got to wonder about the various positions of Julia Banks, who was until not that long ago urging people to vote Liberal and now is suggesting she will preference Labor. […] I think it shows gross inconsistency on her part”.
With 23 days to go until the May 18 election, Newspoll had seat polls of Herbert, Lindsay, Deakin and Pearce. All four polls were conducted April 20 from samples of 500-620. Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party (UAP) had the support of 5% in Deakin, 7% in Lindsay, 8% in Pearce and 14% in Herbert.
Seat polls are notoriously unreliable. In addition, the UAP has clearly been added to the party readout in these seats. Pollsters regularly ask for Labor, the Coalition, the Greens and One Nation. All other voters are grouped as “Others”, although a follow-up question can be asked – if Other, which other?
The strongest indication that UAP support is overstated in these seat polls is that the all Others vote is unrealistically low in three of the four seats polled. In Herbert, Pearce and Deakin, all Others are at just 2%, while they are 8% in Lindsay. It is likely that many of those who will vote for Others at the election said they would vote for the UAP as that party was in the readout.
Herbert was tied at 59-50, unchanged from the 2016 election. In Lindsay, Labor was ahead by 51-49, also unchanged. The Liberals led by 51-49 in Deakin, but this was a solid swing to Labor from 56.4-43.6 to the Liberals at the 2016 election. In Pearce, there was a 50-50 tie (53.6-46.4 to Liberals at the 2016 election).
Primary votes in Herbert were 31% LNP, 29% Labor, 14% UAP, 10% Katter’s Australian Party, 9% One Nation and 5% Greens. In Deakin, primary votes were 46% Liberals, 39% Labor, 8% Greens and 5% UAP. In Pearce, primary votes were 40% Liberals, 36% Labor, 8% Greens, 8% UAP and 6% One Nation. In Lindsay, primary votes were 41% Liberals, 40% Labor, 7% UAP and 4% Greens.
Relative to the national swing, Labor is expected to struggle in the Townsville-based seat of Herbert due to the Adani coal mine issue. In Lindsay, the retirement of Labor MP Emma Husar in controversial circumstances may have made it vulnerable.
Bad ReachTEL seat polls for Labor in Bass and Corangamite
There were two ReachTEL seat polls conducted last week from samples of 780-850. In the Labor-held Tasmanian seat of Bass, the Liberals had a 54-46 lead. In the Victorian seat of Corangamite, which is on no margin following a redistribution, the Liberals led by 52-48. The Bass poll was conducted for the Australian Forest Products Association, and the Corangamite poll for The Geelong Advertiser.
Bass and Tasmania have an older demographic than Australia overall. I wrote last week that, according to Newspoll data, those aged 50 or over are best for the Coalition. Corangamite also has an older demographic than the country overall.
Labor won Bass by 56.1-43.9 at the 2016 election, a 10.1% swing to Labor. But at the 2013 election, Bass was the best of the five Tasmanian seats for the Liberals, and this also occurred at the March 2018 state election. Labor’s big 2016 swing may have been caused by the unpopularity of hard-right Liberal MP Andrew Nikolic. In the July 2018 federal byelections, Labor had an underwhelming victory in Bass’s neigbouring seat, Braddon.
While seat polls are unreliable, the Corangamite and Bass polls are evidence that, as reported by The Poll Bludger originally from The Australian Financial Review, Scott Morrison appears to have a greater appeal to blue-collar and outer suburban voters than Malcolm Turnbull, and this has helped the Coalition in seats like Bass and Corangamite.
One Nation to contest 59 of the 151 House seats
Nominations for the election were declared this week. Labor, the Coalition, the Greens and the UAP will contest all 151 House seats. One Nation will contest 59 seats, with Fraser Anning’s Conservative National Party running in 48 seats, Animal Justice in 46 and the Christian Democrats in 42.
Until now, national pollsters have assumed One Nation was running in all seats for their polls. With One Nation only running in 39% of seats, most pollsters will reduce their national vote. This reduction may assist the Coalition on primary votes.
In the Senate, a quota for election is one-seventh of the vote, or 14.3%. Labor, the Greens and the Coalition are likely to be in the mix for the final seats in every state. It is possible that the small right-wing parties, such as Anning’s party, the UAP, the Australian Conservatives and Christian Democrats, could cause seats that should go to the right to go to the left instead if they do not tightly preference each other, One Nation and the Coalition.
Voters are told to number six boxes above the line for a formal vote, though only one number is actually required. At the NSW state election, left-wing micro-party voters preferenced more than right-wing micro-party voters, resulting in Animal Justice easily winning the final upper house seat.
At the federal election, it will be clear that left-wing micro-party supporters need to preference Labor and the Greens in their top six. It will be clear for right-wing micro supporters to preference the Coalition in the top six, but it is not likely to be clear which other right-wing party to preference.
Ahead of the first pre-pollers voting on Monday – and then switching off from the campaign noise – Labor will dangle more big bait – this time on child care.
Bill Shorten flagged the initiative on Friday, saying that “in the very near future, we’ll be announcing new plans to cut the cost of long day child care. And we will announce … a new national push for pay equity, starting with early childhood educators”.
The policy is both pitching to parents, and forming part of the ALP commitment to finding ways to lift wages, especially for the low paid.
Labor mapped out its early campaign weeks to focus on issues of very specific concern to voters. It started with health, featuring its big cancer package, and moved to wages. It will broaden into cost of living, and building for the future on various policy fronts.
While the ALP has handled the presentation of its issues in a very ordered fashion, the same can’t be said of its approach to one of the campaign’s formalities – the leaders’ debates.
The debate over debates
Shorten gave the impression of being dragged to the two now bedded down – in Perth on Monday (sponsored by the West Australian) and Brisbane on Friday (sponsored by News Corp outlets).
Morrison agitated for more; with Shorten pushed on Friday, Labor proposed a third be hosted by the National Press Club.
Morrison is confident on his feet and feels he has nothing to lose by multiple encounters. Shorten should have set out a debates’ proposal early on, rather than appearing to be on the defensive.
One might have expected the Labor leader to be enthusiastic for debates – he prides himself on all those town hall meetings. But he’s now risk averse and, as election favourite, knows debates potentially hold more pain than gain for him.
More broadly, in recent years leaders’ debates have lost a lot of their significance, falling victim to competitive pressure between media outlets. As has been often argued, we should have a “debates commission” to ensure at least two face offs are run as major set piece occasions, not owned by any media organisation.
The deal that’s “no deal”
Apart from the debate about debates, Friday’s campaign argy bargy centred on the Liberals’ preference deal with Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party, due to be announced by Palmer on Monday.
Morrison displays his usual chutzpah over this rather tawdry trade.
On the murky matter of preferences, the Prime Minister would prefer to hide behind the party organisation, an unconvincing line blown apart when he issued his edict about the Liberals putting One Nation behind Labor.
In particularly awkward timing, Morrison was in Townsville – where Palmer’s nickel workers were dudded in 2016 – when he had to field questions about the preference deal.
As one questioner succinctly put it: “Nowhere in the country knows better than Townsville the devastation and how that can be wrought by Clive Palmer. How can you look voters in this city in the eye and say they should direct their preferences to him, especially in the Senate?”
That is a question to which there is no answer that can sound half way good.
Morrison’s message for the locals was “Vote for Phil Thompson, the LNP candidate. That’s where you should put your vote and that’s the vote I’m interested in.”
Never mind that this ignores the point that voters must allocate preferences and the Liberals are saying allocate them in Palmer’s direction.
Morrison insisted there were “no policy deals that were being done with minor parties” in preference talks.
It was really all a matter of Palmer believing “Labor’s tax policy would be devastating for the Australian economy.”
As far as Morrison was concerned, “ I’m interested in forming a government on the other side of this election. I’m going make sure I do everything I possibly can to ensure that we’re able to form that government”.
He was dismissive of a warning from former Western Australian premier Colin Barnett (still stung by his preference deal with One Nation) that preferencing a discredited Palmer could alienate soft voters, as well as the Chinese.
Both sides now
The preference issue seemed easy pickings for Labor, except it had had a dalliance itself with the big man.
Shorten said there had been “no formal negotiations”, but Anthony Albanese unwisely went further. “Not once have we been talking to Clive Palmer about preferences because we understand it’s a recipe for chaos”.
Palmer immediately blew the whistle on that, revealing Queensland senator Anthony Chisholm had put out feelers. Chisholm, as a former Queensland ALP state secretary, would know quite a lot about such things.
It took the gloss off Labor’s attack on a deal it wanted to cast, in the colourful wording of Penny Wong, as “a marriage of convenience between an ad man and a con man”.