Classic Ellis: Predicting Elections, 1999

On Saturday night, unlike the rest of the world, I got it about right. A hung parliament, I said at 6.30 in the Tally Room, to 3LO as I had to Sandy McCutcheon the day before, then weeks, maybe months of confusion, and an eventual Steve Bracks government in Victoria. When asked why I had made this preposterous prediction by a mocking compere, I said, ‘The Australian people are not fools, and bad policies lose votes.’ I then waspishly asserted that I’d been right in twenty election predictions, right each time within four seats, and dead wrong five times. I later added it up, and am ashamed to confess I was right only sixteen times, right within four seats, and wrong five times. Though it is still the best track record on earth (and includes Keating’s win of ’93, Harold Wilson’s surprise resurrection of ’74, the New South Wales hung parliament of ’91 and Tony Blair’s huge margin of ’97) it is not as good as I said. And I’m sorry.

Bad policies lose votes. I think now (I didn’t always) this is all that happens. A set of policies that hurt people cause a government to be voted out. A new government is installed, whatever its leadership. That government is re-elected because it is believed they need two terms to prove themselves. Then the bad policies hurt, or hurt too much, and the government is voted out. Or their good policies keep them in office. And when, eventually, the policies hurt too much, they are voted out.

And leadership has nothing to do with it. Or personality. Or eloquence. Or imagery. Or spin. Anyone could have won the election of 1992 given the financial disaster. Anyone could have lost last Saturday’s, given the sold-off schools and the rundown hospitals and the cancelled ambulances and the money spent on casinos and autobahns that was needed elsewhere. And the stifling, in a twenty-five day election hidden under football and gagged ministers and censored reports, of democracy itself.

Personality and leadership and eloquence did not save Keating after he’d sold off Qantas and the Commonwealth Bank and ignored the bleeding of the country towns. It didn’t save Whitlam after his tariff cuts wrecked so many businesses, and the sacking of so many of his ministers unnerved the nation. It didn’t save Churchill from the wrath of the servicemen he had put, with his addled strategies in Crete and Italy and the Far East, in harm’s way. It didn’t save Piggy Muldoon from a man, David Lange, half as popular as he. Because personalities have nothing to do with it. Policy is all – plus the ethic of the second-time fair go.

Thus I was sure in 1983 that Fraser’s policies were hurting, and Hawke could be elected, and called the exact size of the majority, 25. And in 1987 and 1990 that Hawke’s policies were good enough, and he would survive. In 1993 I among very few others was right because I felt that the hurt of Keating’s policies was less than the feared hurt of Hewson’s.

Guessing the margin is harder. I do it by reading the opinion polls. And if the Undecided is, say, 12 percent, I ask how many of those 12 percent are really hurting, and add them in. And that’s an intuitive or anecdotal guess based on talkback radio and letters to the editor and the unemployment figures and the number of garage sales and businesses for sale in the main street, and the number of drunks on the street. And if, as here this month, the undecided is huge, over 20 percent, that in itself is a measure, probably, of people hurting, and not wanting to think about it yet. But they will by election day.

And so it is that Howard cannot survive. His fair-go second term will end, and the Timor cock-up, the GST cock-up, the IR cock-up, the education crisis, the attack on the ABC, the punishment of migrants, and the widespread wrecking of the morale of Australian families will take him – or his chosen successor Nick Minchin – out in a punishing landslide. Carr will survive because of his adequate management of small suburban matters and the larger Olympic Games. Beattie and Bacon will get their second terms, and Bracks his two terms. Olson and Court (those enemies of trees and public utilities) will go in landslides that, like Chikarovski’s, will bring into doubt the Liberal Party’s very survival.

Because the Liberal Party’s policy of greed before all, and individual profit before the common good, is a policy only 10 or 12 percent of the people support. And it is therefore likely that they will go altogether, and a more hard-nosed mix of Democrats and Nationals take their place, on either the right or the left of Beazley Labor – which will have two terms till people hurt, or not.

See if I’m wrong. I sometimes am. Bad policies lose votes, and the people are not fools. And a big Undecided nearly always means a government will go. And governments usually fall after campaigns that bore the commentators – those experts we pay so much to get it all so wrong, as they did last week. And in 1993.

They should bone up on the rudiments of politics. But they won’t, of course, they’re the experts, they study ‘spin’. And I’m an amateur, and a dilettante, and a ratbag, and I wouldn’t know.

But I was the one who was right.

Bad policies lose votes. And the Undecided eventually decide. And they have reasons.

And it’s not that unusual for five people in a hundred to vote against policies that hurt them.

It happens all the time.

  1. The level of undecided voters is a worry. They’ve seen all the main players in action for years and still don’t know which way is up.

    My theory about the most recent election is that many of the don’t knows from 3 months back might well have come back to Labor at the election but did not after the Rudd redux confirmed them in the view that both parties would do whatever they could to save a vote, and had no core beliefs other than how to try to stay in power/save their own skins.

    The level of informal votes in some seats was also disturbing. Several members lost their seats by a few hundred or a few thousand votes whilst up to 10,000 voters cast informal ‘votes’.

    If most of the informals were disgruntled Labor voters, the election was decided right there.

  2. Yes, it is DQ.

    There has to be a way for Labor to speak directly to these people - engage with them. It seems there’s a real ‘captive market’ in these undecided voters. A few simple questions: Politically speaking, have you always been undecided? What are you undecided about? What would help you make up your mind? Some focus groups by a research company? Wouldn’t cost the Labor Party much.

    • Sorry - should have been filled below DQ’s comment …

    • Worth a try. Though I suspect there will be as many answers as voters. It is up to the Party to put together an honest package which espouses Labor values and is based on social equality. Then it is for them to convince enough voters to support them.

      This is well and truly doable in the two or three years the conservatives have to go before they are booted out.

      • I wonder. About the many answers, that is. I think the ‘undecided’ are fairly homogenous (aside from the donkey voters, that is) and their peevishness might be worth finding out about.

        • A possible sample : too tough on asylum seekers, too easy on asylum seekers, too much taxation, not enough welfare, too much welfare, too much waffly detail, not enough detail, didn’t like Julia, didn’t like Kevin, didn’t like Keating (sic) didn’t like Swan, too much spending on x(health defence, foreign aid), not enough spending on x (education health defence foreign aid)
          didn’t like Obeid, wanted more handouts, wanted less handed out, didn’t like Gough (sic) why weren’t they more like Gough, Keating Curtin etc,

          etcetera, etcetera etcetera . . .

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