Australia's newly elected Prime Minister Scott Morrison waves to his party supporters Photo: SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images

There are lessons for NZ from the Aussie election miracle, and they’re mostly bleak

What happened with the polls, and what does the shock Coalition victory tell us about attitudes to climate change and the power of vested interests? Political analyst and pollster Stephen Mills writes

The re-election of the Australian Coalition government was a shock to pundits, pollsters and the parties themselves. A triumphant returning prime minister, Scott Morrison, said it was a miracle, and as a devout Christian, he may have even meant biblical.

Every reputable poll for nearly three years had Labor ahead. Not by much during the campaign but still not a single exception. One bookie (or prediction market as some like to describe them) paid out on a Labor win in the last week, losing A$1.3 million. And the one exit-poll pointed to a clear Labor victory. Even the tiresome ritual of an allegedly psychic animal picking the result, in this case a crocodile named Burt, went for Labor.

Time is always needed to sensibly digest what an election means, especially such a big surprise. Final verdicts should await detailed analysis of booth-by booth-voting and of demographics. Time also enables immediate self-serving conclusions to be assessed. The usual claims after an election victory that some genius or some dazzling new technology or some new means of persuading voters was the key to the win usually collapse under scrutiny.

Some immediate points relevant to New Zealand can still be made. These are mostly depressing on what modern politics can achieve and how it is conducted.

The Liberal-National Coalition victory reinforced a golden rule of politics in a modern democracy that it is almost impossible to campaign on reforms in the greater national interest if they challenge vested interests and /or result in actual losers plus voters who think they are losers or even voters who think in time they may become losers.

This certainly isn’t just a problem for the left. The same point applies to the right. There are high if not overwhelming political risks in advancing a programme of any significant reform of whatever political stamp.

The political playbook of drawing attention to any lower to middle income losers (even if people on high incomes are manifestly much more affected) and scare campaigns on alleged economic consequences is well honed.

The hardheaded decision by Labour in New Zealand to abandon pushing for a capital gains tax regardless of the need for New Zealand First support was vindicated by the experience of the Australian campaign.

Labor went into the Australian campaign with some big social policy initiatives including health, education and childcare. Confronting entrenched brand weakness on economic management the party also proposed tax reforms sufficient to pay for the promises, maintain higher surpluses than those forecast by the Coalition and to pay debt back faster than the Coalition.

Clearly this did not work. Not only was Labor smashed directly on the tax proposals but it appeared to have no impact on doubts Labor could pay for its promises.

The two tax proposals that attracted most fire were removing cash refunds for excess franking credits and ending negative gearing for the purchase of existing properties. There was also an under the radar campaign making the false claim that Labor would introduce an inheritance or as described a “death tax”. It would be no surprise if this latter charge popped up in New Zealand in the 2020 election.

There were similarities between the New Zealand CGT discussion (if that description is merited) and removing cash refunds for excess franking credits. New Zealand is almost alone in the western world in not having a CGT, Australia is alone in the western world in allowing imputed interest from dividends to not only be used as an offset against tax paid but to result in a cash payment if there are excess credits. The main beneficiaries are wealthy retired Australians with significant share portfolios but some were on middle incomes where all attention went. As with the New Zealand CGT the potential losers from the tax reforms were almost invariably described as “hard working” battlers who had earned their tax concessions.

The Coalition also cleverly, if dishonestly, described this measure as a retiree tax implying it was a general tax on all retired Australians. This almost certainly unsettled voters coming up to retirement too.

There were claims on election night that record swings were recorded against Labor in areas with high numbers of retirees.

The property industry, which campaigned strongly against the removal of negative gearing, did not talk about the impact on property investors but focussed on the argument that it would put up rents for low to middle income Australians.

It was also a profoundly unsettling election for anyone looking for governments to take serious action on climate change. Care is needed in being too simplistic but the electoral equation broke decisively in favour of climate change sceptics and those in favour of minimum action.

Former Liberal leader Tony Abbott, suggested a climate change driven realignment was underway with his party in trouble in wealthy urban seats but benefitting in suburban “battler” seats. He was dispatched by an independent, campaigning on climate change, and other Liberal blue ribbon seats in the wealthiest parts of Sydney and Melbourne wobbled but held.

But in regional Queensland there was carnage for Labor. Their one regional seat in North Queensland, Herbert, centred on Townsville, was lost and other regional seats held by small margins by Liberal and Nationals MPs registered huge pro-government swings and are now held by large margins. A critical election issue in these seats was on whether a large coal mining development by the Indian company Adani should go ahead.

The message was that jobs were more important in these seats than climate change. Even perhaps more telling was a shock plunge for Labor in a super safe seat in the mining region in Hunter Valley in New South Wales where there was no particular controversy to focus attention on local jobs and the health of the regional economy.

New Zealand does not have a massive coal mining industry and MMP means no marginal mining seats too. Regardless the political calculus on whether concern about climate change extends to a willingness to suffer any inconvenience or cost across the majority of voters applies in New Zealand and will be on the National party’s mind. This Australian election result will strengthen the hands of those in National opposing their current highly tentative bipartisanship on climate change.

Another clear lesson was reinforcing the long held dictum on consistency of political messaging. Basically, when you are about at the point of vomiting from having said the same thing thousands of times, voters are just picking it up.

This result rewarded an almost entirely negative campaign. The Coalition focussed exclusively on doubts about Labor’s capacity to manage the economy. This was dumbed down to Labor can’t manage money, which Scott Morrison must have said 10,000 times. The Coalition did not even try to make the case they deserved to win. They barely mentioned any policies.

Soft and undecided voters in focus groups in Australia and also in New Zealand have for years complained bitterly that political parties in campaigns just bag each other and they often declare they are so upset by this that they would vote for any party which just sets out its positive policies.

This result says that is nonsense.

Labour in New Zealand is somewhat constrained on this front by Jacinda Ardern’s branding as “relentlessly positive”. National Party strategists are not and may well run a similar negative campaign on economic management credibility in 2020, especially if the New Zealand economy has weakened.

One prevailing political rule that was challenged by the Coalition triumph is “disunity is death”. New Zealand political columnists have recently consistently warned National not to descend into the leadership struggles New Zealand Labour went through after the 2008 defeat,

Disunity is not an advisable political strategy but there was clearly no reward for Labor, under the six years of Bill Shorten’s leadership, being clearly the more disciplined and unified party. The despatch of Malcolm Turnbull in August last year was arguably as nasty as anything in the Rudd-Gillard wars and way more brutal than anything in New Zealand during the Goff-Cunliffe-Little era.

National can presumably take some heart that their ongoing leadership tensions will not necessarily hurt them in 2020.

The election results following the replacement of Turnbull as well as Andrew Little should also perhaps tell National that they can, if they wish, replace Simon Bridges late in the election cycle and still win.

Another clear lesson is that more care is needed in interpreting the polls. Australia had been the absolute gold standard for accurate election polling. Compulsory voting reduces the turnout uncertainties that have plagued especially American and British pollsters although preference allocation is a challenge in their electoral system.

The polls in Australia were not catastrophically wrong by margin. To a degree, expectations of a Labor win outran the closeness of the polls and especially the published marginal seat polls. Mostly the nationwide polls showed a 51-49 Labor win and it looks like it will be a 52-48 Coalition win. Polls certainly though got the winner wrong and missed the ferocity of the anti-Labor swing in Queensland.

There has, despite the memorability of Jim Bolger’s “bugger the pollsters” outburst in 1993, never been a systemic polling failure in New Zealand on final results. There has though been worrying variability between different company results during campaigns. In the new Zealand 2017 election a week out Reid Research , polling for Newshub, had National 9% ahead and Colmar Brunton for TVNZ had Labour 4% ahead.

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New methodologies are being used but it does need to be recognised that political polling now is much harder than it was when everyone had a landline and most contacted were prepared to be interviewed.

One extraordinary feature of the Australian campaign was that eccentric mining billionaire Clive Palmer spent an estimated $50 and $80 million dollars on advertising his Australia United party. This was almost certainly more than all the other parties combined. It only led to a roughly 3% vote and he failed to get any parliamentary representation. Some argue though that this massive carpet bombing on all possible media fronts was much more anti-Labor than anti-Coalition and did affect the overall result. That may or may not be true but clearly expenditure at that level is a threat to democracy.

A final lesson is that our limits on television and radio advertising at least are a good thing and consideration should be given to extending them to digital advertising. While Palmer had a political party, Helen Clark and her government also deserve credit for pushing through controversial legislation to limit what a seriously wealthy person or other interests can spend trying to buy a New Zealand election.

Stephen Mills is the executive director of UMR Research. He has worked for Labour on around 50 general and state elections in Australia and New Zealand


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