Chapter one

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CHAPTER ONE:Party Voting and Partisan Decline in Australia

Australian politics has been dominated by two political parties the Australian Labor Party and the Liberal Party of Australia and its forerunners (usually in coalition with the National Party). This duality has been sustained in large part by the firm allegiance Australian voters have to one or the other of these parties. For a large portion of the twentieth century, over half of the Australian electorate has voted for the same party throughout their life-time. However, there is evidence based on a number of indicators from electoral and survey data that this faithfulness to the major parties is weakening.

Chart 1: Percentage of Survey Respondents Identifying with a Party (1967 2004)

Chart 1: Percentage of Survey Respondents Identifying with a Party (1967–2004)

Source: Australian National Political Attitudes surveys 1967, 1979; Australian Election Study surveys 1987 2004

An important indicator of a voter s allegiance to a political party is whether the voter identifies with that party or not whether the voter identifies as a Liberal voter or a Labor voter or a Democrat voter, etc. Data compiled from the Australian Political Attitudes surveys, and the Australian Election Study surveys indicate that between 1967 and 2004, the rate at which voters identify themselves with the major Australian parties has declined. In 1967, 89 per cent of surveyed voters identified themselves as either Labor or Liberal-National. That proportion had fallen to 77 per cent in 2004. As Chart 1 indicates, the proportion of survey respondents who were Liberal-National identifiers fell through the 60s, 70s and 80s, but has evened out since and has begun to increase after 1998. During the 60s and 70s, the proportion of Labor identifiers increased, but this proportion declined considerably after the late 80s.

Chart 2: Percentage of Survey Respondents and Strength of Party Identification (1967 2004)

Chart 2: Percentage of Survey Respondents and Strength of Party Identification (1967–2004)

Source: Australian National Political Attitudes Surveys 1967, 1979; Australian Election Study surveys 1987 2004

Where have all these former major party identifiers gone? While there has been a steady increase since 1998 in surveyed voters identifying with the Liberal-National coalition,(1) it appears from the surveys that the remaining former party identifiers have either begun to identify with minor political parties, or else have given up identifying with any party at all, major or minor. Since 1969, there has been an almost four-fold increase in those who do not identify with any party. Since the early 1990s, there has been a doubling in those identifying with minority parties.

Another direct indicator of voters party allegiance is their strength of identification with a party. Of those who do identify with a major Australian party, how strongly do they identify? As can be seen from Chart 2, most who identify with major parties, identify fairly strongly, and the proportion of these fairly strong identifiers has not changed much since 1967. But there has been a marked decline in those who identify very strongly with their preferred major party, with only half as many now as there was in 1969. Correspondingly, the proportion of not very strong (or weak) identifiers has almost doubled. So, not only are there fewer major party identifiers, there have been decreases in how strongly the remaining identifiers identify with their party.

Strength of commitment to a party perspective can also be gauged by how predisposed voters are to vote for that party. The more predisposed they are, the more likely they are to have already made up their minds to vote for a party. Survey data between 1987 and 2004 reveals a trend of voters deferring their voting decisions until the election campaign itself (See Chart 3). An average of approximately 10 per cent of surveyed voters decide on the day of the election. This tends to suggest a wait and see attitude on the part of some voters.

Chart 3: Percentage of Survey Respondents and Time of Voting Decision (1967 2004)

Chart 3: Percentage of Survey Respondents and Time of Voting Decision (1967–2004)

Source: Australian National Political Attitudes Surveys 1967, 1979; Australian Election Study surveys 1987 2004

Voters who are faithful to a party are also more likely to be consistent in their voting for that party. The degree of stability or instability in voting behaviour can, therefore, indicate degrees of party allegiance. One indicator of party vote stability is the degree of vote swing whether a voter always votes for the same party, and how disposed the voter is to vote for a different party. Another indicator is the degree of split-ticket voting whether someone votes for the same party in the House of Representatives as in the Senate, for example.

Chart 4: Percentage of Survey Respondents and Stability of Party Vote (1967 2004)

Chart 4: Percentage of Survey Respondents and Stability of Party Vote (1967–2004)

Source: Australian National Political Attitudes surveys 1967,1979; Australian Election Study surveys 1987 2004

Again, the survey data reveals noticeable or increased levels of instability. Take vote swing first. Since 1987, there has been a 25 per cent decrease in the proportion of surveyed voters who have always voted for the same party at the federal level (See Chart 4). And there seems to have been a fairly consistent proportion of voters (around 25 per cent on average) who have been seriously disposed to change their voting intentions during campaigns. Added to this, there seems to have been a decline in the proportion of voters who strongly care which party wins. It is of note that between the 2001 and the 2004 elections, there was an increase in the proportion of surveyed voters who cared strongly which party won, and a decrease in the proportion of voters disposed to change their voting intentions during the election campaign.

Chart 5: Consistency of Survey Respondents Party Voting between the House of Representatives and the Senate (1990 2004)

Chart 5: Consistency of Survey Respondents’ Party Voting between the House of Representatives and the Senate (1990–2004)

Source: Australian Election Study surveys 1990 2004

Consistent party support also seems to be decreasing when measured by comparing voting for the House of Representatives and for the Senate (See Chart 5). The great majority of those who vote for a major party in the House of Representatives, also vote for the same major party in the Senate. But, as Chart 5 shows, this tendency has been generally decreasing. Since 1990 there has been a steady decrease in the proportion of those surveyed who vote for the same major party in both houses. Nearly 90 per cent of those surveyed who voted for Labor in the House of Representatives in 1990 voted Labor for the Senate. By 2004 however, this proportion had dropped to 77 per cent. Between 1990 and 1998, surveyed Liberal voters underwent an overall steeper decline in the consistency of their voting between the House of Representatives and the Senate, dropping from 89 per cent to 80 per cent. While the voting consistency of surveyed Labor voters continued to decrease after 1998, it is notable that surveyed Liberal voters showed a marked increase in their voting consistency between 1998 and 2004.

The minority party voting in the Senate of those who voted for a major party in the House of Representatives changed markedly after 1998. While those who voted for a major party in the House of Representatives showed considerable support for the Democrats in the Senate in 1998 in fact the greatest level between 1990 and 2004 that support declined sharply after 1998. With those who voted Liberal for the House of Representatives, this decreased support for the Australian Democrats in the Senate after 1998 was accompanied by slight increases in support for the Greens. However, with those who voted Labor for the House of Representatives, there was a significant increase in their support for the Greens in the Senate. In fact, between 1998 and 2004, their support for the Greens in the Senate had increased eightfold (Chart 6). The same did not occur with surveyed Liberal voters for the House of Representatives.

Chart 6: Surveyed Respondents Voting Labor for the House of Representatives and for Minority Parties in the Senate (1990 2004)

Chart 6: Surveyed Respondents Voting Labor for the House of Representatives and for Minority Parties in the Senate (1990–2004)

Source: Australian Election Studies 1990 2004

This decline in the consistency of voting between the House of Representatives and the Senate was correlated with an increase in minority party voting for the Senate. As Chart 6 and Chart 7 indicate, between 1990 and 2004 some who voted for a major party in the House of Representatives also voted for a minority party in the Senate. Those who voted Labor for the House of Representatives were generally stronger supporters of the Australian Democrats in the Senate than were those who voted Liberal for the House of Representatives. The latter were generally more supportive of the National Party and One Nation in the Senate. In 1998 and 2001, there was greater support in the Senate for One Nation than for the National Party from those surveyed who voted Liberal in the House of Representatives. In 1998, support for One Nation in the Senate among those surveyed who voted Labor in the House of Representatives was about the same as these voters support for the Greens.

The decline in support for the Australian Democrats on the part of those who voted Liberal for the House of Representatives was correlated with an increase after 1998 in support from these voters for the Liberal Party in the Senate (see Chart 5). This suggests that their declining support for the Democrats was re-absorbed as support for the Liberal Party. For those who voted Labor in the House of Representatives, on the other hand, their support for the Democrats in the Senate appears to have been displaced to the Greens, rather than being re-absorbed into the Labor Party.

Chart 7: Surveyed Respondents Voting Liberal for the House of Representatives and for Minority Parties in the Senate (1990 2004)

Chart 7: Surveyed Respondents Voting Liberal for the House of Representatives and for Minority Parties in the Senate (1990–2004)

Source: Australian Election Studies 1990 2004

All told, then, there is persuasive evidence that Australia like many other advanced western democracies is experiencing declining allegiance to its major political parties.(2) This is not to suggest that the survival of these parties is under threat. But the decline and its consistency in Australia, and the sorts of pragmatic incentives de-alignment engenders, do suggest that the issues of pragmatism and principle noted at the outset are important ones to address in the Australian context. The chapters to follow take up some of those issues.

Endnotes

  1. And a corresponding further decrease since 1998 in surveyed voters identifying with the Labor Party.
  2. Commentators point to other sorts of evidence for decreased voter allegiance to Australia s major parties. For example, Campbell Sharman notes that 44 independents were elected to lower houses in State and Federal parliaments between 1993 and 2002. This is more than twice the number elected in the previous ten years (1983-93) and three times the number for the decade 1973 83. See Sharman 2002.

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