In his 1964 book The lucky countryjournalist Donald Horne described Australia as “a lucky country run mostly by second-rate people”.
Sixty years later, little has changed if last week’s election polls are to be believed. He says Australians have a worrying opinion of the two men vying to be their prime minister after the May 21 election.
In the latest Newspoll conducted for the Australian newspaper, current Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his Labor challenger Anthony Albanese both recorded net satisfaction ratings of -12%.
The latest Ipsos poll conducted for The Australian Financial Review paints a similar picture. Morrison and Albanese are tied across the board in the skill stakes with an abysmal rating of just 42%. It is the lowest mark in 27 years for a prime minister and an opposition leader.
In a particularly sad commentary on the state of Australian politics, the Ipsos poll says just 30% of voters consider Scott Morrison “trustworthy”. It’s perhaps no surprise that his nickname is “Scotty of Marketing.”
41% trust Albanese – better but barely a ringing endorsement. And its marginal lead in confidence is undermined by its poor record in the important area of economic management. Only 31% of Ipsos respondents believe that Albanese has “a solid understanding of economic policy”.
What a choice for voters – a man who can’t be trusted versus a man who can’t handle the economy.
At this point, it seems more likely that the winner will be Albanian. His Labor party has a clear lead over the ruling Liberal/National coalition in the polls.
According to Newspoll, Labor is ahead 53% to 47% on a “bipartisan preferential basis”. (This incorporates the preferential voting system that applies to the House of Representatives.) The equivalent Ipsos poll shows Labor ahead of the coalition by 55% to 45%.
Even with all the endorsements that inevitably apply to election polls, these numbers indicate a loss for the Morrison government. And both polls were conducted before the release of the latest higher-than-expected inflation figure of 5.1%.
However, the Labor Party takes nothing for granted. They were favorites to win the previous elections in 2019 and failed. Having lost an “impossible to lose” election, they are understandably anxious not to lose another.
The key to Labor’s victory may be to maintain its apparent advantage with women voters. This advantage may be more the result of negative attitudes towards the Coalition than anything positive Labor has done. From concerns about sexual harassment in Parliament to claims about the challenges faced by female politicians in the Liberal Party, a perception has emerged in some quarters that Scott Morrison has a “women’s problem”.
One of the biggest uncertainties in the upcoming elections is the impact of smaller parties and independents. They have the potential to disrupt the ‘bipartisan’ reality of Australian federal politics in which either the Labor Party or the Liberal/National coalition usually wins the right to form government alone.
The last time this comfortable duopoly was disrupted was in the 2010 election, when neither major party won a majority of seats in the House of Representatives. Labor eventually formed a minority government with the support of several independent MPs.
If next month’s election turns out to be closer than polls currently suggest, and enough independents and smaller parties win seats, 2022 could see another hung parliament. Two factors that could contribute to such an outcome are mining magnate and billionaire Clive Palmer and lobby group Climate 200.
Clive Palmer is expenses a remarkable $70 million for the election campaign, more than Labor or the Coalition. His United Australia Party currently gets just 4% of the polls, but his consistent criticism of the two main parties could sway the outcome in individual electorates and in the Senate. The latter is a separate upper house in parliament with a proportional voting system. Depending on how the numbers fall, the Senate can act as a bloc on government legislation.
Climate 200 is another group with deep pockets. Its goal is “decisive and science-based climate action”. It is seeking to spend $15 million to $20 million to promote “high quality, values-aligned” independent candidates in the election. Many of these candidates are competing with Coalition incumbents in wealthy downtown ridings where the issue of climate change resonates with many voters.
It is difficult to accurately predict what role climate change will play in Australians’ voting decisions in this election. However, the ABC’s Vote Compass survey revealed that is a major problem. According to this survey, climate change is “the most important problem” for 29% of correspondents. This compares to 26% for the combination of cost of living and economy.
Health and education, the two issues where Labor is traditionally favored by Australians, are seen as the most important issue by just 8% and 4% respectively.
Defense and foreign affairs, two files on which the coalition is often perceived as stronger, obtain only 4% and 1% respectively. This is somewhat surprising given the current media ubiquity of the war in Ukraine and the security pact between China and the Solomon Islands.
Curiously, and perhaps reassuringly, Covid-19 is rated by just 1% of ABC survey respondents as the most important election issue.
How times have changed! In the space of just a few months, the handling of the pandemic has gone from Australian political dominance to historic footnote.
Whatever issues determine the outcome of next month’s election, polls tell us that the voting public is disappointed with the quality of the two candidates put forward for the post of prime minister.
Writer Richard Cooke called the 2013 federal election “a contest of unpopularity won by the least ineligible.” The 2022 election is shaping up to be something very similar.
Ross Stitt is a freelance writer and tax attorney with a doctorate in political science. He is a New Zealander based in Sydney. His articles are part of our ‘Understand Australia‘ series.