Inside Story

Howard’s victories: which voters switched, which issues mattered, and why

The reasons for the Howard government’s electoral success are widely misunderstood

Ian Watson & Murray Goot 23 July 2010 6088 words

Issues matter: John Howard talks to boilermaker Tim Cunneen, an employee at the Cairns Steel Fabricators, in May 2007. AAP Image/Sue Wellwood

DESPITE winning at four successive polls, the Howard government’s electoral performance has attracted less attention from political scientists, and fewer satisfactory explanations, than we might expect. The consequence – as we can see in the current election campaign – is that speculative accounts of why the Coalition won those elections have continued to dominate discussion of Australian electoral politics. “Howard’s battlers” are still at war, “big pictures” are out of fashion again, and both main parties are chasing “aspirational voters.”

In 2007 we set out to fill what we saw as a gap in the political science literature by looking in detail at the issues and forces that influenced the results of the elections held between 1993 (Labor’s last victory before John Howard became prime minister) and 2004 (the Howard government’s last victory). Our source for data was the Australian Election Study, or AES, a detailed questionnaire completed by at least 1700 voters after each of these elections. Our detailed findings were published in the Australian Journal of Political Science.

The AES is an indispensable source for the analysis of Australian electoral behaviour, but it is also a frustrating one. Accounts of the Coalition’s success, in which Howard’s appeal to the “battlers” looms large or in which his attack on “political correctness” is central, can be interrogated only in part through the AES surveys, and then only with difficulty. To assess what might be called the foundation myth of the Howard years, that Labor was thrown out of office because Paul Keating’s “big picture” ignored “the battlers” and their concerns, we need to consider policy issues – a republic, reconciliation with Indigenous Australians and stronger relations with Asia – that the AES ignored almost entirely. And the more recent wisdom that the government’s hold on power hinged on Howard’s appeal to “aspirational” voters also raises questions that the AES is ill-designed to answer. (More details about the AES are given at the end of this article.)

Within these constraints, our article used the AES to address three questions either not previously asked or not persuasively answered. First, to what extent did the Coalition’s victories depend if not on Howard’s appeal to “the battlers” then on his appeal to the “blue-collar” vote? Second, what demographic variables other than occupation helped drive voting behaviour after Howard came to office and what were the most marked changes in the importance of these variables from the Hawke and Keating years? Third, to what extent did the political issues that the AES touches on – relations with Asia, taxation, interest rates, privatisation, health, education, terrorism and the war in Iraq – help explain changes in major party support, and to what extent did economic circumstances account for the Coalition’s success?

We found that although “blue-collar” respondents did shift to the Coalition in 1996, they were hardly a loyal band; at least in terms of their first preferences, they deserted in large numbers in 1998 and didn’t return to the Coalition in anything like the same numbers until 2004. Other demographic factors made a difference as well. Comparing the Labor years for which there are AES data (1987–93) with the Howard years, we see a shift towards the Coalition among respondents aged over 60 years, among respondents aged 30–39 years (in comparison with those under 30 years of age), and among respondents who were Catholic (compared with respondents who were non-believers). Over the same period there was a shift towards Labor among respondents from non-English speaking backgrounds (compared with the Australian-born).

We also identified the issues that mattered: defence, terrorism, taxation (as distinct from the goods and services tax) and interest rates – all of which at one time or another worked for the Coalition – and health, education, the environment, and privatisation – all of which at one time or another worked for Labor. In addition, the government of the day benefited from the support of respondents who sensed either that the economy had improved over the previous twelve months or that it would improve over the next twelve months; whereas the opposition of the day benefited from respondents who regarded unemployment as an extremely important issue, thought the economy likely to go backwards over the next twelve months or thought their household’s finances had gone backwards over the previous twelve months.

At the same time, our analysis casts doubt on a number of the factors often considered important to Howard’s success. In 1996, it was not Keating’s arrogance, his emphasis on Asia or the importance of immigration that helped the Coalition across the line. Nor were those respondents who voted for the Coalition especially worried about interest rates. In 2001, it was immigration rather than refugees that mattered, and terrorism rather than defence. And in 2004, respondents who attached great weight to education were not especially likely to have voted for the Coalition, despite Labor’s caning over its promise to redistribute private school funds. Nor was Labor’s promise to introduce Medicare Gold as damaging to its electoral appeal on health as is commonly supposed. And the Iraq war, far from being neutralised as an issue by Latham’s pledge to bring the troops home by Christmas, appears to have cost the Coalition votes.

Howard’s battlers?

One of the most remarkable things about changes in party support between the Hawke–Keating years and the 2004 election were the changes at both ends of the occupational spectrum, with the Coalition losing support among managers (down from 67 per cent in 1987–93 to 61 per cent in 1996–2004) and gaining the support of blue-collar workers (up from 34 per cent to 39 per cent), deserting Labor not only for the Coalition but for minor parties. But Labor gained virtually none of the support the Coalition lost from the professional–managerial respondents (its support rose among managers but declined among professionals), its white-collar support declined (from 41 per cent to 38 per cent) and its support among respondents in blue-collar jobs fell from 55 per cent to 45 per cent. Most of the Coalition’s losses showed up not as Labor gains but as gains for the minor parties – the Australian Democrats, One Nation and the Greens. Most of Labor’s losses, too, showed up as gains for other parties; but the Coalition also got a boost, especially from Labor’s blue-collar base.

Although both sides lost support in their demographic heartlands, the Coalition’s losses were much smaller than Labor’s. And although the Coalition registered important gains that more than compensated for its losses, Labor made no compensating gains – not in its area of traditional strength, blue-collar workers; not among white-collar voters, wooed so effectively in the Whitlam years; not even among the professional middle class, to which Labor is said to have pitched its policies with disregard to its blue-collar base. Among all these groups Labor’s support went backwards over the period.

The defections from both heartlands decreased the distinctiveness of each side’s electoral support. In the period 1987–1993, the gap between the level of support for the Coalition parties among managerial respondents (67 per cent) and blue-collar respondents (34 per cent) was 33 percentage points; in 1996–2004, this gap (22 points) dropped by one-third. In 1987–1993, the gap between the level of support for Labor among managerial respondents (25 per cent) and blue-collar respondents (55 per cent) was 30 points; in 1996–2004, this gap (19 points) was almost halved. For both Labor and the Coalition the gradient in support, from one end of the occupational scale to the other, became less steep under Howard than it was under Keating or Hawke.

When exactly did these changes occur? To answer this question we need to look at the data election by election. In the case of blue-collar workers, we need to look at trades people in particular. And we also need to look at the difference between blue-collar workers who were self-employed and blue-collar workers who were not.

Managers: Although support for the Coalition among managers declined in the Howard years, this decline dated not from 1996 but from 1990. In 1987, 71 per cent of respondents who were managers said they had voted for either the Liberal or National Party; in 1990 through to 1996, the Coalition’s vote among managers hovered at around two-thirds (64 – 67 per cent); subsequently it dropped to 60 per cent or 61 per cent. Labor, unlike the minor parties, gained little from this slide.

Professionals: Support for the Coalition among professionals did not decline – but it did fluctuate. It dipped in 1990 (41 per cent) when Labor, too, lost votes to the Democrats. The Coalition lost further ground in 1993 (39 per cent) when Labor recovered. But it gained – as did Labor – in 1996 (42 per cent). In 1998, when support for the Coalition (43 per cent) held firm, Labor’s support fell by 8 points, largely owing to the Greens (up 3 points) and One Nation (6 points). In 2001, the election that followed not only the attack on the United States but also the turning back of the Tampa, support for the Coalition among professionals declined by 4 percentage points – notwithstanding that the Coalition actually increased its share of the nationwide vote by 3.5 per cent – whereas support for the Greens jumped from 4 per cent to 11 per cent. In 2004, when support for One Nation and the Democrats both collapsed, the Coalition’s vote among professionals rose by 3 points and Labor’s by 5 points.

White-collar workers: If there was a swing to the Coalition in 1996 among white-collar respondents, it was barely noticeable when almost half (48 per cent compared to 47 per cent in 1993) said they had voted either Liberal or National. But among white-collar respondents the 1998 election and the rise of One Nation saw a big swing away from the Coalition. The only swing towards the Coalition of any size – a swing that lifted its share of the vote from 40 per cent (1998) to 49 per cent – came in 2001. This returned it to roughly where it had been in 1996.

For Labor, on the other hand, 2001 marked a new low with white-collar respondents shifting to the Democrats and the Greens; in 1998, 41 per cent of white-collar respondents said they had voted Labor, but in 2001 no more than 36 per cent said they had done so. Worse, in 2004, when the combined support for the Democrats and Greens returned to its 1998 level, support for Labor (36 per cent) remained unchanged.

Blue-collar workers: The jump in the Coalition’s support among blue-collar respondents dates precisely from 1996. In the Liberal Party’s 1996 exit poll, conducted across the “52 most marginal seats,” 47.5 per cent of blue-collar respondents voted for the Coalition; compared with a vote of 43 per cent in 1993, this represented a gain of almost 5 percentage points.

The AES data, derived from respondents in safe seats as well as those in the marginal seats, tell a story that is less dramatic in terms of the size of the Coalition’s blue-collar vote but more dramatic in terms of the size of the blue-collar swing. In 1996, 44 per cent of blue-collar respondents said they had voted for the Coalition; this compares with only 33 per cent in 1993. For the first time, more blue-collar workers said they had voted for the Coalition than said they had voted for Labor.

By 2004, the days when Labor could command the majority of the blue-collar vote, or outpoll the Coalition by nearly two votes to one, had receded into an increasingly distant past. Not since 1993, after John Hewson threatened to introduce a GST and dismantle Medicare, had Labor won an absolute majority of blue-collar respondents. In 1990, as it chased the environmental vote, its support among blue-collar respondents dropped to less than half (48 per cent). In 1996, its support fell even lower (41 per cent).

In 1998, contrary to expectations that Hanson would split the Labor vote, more blue-collar respondents switched to Labor than moved away; Labor’s share of blue-collar respondents rose to 46 per cent. It was the Coalition’s share, not Labor’s, that Hanson hit; Liberal–National Party support fell to just over one-third (35 per cent) and remained at that level in 2001, notwithstanding that One Nation’s electoral support had passed its peak. Not until 2004 did the Coalition’s vote recover (up by 6 percentage points). Conversely, Labor’s share of blue-collar respondents declined – its loss of support among blue-collar respondents apparently bigger than its loss of support in the electorate as a whole. For the first time since 1996, blue-collar respondents were divided almost evenly between the Coalition (41 per cent) and Labor (44 per cent).

What can we say about those blue-collar respondents who worked in a trade? Tradespeople did swing to the Coalition in 2001, and in 2004 were evenly split (42:42). Compared to 1996, when it turned a 36:52 deficit into a 46:40 lead, the Coalition’s grip appears to have weakened. This is largely because of the damage inflicted in 1998 by Hanson, when the Coalition’s support, and Labor’s, split 34:45. And although 1996 is an election from which Labor found it difficult to recover, its losses were not without precedent; in 1990, tradespeople were also evenly split, 40:38.

Increasingly, those who work in blue-collar jobs are self-employed. Among blue-collar respondents, the self-employed averaged 19 per cent between 1987 and 1993. In 2004, among AES respondents, it had grown to 25 per cent.

Did self-employment make a difference? In 1996 the swing to Howard appears to have been more marked among blue-collar respondents who were self-employed (a gain of 11 percentage points) than among those who were not self-employed (a gain of 7 points); nonetheless, the shift from Labor was no more marked among the self-employed (a fall of 17 points) than it was among those who were not self-employed (a loss of 15 points). In 1998, the shift away from the Coalition among blue-collar respondents – partly to Labor, partly to Hanson – was almost entirely due to the massive desertion of those who were self-employed (down by 26 points compared to a drop of just 2 points among those who were not self-employed).

In 2004, again, it was blue-collar respondents who were self-employed who swelled the Coalition’s ranks; support for the Coalition among these respondents jumped by 19 points whereas among those not self-employed it rose by just 2 points. Nonetheless, in 2004 support for the Coalition among blue-collar respondents who were self-employed (59 per cent) was substantially lower than it had been in 1996 (69 per cent); support for Labor was much higher (32 per cent compared with 19 per cent). Among blue-collar workers not self-employed, the Coalition’s share of the vote in 2004 (36 per cent) was about the same as it had been in 1996 (35 per cent).

In short, if Keating lost a large swag of the blue-collar self-employed to Howard in 1996, Howard had considerable difficulty holding them; in 1998 and 2001, he lost all of them – and a lot more besides. Over 1996–2004 Howard was much more successful holding on to blue-collar workers who were not self-employed.

Victories compared: 1987–93 to 1996–2004

To understand which of the many characteristics associated with employment actually shaped the choices of our respondents, we need to move from bivariate to multivariate analysis. This allows us to plug in a range of other variables: characteristics of the respondents, like their age, gender, place of birth and religion; and their position on a whole raft of issues.

We started by aggregating the AES data from 1987 to 1993, Labor victories, and from 1996 to 2004, Coalition wins. We then ran two multinomial logit models to see if there are any notable trends in the socio-structural basis of support for the parties. In the first set of results the independent variables were gender, age, occupation, private sector employment, and trade union membership, place of birth, religion and marital status. (Full tables are available in the AJPS article).

In the pre-Howard period the odds of a male (compared with a woman) voting for the Coalition rather than for Labor was 0.86, whereas in the Howard years the odds were 0.93. If the odds had shifted to 1.00 this would have meant that men were just as likely as women, other things being equal, to have voted for the Howard government. The modelling suggests that although the Coalition under Howard may have improved its performance among men relative to its performance among women in 1996, as Andrew Robb observed, the improvement is not statistically significant net of other factors.

To find the categories in which the Coalition clearly improved its position or to see where it had slipped we had to look elsewhere. First, to the category of respondents aged 30–39 years, in which the Coalition reduced its disadvantage (compared with those aged 18–29 years), and to the category of respondents aged 60-plus, in which it increased its advantage substantially. If the gains among the 30 to 39-year-old group are surprising, the gains among older voters are not; a study of the Howard decade, undertaken by the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling, showed “the nation’s most favoured voters” were “part-pensioners with private incomes of $250 to $500 a week.” Second, we looked to Catholics (compared to non-believers), for whom the Coalition reduced its disadvantage as well. Third, we looked at the category comprising those voters with lower levels of formal education, in which the Coalition also reduced its earlier disadvantage.

Although the prime minister also targeted “low- and middle-income families,” the odds of low-income earners or middle-income earners (compared to high-income earners) voting for the Coalition, which was never high, were no higher in 2004 than they had been in 1993. As for the blue-collar vote, there was no statistically significant change between the two periods. But if the Coalition improved its position, it lost ground as well. Its slight disadvantage in the pre-Howard years among migrants with non-English-speaking-background (compared to the Australian-born) grew with Howard in office. Multiculturalism was something regarded with suspicion, if not hostility, by the Howard government.

To see what factors drove the vote when Howard came to office in 1996, what factors drove the vote in 1993, and what factors have driven the vote thereafter, we modelled a wider range of variables and looked at each election in turn. (Appendix Table A2 in the AJPS article provides more details.)

Our analysis drew on four broad categories of independent variables: variables that touch on campaign issues; variables that measure respondents’ household finances – looking back twelve months and forward twelve months – and the way they thought the broader economy had changed over the past twelve months and might be expected to change in the coming twelve months; a variable designed to assess whether respondents changed their vote from the previous election; and a variable to measure whether they cared a great deal about the outcome of the election. For ease of exposition, we present our key findings as changes in the predicted probabilities of voting for each of the parties. For example, for an “average” respondent in 1993 who rated health issues “extremely important,” the predicted probability of voting for the Coalition was 12 percentage points lower than for an “average” respondent who did not regard health issues as “extremely important.” Note that these percentages are changes in the predicted probabilities for the “average” respondent, and not changes in the party’s share of the total vote. Although a particular attitude might have a considerable impact on the predicted probability, the attitude itself might not be widely shared. To help the reader keep this in mind, we also show the proportion of respondents who shared that particular attitude.

1993: More than just the GST

It is often assumed that the GST rescued Labor in 1993. But there is a good deal more to the story than this. For the average respondent for whom the GST was “extremely important” – and more than half the respondents fell into this category – the predicted probability of voting Labor rose by 14 percentage points compared to the average respondent for whom the GST was not extremely important. But this was not the only issue that mattered. For the average respondent for whom health was “extremely important” – and two-thirds of the respondents fell into this category – the predicted probability of voting Labor rose by 11 per cent; for the average respondent for whom education was “extremely important” – almost half the respondents – the predicted probability of voting Labor rose by 11 per cent; and for the average respondent for whom the environment was “extremely important” –more than a third of the respondents – the predicted probability of voting Labor rose by 9 percentage points (although minor parties benefited equally at the Coalition’s expense).

As one might expect, adverse economic impacts worked in the opposition’s favour. Thus, the average respondent for whom unemployment was “extremely important” – and two-thirds of the sample fitted this category – was 11 percentage points more likely to have voted for the Coalition. And the average respondent who thought “the general economic situation in Australia as a whole” was likely to be worse “in twelve months’ time” – two respondents out of five – was more likely, by 44 percentage points, to have voted for the Coalition. There were other, smaller, impacts as well.

If the Coalition picked up some of the economic losers in 1993, Labor benefited from some of the economic winners. For the average respondent who thought things would be better in twelve months’ time (and they constituted nearly a third of the sample), the probability of voting Labor rose by 56 percentage points. And the average respondent who thought the “general economic situation” was better than it had been twelve months ago was also more likely (by 16 points) to have voted Labor; no fewer than 63 per cent shared this view. But interest rates, mentioned by half the respondents as “extremely important,” did not shift votes either way.

1996: Taxes, defence and whether the election mattered

Even in defeat, Labor still held the advantage on health and, more narrowly, on the environment (with most of the Coalition losses benefiting the minor parties rather than going directly to Labor). And, despite the best efforts of the Coalition to neutralise the issue, Labor also enjoyed a modest advantage on the issue of privatisation. But Labor no longer held a statistically significant advantage on education. The Coalition held on to its advantage on unemployment, was preferred by those (two-in-five) for whom taxation was “extremely important” (the GST item was dropped for this election so we can’t say whether its impact lingered), and enjoyed a clear advantage on defence (rated “extremely important” by one-quarter of the sample). Again, interest rates counted for nought in influencing the vote, as did industrial relations, although both were rated “extremely important” by nearly half of those interviewed. Immigration and links with Asia, each rated “extremely important” by about a quarter of the sample, also left no mark.

On the health of the economy as a whole, and on the health of household budgets in particular, the pattern of advantage and disadvantage was much as it had been in 1993. But although Labor increased its advantage (38 compared to 16 points) among those who thought the “general economic situation” better than it had been twelve months ago, the proportion who felt the economic situation was better than it had been twelve months ago was lower (46 per cent, down from 63 per cent); and the proportion who felt the “financial situation” of their household was better than it had been twelve months ago was also lower (35 per cent, down from 44 per cent). Although the Coalition benefited from those who thought “the general economic situation in Australia” would be better in twelve months’ time (giving it an advantage over Labor of 44 percentage points among this group), its advantage was not as great as Labor’s in 1993 and the proportion (23 per cent) who shared this view of the economic outlook was not as great as it was in 1993 (30 per cent).

What does stand out (although not shown as predicted probabilities) is the impact of “concern” about the outcome of the poll. For those who “cared a good deal which party won the federal election,” or who voted one way in 2001 and another in 2004, the impacts were large. Among these respondents, the odds of voting for the Coalition over Labor were about 3 to 1. And notwithstanding the view among commentators that Keating’s arrogance was a key factor in the Coalition’s win, this factor shows no statistically significant relationship with the vote.

1998: A referendum on the GST?

If the 1998 election was a “referendum” on the GST, it appears to have ended in a tie; as a vote-shifter it was statistically insignificant. Nor were Labor’s advantage on health and the Coalition’s disadvantage on the environment statistically significant. But education (now “extremely important” to two-thirds of the respondents) remained a Coalition weakness; unemployment, a negative for Labor in 1996, was now a problem for the Coalition; and privatisation remained a Coalition negative as well (although only one-third rated it as “extremely important”). The two issues raised in the AES on which the Coalition enjoyed an advantage were interest rates (for the first time) and, more importantly (because two-thirds rated it “extremely important”), taxation – an issue, unaffected apparently by the GST, on which there had been little change since 1996. Again, industrial relations, immigration and links with Asia left no mark.

The economy was now an advantage to the Coalition in a way that it had not been in 1996 when many more respondents (46 per cent) thought economic conditions had improved in the past twelve months than thought they had gone backwards (18 per cent). In 1998, on the Coalition’s watch, the difference in the proportions who thought the economy had improved and who thought it had deteriorated was small; but the Coalition enjoyed a clear advantage among those who thought things had improved and suffered no statistically significant disadvantage among those who thought things had gone backwards. Again, whereas more respondents after the 1996 election thought the economy would do worse (37 per cent) in the next twelve months rather than better (23 per cent), after the 1998 election more respondents expected it to do better (41 per cent) rather than worse (24 per cent).

Those (20 per cent) who felt their household finances had gone backwards, like those who felt the economy had gone backwards, moved to Labor and the minor parties. More respondents (30 per cent) felt that their household’s finances had improved over the past twelve months, but this did not affect the probability of their voting for the Coalition.

2001: Terror (and immigration), not Tampa

The 2001 election might have been characterised as the “Tampa election” but, on the evidence of the AES, it was not; although half the sample (49 per cent) thought refugees an “extremely important” issue, the probability that those who thought this way had voted for the Coalition was not significantly greater than the probability that they had voted for Labor. What did work for the Coalition was the related issue of immigration; having not worked for the Coalition in 1996 or 1998, the issue of immigration – “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come,” as John Howard put it – increased the predicted probability of voting for the Coalition by 11 percentage points among those respondents (48 per cent) for whom it was “extremely important.” Again, although defence did not work for the Coalition (despite being nominated as “extremely important” by 50 per cent), the related issue of terrorism did; identified as “extremely important” by half (52 per cent) of the respondents, terrorism increased the predicted probability of voting for the Coalition by 18 percentage points, taking support not only from Labor but also from the minor parties. In short, the main issues were not refugees and terrorism but immigration and terrorism. Nonetheless, on neither issue was the Coalition’s advantage as great as many commentators imagined.

On domestic issues, the news for Labor was generally good. It regained the edge on health, retained an even stronger edge on education and on unemployment, and on the GST – despite the limited nature of its proposed “rollback” – it enjoyed a remarkable advantage (26 percentage points) among those (45 per cent of the sample) who rated the issue “extremely important.” On the more general issue of taxation, the Coalition also made no headway. One area in which Labor lacked strength was the environment. And for the third time in succession, industrial relations left no mark.

On the economy and on household finances, the news for the Coalition was much better as, for the most part, rosy assessments outnumbered gloomy ones. Those who thought things had improved in the past twelve months (41 per cent) or would improve in the next twelve months (37 per cent) were more likely to have voted for the Coalition. Those who thought things had got worse in the past twelve months (only 25 per cent) or would get worse in the next twelve months (42 per cent) were more likely to have voted Labor. But the latter was a relatively small group and Labor’s overall advantage on these two measures (7 percentage points) was relatively narrow. Similarly, those who thought their household finances had improved (41 per cent) were more likely to have voted for the Coalition than for Labor. And although those who thought their household finances had gone backwards (21 per cent) were more likely to have voted Labor, their number was only half as great as those who thought their household circumstances had improved.

Nor should we overlook the advantage the Coalition enjoyed among respondents for whom it really mattered which party won. Although the advantage was not as great as it was in 1996, it was significant nonetheless.

2004: Who can you trust?

There seems little doubt that interest rates won the 2004 election for the Coalition. Among respondents who rated interest rates as extremely important (46 per cent of the sample), the probability of voting for the Coalition was 24 percentage points higher than the probability of voting for Labor. Those who thought the economy was better than it had been twelve months earlier favoured the Coalition by a similar margin; but they only accounted for 16 per cent of the sample. Those who thought the country would be better off in twelve months’ time favoured the Coalition by a greater margin, but those who thought the country would be worse off in twelve months counterbalanced them. And, whereas the Coalition gained no advantage from those who thought their household’s position had improved over the past twelve months, it lost votes among those who thought their households had gone backwards.

Interest rates apart, and allowing for the fact that the AES did not ask about forests’ policy, domestic issues appear not to have served the Coalition well. On health, education and the environment – issues rated “extremely important” by upwards of half those interviewed – Labor enjoyed a clear advantage. Labor’s strong showing on health, which was rated “extremely important” by an exceptionally high 75 per cent, was not negated by the controversy generated by its Medicare Gold policy; nor was its lead on education overtaken by its schools’ funding policy. On unemployment, Labor was also ahead. Industrial relations and taxation made no difference either way.

For the Coalition the Iraq war proved as big a liability as any; among those who thought the issue “extremely important” (36 per cent of the sample) the chances of voting for the Coalition declined by 26 percentage points, with the probability of voting for Labor increasing by almost as much. But the Coalition’s losses over the war in Iraq were more than offset by its gains from defence and the issue of terrorism. On defence, which was rated “extremely important” by half (51 per cent), the probability of voting for the Coalition increased by 19 points; on terrorism, which was rated “extremely important” by 49 per cent, the probability of voting for the Coalition also rose by 19 points. And, although no advantage accrued to it through refugees, the issue of immigration again gave the Coalition a boost.

Battlers, Catholics and trade unionists

Contrary to the view that Howard won a new constituency in 1996 and held on to it, more or less, until some time after the 2004 election, our analysis highlights the volatile nature of the Coalition’s gains over this period. In 1998 the Coalition’s vote among blue-collar respondents dropped close to where it had been in 1993 and remained there. Not until 2004 did Howard win most of this constituency back.

If we compare the AES data for the pre-Howard elections (1987–93) with those that cover the elections from 1996 to 2004, we find no trend in blue-collar support for the Coalition net of other demographic factors. What our analysis suggests that the changes in the Coalition’s fortunes during those years had more to do with education than with occupation. Howard built his support not so much among blue-collar workers as among voters with relatively low levels of education. In addition, he extended the Coalition’s advantage among older voters (aged 60-plus years). So the swing to the Coalition may have been less the story of a shift in the labour market than a story about populist right-wing politics mediated by talkback radio – a medium that Howard made his own – and pitched at those with limited education and older voters with a less critical insight into social and political affairs.

What of the change in the “Catholic vote”? One possibility is a re-run of the old story: Catholic “aspiration.” But why aspiration should be particularly marked among Catholics is less obvious now than it was in the heyday of the Democratic Labor Party – and even then it was far from clear that aspirations of a material kind were the key to the shift in the Catholic vote. Another possibility is that the Catholic connection with Labor is partly the product of a church whose teachings on issues like asylum seekers are more liberal than conservative; with falls in church attendance, however, increasing numbers of Catholics have become available to parties of the right. But since the 1996 data suggest that Catholics who attended church most often were more likely to support the Coalition, this seems unlikely. It is more likely that Howard, who prided himself on the number of Catholics in his cabinet, shifted these voters by emphasising conservative values that Catholics endorse.

And what of the trade union vote? Of all the demographic variables, trade union membership is possibly the strongest, and certainly most consistent, predictor of the Labor vote.

Party convergence?

One of the things our research helps revive is the notion that issues matter. In 1996, unemployment, privatisation, the environment and defence made a difference; in 1998, unemployment, privatisation, education and interest rates made a difference; in 2001, unemployment, health and Medicare, and “the war on terror” made a difference; and in 2004, unemployment, interest rates, defence, “the war on terror” and the Iraq war made a difference. This is a formidable list. That some issues (defence, terrorism and interest rates) have worked in the Coalition’s favour whereas others (health, education, privatisation and the environment) have benefited Labor lends weight to scepticism about claims that we are living through an era of party “convergence.”

Judgements that the state of the economy had improved in the past twelve months were invariably more powerful influences on the vote than judgements that household finances had improved in the past twelve months. But judgements that household finances had gone backwards in the past twelve months were more powerful in 1998, 2001 and 2004, than judgements that the country had gone backwards in the past twelve months; only in 1993 and 1996 were these relative weights reversed.

Although our conclusion does not necessarily confound the notion that voters are overwhelmingly egocentric (sociotropic judgements may be self-centred), it does confound the notion that it is simply their “pocketbooks” that govern how people vote.

Finally, we note that in 1996 those respondents who cared “a good deal” which party won helped bring to an end Labor’s 13 years in office and, in 2004, they helped repel Labor’s third attempt to win it back. What is interesting here is that the basis for caring which party won apparently lay not in any commitment to the notion that a change of government was a good thing in itself; rather, it seemed to spring from the notion that which of the parties was in office actually mattered. If this is so, it is another blow to the fashionable notion that the parties are becoming increasingly indistinct. It is also a blow to the notion that contemporary elections are simply about those voters who, but for compulsory voting, wouldn’t be bothered to vote. •

A note on the Australian Election Study: All of the surveys are carried out after the respective elections. Liberal voters are slightly over-represented (although we correct for this by weighting the data by electoral returns). Some of the items are less than satisfactory at measuring key social issues; respondents, for example, are asked about “education” rather than “educational standards,” “educational costs” or “educational choice.” There are inconsistencies: questions on defence, but not in 1998; about interest rates, but not in 2001; and on mortgage repayments, but only in 1996. And for none of the elections are there data on the importance respondents attached to Aboriginal issues, a republic or any aspect of family policy.