On The Nation: Lisa Owen interviews Antony Green

Press Release – The Nation

Lisa Owen: This months Australian election returned the Liberal Party and Malcolm Turnbull to power but only just. Two of the last three federal elections have been tight races, with 2010 ending in a hung parliament. And an increasing number of Australians …On The Nation: Lisa Owen interviews Antony Green

Youtube clips from the show are available here.
Lisa Owen: This month’s Australian election returned the Liberal Party and Malcolm Turnbull to power but only just. Two of the last three federal elections have been tight races, with 2010 ending in a hung parliament. And an increasing number of Australians are voting for minor parties. I spoke earlier to the ABC’s election analyst Antony Green and began by asking him if that’s becoming a trend.

Antony Green: This is the second of the last three elections which has been extremely close. I think it’s just a fluke we haven’t had many really close elections for a long time. I think we just had a period where there’s a lot of contest in the party contest. We’ve also seen an increase in vote for others, and under our preferential system, that all counts in through preferential voting into producing tight contests and requires all these extra counts.

In terms of that voting for others, so more people are choosing minor parties in their first preference, right? But does that suggest that people are kind of sick of the status quo? Is it kind of going a reflection of a global mood — you think of Trump, you think of Brexit?

Some of it’s a continuation of the rise of the Greens. They get about 10% of the vote. There’s another 13% with others. Some of that has gone to a couple of the small Christian parties who traditionally get 3% to 4% of the vote. We’ve seen the emergence of a regional party called the Nick Xenophon team in South Australia. They have their particular issues in that state. And then the re-emergence of Pauline Hanson and the sort of anti-politics — concern about immigration, those sorts of issues that have always been there. I think the political instability we’ve had in recent years where this is the third election in a row where the prime minister who called the election was not the prime minister at the start of the term. I think that some voters might’ve got slightly sick of all this as well and think, ‘What’s the point of voting? You just end up with somebody else at the end of the term.’

You have compulsory voting in Australia, and I think you had about a 95% turnout. We haven’t had a turnout in the 90s for 35 years in New Zealand, and we talk about what’s called the missing million — you know, a million voters who don’t turn up. Is it time for compulsion here, or does that actually fly in the face of democracy, compelling people to vote?

It’s one of those oddities. People fought for the right to vote. In Australia, you get fined if you don’t vote. It’s a long-standing institution. We’re talking about nearly a hundred years it’s been used in Australia. I think Australians are very much ‘don’t objectors’. I think Americans and the British would object to this greatly, but in Australia, it’s sort of a shrug of the shoulders, and it’s probably for the common good. And I suspect if you did it in New Zealand, you’d get sort of the same attitude. I think Australians and New Zealanders are rather similar in thinking about those sorts of things in that way. It does have an impact on politics, though. There are people at the bottom end of the involvement in society who will vote. If you look at most countries around the world, voting tends to be heavily dominated by older voters, it tends to be dominated by more well-off voters, and the voters who don’t vote under voluntary voting tend to be younger voters, tend to be those less engaged, less well off. In Australia, all those people vote, and it’s an argument about compulsory voting in Australia that one of the consequences is Australia has one of the most redistributed of welfare systems — that the welfare we do spend is heavily directed to those who are most likely to need it. And one of the reasons why that’s viewed that way is under our system, all those people will vote. So we had a debate about the GST recently, and because you would have to compensate people and everybody votes in Australia, the GST raise didn’t seem to come in as worthwhile doing.

So it makes a difference in terms of policies that affect people who are underprivileged or struggling in those circles that wouldn’t necessarily always vote?

Yes, it’s viewed as being… In many countries, the sort of people who are affected by changes in government policy for welfare and the like are often people who don’t vote. And in Australia, those people vote, so there’s a huge pushing towards the middle of politics.

Do you favour either?

I think it works well in Australia. It would be interesting to see how it works in another country where people are far…I think Australians are, and to an extent in New Zealand as well, much more forgiving of government. They don’t view government as an enemy like they do in America. Government’s part of the process of running the country for most Australians, and I think New Zealanders, and therefore getting involved and ensuring we all vote is seen as something which is for the common good. Three-quarters to two-thirds of Australians still support compulsory voting. The fine is quite limited. You pay about a $20 or $50 fine. It’s easier to vote than deal with the fine, though, in Australia.

What difference do you think electronic voting would make to participation?

Not a lot, really. There’s lots of things to talk about with electronic voting. Do you mean would you have electronic voting as in-attendance voting or as internet voting? I still support attendance voting, so if you’re going to be doing some form of electronic voting, you turn up at a place to do it. I don’t necessarily agree with widespread i-voting where people do it from home.

What are the issues with that? Because obviously the perception is… I mean, you’ve got some people these days who won’t buy stuff on the internet because they’re worried about that. And there is a strong perception that there are risks of hacking, that your vote’s not going to be secret. People have concerns about it.

That’s some concerns. But on the other side of it, people would say, ‘I can sit at home and do my banking from home. I can buy things overseas from home. Why can’t I vote from home?’ Well, the one answer to that is if you run banking or overseas purchases, there is fraud that takes place, and as long as they limit the amount of fraud, having widespread access to internet banking or internet purchases is still advantageous. When you come to elections, you can’t allow any level of fraud, which means it’s much more expensive to drive down the level of any fraud. If you run a business, you’ll accept 1% fraud, because to get rid of that 1% is too expensive.

So are you saying, then, it’s got limited application?

I think it’s got limited application. It’s been used in some Australian states basically as a replacement for postal voting. You could use it as a replacement for overseas voting. But it really only has limited use in that area.

Just before we go, and we’re running out of time, but I want to talk about poll accuracy, because there’s been recent cases where the numbers are just wrong, wrong, wrong —you know, the EU vote, British elections. What’s going on? How reliable are they?

Well, it varies from country to country. Australian polls are still accurate. We have compulsory voting, therefore your random sampling of the population is also a random sampling of the electorate. In most other countries, the problem they constantly have is — have we got a decent sample of the voting electorate? And you can make random phone calls, you can do all sorts of things, but in the end, you’ve got to figure out if these people are going to vote. You can interview them — are they going to vote? — and that’s one of the complications.

Polls in New Zealand are less accurate because we don’t have compulsory voting. We can’t guarantee that that person will turn up and actually tick a box.

That’s right, but you still do have a relatively high turnout level. In Britain, they have a huge problem with which parts of the country are you looking at and trying to get a decent representative sample in such a regional country. I think New Zealand’s traditionally had a relatively good record with polling, but you’re also running with MMP on a national vote. It’s what’s the national vote? Let’s just get the national vote right. If you’re a percent or two out on one party’s vote, it’s not going to make a huge difference to the MMP result.

Well, our prime minister has also said that he thinks that people actually decide much earlier than we think about who they’re going to vote for. Is there any evidence to suggest that he’s right about that?

I think he’s right. I mean, all the academic research tends to point to the fact — I certainly know the Australian research, which I’m most familiar with — most people vote for the same party for most of their life. People who switch backwards and forwards between parties, only a small number of people do that. Most people — probably half the electorate —probably voted for the same party all their life and will continue to do so. Some people will mostly vote for one party, occasionally for the other side. And most people, when they go into an election campaign, modern campaigning is not about winning the campaign and changing votes. At the start of the campaign, this is your level of votes, about maintaining your votes.

So how far out would a poll be accurate, then, in your view for what the final outcome of an election would be?

I think most polls tend to be pretty accurate. Once you get into the campaign and people are thinking about how they’re going to vote in three weeks’ time rather than six months or eight months, you start to get a better measure. When you get changes of leadership, sometimes you can get an impact on voting which may not be long lasting. When Turnbull became prime minister of Australia, he had astronomical ratings, which were probably never going to maintain, and they sort of came down, calmed down over several months till the election.

So a poll now, how reflective would that be of the final result in the election next year?

In New Zealand, it’s probably relatively reflective. If you’ve got one party substantially ahead of the other, that’s probably reflecting what will happen next year. But, of course, events can always affect these things. If something dramatic happens which changes the party nation of the contest, the content of the contest, then, of course, that can have an impact. But, I mean, as an outsider, I have to say John Key appears to be enormously popular, and that popularity continues to be the strong point for the national vote.

Well, we’ll be watching the numbers. Antony Green, thanks so much for joining us.

Thank you.

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