Before the September election, some political pundits were predicting a Labor ‘wipeout’ in its western Sydney heartland. It did not happen.
Two Labor seats out of eight in western Sydney fell to the Liberals. Arguably, two seats, classified as southern Sydney by the Australian Electoral Commission, could be added to the list as they are part of Sydney’s central southern suburbs and border the central Labor belt (from Sydney to Penrith along the western railway line). There are reasons, however, other than the Murdoch press that these seats fell. More important are the six seats that did not fall.
The two western seats to fall were Reid and Lindsay: both border LNP seats and have areas (booths) that are predominantly Liberal voting. In Lindsay the central area around Penrith is Labor, but the northern and southern ends Liberal. In Reid, the northern half along the Parramatta River tends to be Liberal and the southern, Labor.
They are obviously seats that may move about in elections and be heavily influenced by small changes in electoral boundaries. When Reid was a Labor stronghold the seat included Labor-leaning areas to the west, towards Parramatta, but now those areas are in the Parramatta electorate and Reid includes more Liberal-leaning areas to the east, like the Drummoyne peninsula. Similarly, Lindsay’s boundaries have changed over time to include more Liberal-leaning areas in the north.
Of the two southern Sydney seats that fell, Banks has a similar profile. Barton is a little different, having some Liberal areas in the south, but is predominantly Labor – it was, however, lost by only 493 votes or 0.6% of formal votes. The retirement of the sitting member, Robert McClelland, probably had some influence on the outcome: in fact, the large swing against Labor in Barton (see table below) may also suggest an element of protest at the way McClelland was treated by his Labor colleagues during the preceding two years (demoted within the Ministry in December 2011, then dropped from the Ministry altogether in February 2012).
The swings in first preference
votes in these electorates were:
||Labor swing (%)
||Liberal swing (%)
||Greens swing (%)
There is significant variation in what was happening in the electorates despite Murdoch’s Daily Telegraph
being a common newspaper across these areas. But in only one electorate, Reid,
did the swing against Labor result in an increased swing to the Liberals. The first preference votes went elsewhere and that is particularly marked in Barton.
Even if one argues that the Murdoch campaign was effective in reducing the Labor vote, these figures suggest that it did not have the corollary effect of convincing people to vote Liberal.
Some of those first preference votes moved to minor parties which may more reflect an attitude of ‘a pox on both your houses’.
The influence of the press is further questioned when one considers that within Reid, there was actually a swing to Labor in the five booths that make up Auburn,
a core Labor area of the electorate: the swings to Labor in those booths ranged from 0.6% to 5.7%. Does this mean that the Murdoch campaign actually convinced more Labor-leaning voters to vote Labor?
Labor was also affected by the decline in the Greens’ vote, reducing its preference flow. Whether the decline in the Greens vote was a result of the long running Murdoch campaign against them or a result of Labor campaigning strongly to distinguish itself from the Greens is debatable but, given the tenuous impact in the west of the Murdoch campaign against Labor, I lean to the latter.
And among the seats in western Sydney that did not fall, the first preference swings were:
||Labor swing (%)
||Liberal swing (%)
||Greens swing (%)
Overall, Labor increased its first preference vote in four electorates and the Liberal vote fell in three: hardly a ringing endorsement of the effectiveness of the Murdoch campaign!
Perhaps on that basis, Labor should ask him to continue the campaign and help increase its vote further next time. And Chifley, Blaxland, Fowler and even McMahon were held on first preference votes alone.
Greenway was influenced by the Liberal candidate being Jaymes Diaz: as Anthony Green said during the election night coverage, it showed that ‘candidates matter’. I suggest, not being an expert, that one quantum of the ‘candidate effect’ in Greenway could be 5.8%, the sum of overcoming the national 3.6% swing to the LNP plus the 2.2% swing to Labor that was achieved. (I would also accept 4.9%, summing the national swing and Diaz’s loss, which would then suggest that, after removing the ‘candidate effect’, there was still a 0.9% swing to Labor.)
The somewhat unusual result in Fowler suggests that the perceived quality of the local candidates was also a factor there but I have, as yet, not found any evidence to confirm this. (If somebody knows, please post a comment!) What do the results in western Sydney tell us?
On the above figures, it seems that if the Murdoch campaign had any influence it was merely to reinforce existing leanings of particular areas within electorates, whether Liberal or Labor, or of confirmed voters’ views that neither of the major parties deserved their first preference vote. In this sense, the Murdoch campaign may have had more influence in turning voters off politics generally than in influencing votes.
I am not suggesting that the Murdoch campaign had no
influence whatsoever but that the influence did not match the effort put into the campaign; nor was it as effective as Murdoch would have us believe.
Clive Palmer’s advertising blitz demonstrates the impact media campaigns can have. In his case, however, because he was starting from scratch, the campaign was as much about what advertising experts call ‘brand recognition’. What he did effectively was make his party known and provide voters an alternative to voting for the major parties, which a proportion of voters was obviously seeking to do. What he had to say mattered less than simply being known.
Murdoch himself believes he is a political force but the screaming anti-Labor headlines of his Daily Telegraph
mattered little in the final analysis and appear to have had minimal influence on the vote in western Sydney.
Murdoch was basically granted
political influence by the politicians, both here in Australia and in Britain, because the politicians reacted to the Murdoch commentary and polling. Instead of governing, or seeking government, by promoting policies and a vision for the future, politicians slipped into the trap of believing they will ‘live and die’ by the polls. As long as they believe that, they will allow Murdoch to continue to hold sway over them. But as my brief analysis of the vote in western Sydney indicates, the Murdoch influence is not as strong in the electorate.
While the polls generally (not just Murdoch’s polls) were relatively accurate in predicting the national voting outcome, the Government is not elected by a national trend but by winning individual seats in the House of Representatives (HoR). In 1998, for example, Labor won the national vote (51% to 49%) but insufficient seats to defeat the LNP. The published polls have not been very successful in predicting how individual electorates will behave and the figures above show the wide variations that occur between electorates.
The ability of Tony Windsor to hold New England for so many years, before his retirement at this election, and the Jaymes Diaz effect in Greenway, show that the quality of local candidates is crucial. While people know their vote will influence
who becomes Prime Minister, they also know they are actually voting for
a local candidate, so the quality of that candidate influences voting much more than the Murdoch press.
Strong, locally based campaigns are another effective tool to overcome broader, negative media coverage. The success of Cathy McGowan’s campaign in Indi (in Victoria) against Sophie Mirabella, is evidence of this. I believe politicians need to ignore the Murdoch press commentary and his fortnightly polls. They are just marketing, linking his news (opinions) and his polls in a continuous marketing cycle for his media, fodder for political commentators, but next to meaningless when a voter walks into a polling station and puts pencil to paper. What do you think?