We are in a political environment where clean swings towards either major party will be rarer, independents and smaller parties more popular and sentiment harder to measure because of that.
If from this point on we care less about published polling, journalists talk about them less and politicians refer to them less, well, that’s a good thing.
But as a social and market researcher whose job it is to understand and report on what Australians want from politics and how that might drive an election result, I can say what happened on Saturday night was unprecedented, almost our version of a Brexit/Trump moment.
Not only is it a clear sign that we need to find new ways to do political research, it points towards some important shifts in public sentiment, which I have to say I underestimated.
The decline in public trust in institutions is well documented as well as our growing despair about politics and politicians. The high number of pre-poll votes, 4.7 million in this election, is driven by our desire for convenience but must also reflect the fact that people had made up their mind before the campaign even started and wanted to block the whole blasted business out.
Many independents did well, capitalising on negative sentiment about the two parties. And contrary to so many predictions, scandal after scandal didn’t do much to the One Nation vote. And while Clive Palmer will not secure even a Senate seat, he took enough votes – even in a place like Townsville where he still owes people money – to carry some sway in the defeat of Labor.
Labor’s big, ambitious and optimistic policy agenda didn’t shift hearts and minds sufficiently in all the right places. That could point to the fact that there may be no agenda – conservative or progressive – that can play well enough across the nation to achieve a result akin to 2007. National landslides may well be a thing of the past in a nation that looks as fractured as the national vote seems to indicate.
I have written extensively about the growing importance of climate change as an issue for voters, including swinging voters. The ballot box has always been an imprecise tool for measuring public sentiment on complex issues, especially ones that provoke the spectrum of emotion in us like climate change does – fear, denial, guilt, anxiety, anger and hope.
This was the climate election, but not in the way people (including myself) thought it would be. Climate change concern was a reason why we saw the Liberal Party loose seats like Warringah. But results for the LNP in Queensland and even One Nation in the Hunter show almost a swing in the opposite direction in parts of Australia where mining jobs are being threatened and where workers don’t feel like they can be nimble in their response to a changing economy.
Can they really see a low-carbon economy offering them good jobs in the near future? The majority of Australians believe climate change is real and is human caused. But the election result reflects the anxiety of a minority who don’t want to have their economic choices dictated by people on the other side of the country.
I get it. My mum’s family comes from northern Queensland and, say what you want about them, there are fiercely independent. They will resist change that doesn’t come from within their own community.
The fact that national polling, even if accurate, may in fact be irrelevant when it comes to predicting who will be in government reminds me of that classic adage, maybe more true today than ever before. All politics is local. Perhaps the only seat Labor will win in NSW will be the seat of Gilmore, where a high-profile candidate was parachuted in.
It may turn out that the end result – both in terms of seats held by the government and the two-party-preferred vote – has barely shifted in three years despite political infighting, changing leaders, scandals galore, intense policy debate and millions spent on political campaigns.
Does that mean Australians have stopped listening? As our problems – economic, social and natural – become more complex and pressing, does fear – of cuts to Medicare or bigger taxes – become the only effective motivator to change our votes?
I actually don’t know the answers to these questions. For the first time in my career as a researcher, I got it wrong.
Time to stop polling and to start listening. And to start to rebuild trust in our politics.
Dr Rebecca Huntley is a social researcher and author of Quarterly Eassy 73, Australia Fair: Listening to the Nation.