The Stats Guy: Now that the dust has settled on the election, what’s next for the parties?

This election was nothing but the continuation of longstanding trends, with Labor and the Liberals steadily losing votes.

This election was nothing but the continuation of longstanding trends, with Labor and the Liberals steadily losing votes. Photo: TND

What happened in the election? A landslide victory for Labor? A strong mandate from the Australian people for Labor policies? Hardly so.

As much as the 2019 election wasn’t won by the Liberals but lost by Labor, the 2022 election was lost by the Liberals rather than won by Labor.

This election was nothing but the continuation of longstanding trends. The Labor and Liberal parties have steadily lost votes over the last decades.

Another way of looking at this data is to view the collective votes for all third parties combined into one vote. Whenever voters were really dissatisfied with the status quo, the third parties won big.

World War I, the Great Depression and World War II were all obvious times for voters to voice their distress. After WWII, Australia saw the heyday of the two-party system with very few votes drifting to third parties.

In 1987, only two per cent of voters opted for someone other than Labor or the Coalition. Over the last 35 years, Australians appear to have increasingly become discontented with the two major parties. By 2019 the alternative parties collected a whopping 26 per cent of primary votes.

The pandemic didn’t break this trend but accelerated it. Just under a third of votes are now going to third parties. We are moving away from being a two-party system.

While there are warring factions in either party, both parties historically are rather centrist. The focus on the centre was a logical reaction to an Australia with a relatively small upper-class and a strong middle-class. The electorate was shaped like a Bell curve – lots of people close to the centre and relatively few outliers on the far-left and far-right.

The workforce had fewer highly skilled and well-paid workers in 1987 (23 per cent) than it has today (36 per cent). Since the late 1980s, we shrank the middle-income earners from 20 per cent down to 13 per cent. The middle of the workforce and with it the middle of the political discourse has been slowly eroding.

Targeting the well-measured middle of politics was made harder by the 24-hour news cycle and TV reporting relying on short soundbites. That worrying trend was intensified by online algorithms that favour extreme opinions.

That said, our political parties did their utmost to further erode the trust of the Australian people in the political class. We’ve seen yet another election campaign dominated by fearmongering slogans, demonisation of opponents, simplistic memes.

I am yet to meet someone who isn’t sick and tired of that political theatre. It’s not just election time, though. Just ask people what they think of Question Time in parliament. No questions are asked or answered, no political dialogue takes place and fully grown adults are laughing at, ridiculing or insulting their colleagues.

In any other workplace, these behaviours would secure you a stern warning from HR or might even get you fired – but somehow the political class hasn’t gotten the message yet. Tanya Plibersek’s post-election remarks about Peter Dutton show that politicians have a lot of unlearning to do.

As shown above, Labor lost primary votes this election and I would think that they will collect even fewer votes in 2025. Structurally, Labor might be the party in Australia that is at the highest risk of becoming politically irrelevant. This is not a comment about Labor policies, but simply an observation regarding the trend of their core voters.

The classic Labor elements in the workforce have been shrinking. Take union membership, for example. Today, unions play a much smaller role than in the past. Labor needs to reinvent itself to remain a major party in the future. The SPD, the German Labor party, now frequently polls well below the German Greens. This is not an unlikely scenario in Australia.

The Liberals will likely strengthen the conservative wing of the party and not move towards a pro-business approach to climate change policy. Peter Dutton was well respected in the defence circles for his previous portfolio. Making him party leader makes sense since he is both the biggest name left and a capable politician. He is, however, probably the worst choice to win back the female vote and draw voters from the centre, though. This means the Liberals must hunt for votes on the right. Can Dutton snatch voters from Pauline and Clive? Of course he can, but this will require a shift to the right of the Liberal Party.

All of that clearly leaves the Greens as the big winners, right?

Almost 1.5 million Australians voted for them – they grew their share of votes to 11.7 per cent – and now hold (almost certainly) four seats. That’s a clear vote of confidence for their agenda. The Greens’ optimism is mostly justified. In Europe, it’s not uncommon for a green party to win even more votes, so why wouldn’t Australia’s Greens continue to grow?

Up to now, the Greens were the only party leading the way in terms of environmental policies. If you wanted to vote for sustainability, you kind of had to vote Greens. A pro-sustainability vote was a far-left vote. Now teal candidates offered a largely centrist environmentalist perspective and celebrated great successes. Maybe the future of the environmentalist movement lies more towards the centre of politics than previously imagined?

If more Independents pop up, if Labor doubles down on environmentalism, if the Liberals shape a believable pro-business approach to environmentalism, the Greens would certainly lose some of their core voters. If the major parties learn their sustainability lessons, if more centrist teal candidates pop up, the rise of the Greens will stop abruptly.

If I had to venture a guess about the 2025 election, I’d say the Greens will gain another percentage point or two, while Labor and Liberals will both lose votes. Labor will out-lose the Liberals. The teal candidates will be perceived as having successfully managed their first terms, and a few more independent candidates will pop up across the country. This time they might attack a few Labor seats as well.

The teal vote might well get stronger. The far-right vote is probably near its zenith. In Germany, the far-right doesn’t seem to be able to break past 10 per cent for a prolonged period. As I view Australia as less prone to right-wing narratives than Germany, I would say One Nation and United Australia will collectively lose votes.

I am happy to be proven wrong regarding my predictions – in three years, of course.

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