Voters frustrated but not furious as Coalition hopes teeter on a needle point
By David Crowe
Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese during question time. The recurring theme in the poll is the drift away from the government by voters who do not have a firm sense of where they might come to a stop.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
Australians waiting for a vaccine jab are not the only ones forming a queue while they consider whether Scott Morrison and his government can drag the nation out of the pandemic and into recovery.
There is a political waiting room, too, where voters are sitting in frustration after drifting from the Prime Minister and the Coalition since the last election.
They have not opened the door to Labor. Not yet, at least. But they are right in the middle of Australian politics, with the power to decide the next election. If their frustration turns to fury, the government is gone.
Scott Morrison is the preferred prime minister for 47 per cent of voters, compared to 25 per cent for Anthony Albanese, according to the first Resolve Political Monitor survey.Credit:Mark Stehle
“I’m waiting to see what happens with the vaccine rollout. It doesn’t seem to be getting to GPs,” says one voter.
Another wants to see results: “I just don’t see a clear plan or direction at the moment.”
A third names the speed of the vaccine program as crucial. “We need a majority of people vaccinated, and quickly.”
These are just some of the replies to open-ended questions in a survey of community attitudes by the Herald and The Age, which developed the new poll with research partner Resolve Strategic.
The headline result in the poll is a cut to the government’s primary vote from 41 to 38 per cent since the last election, a swing outside the margin of error.
But Labor’s primary vote is the same as its result at the last election, at 33 per cent, so the story of this survey is about the expanding ranks of those who choose other parties or independents.
This is no surprise to Morrison and his team. They know many Australians are disappointed with the missed targets in the vaccination plan. They believe this has not turned into anger. The overhaul of the vaccine rollout, with a faster rollout for people over 50 and more co-operation with the states on mass vaccination centres, is all about heeding that warning.
Beneath the headline number, however, is a sea of shifting currents. Voters strongly prefer Morrison as prime minister compared to Labor leader Anthony Albanese, by 47 to 25 per cent. And voters rank the Coalition ahead of Labor on the handling of big issues like the economy and the pandemic.
Resolve director Jim Reed, who designed and led the survey, says the swings are complex and benefit Labor in some states but show many voters are reserving judgment.
“The overall national picture is that the vote loss from the Coalition has not benefited Labor and that the ‘parked vote’ with minor parties is being used to send a message,” says Reed. “If people were so angry they wanted the prime minister and government booted out, they would not prefer Morrison as prime minister and would be voting Labor.
“Instead, they are registering their dissatisfaction, waiting and watching. This is what makes May’s budget and the vaccine rollout so important to both the government and the opposition’s prospects.”
Many voters are up-front about their protest. Fifty-eight per cent of poll respondents said their decision was a positive endorsement for one party or another. Another 19 per cent said their votes were protests and 23 per cent were undecided.
Migrants are among those who have shifted against the government. While 48 per cent of overseas-born Australians said they voted for the Coalition at the last election, only 40 per cent said they backed the same party now. Support for Labor among this group rose from 30 to 35 per cent.
Those identified as non-Anglo Saxon showed a similar shift: 44 per cent said they voted for the Coalition at the last election but only 35 per cent voiced the same support now. Their support for Labor rose from 31 to 36 per cent.
This is not a “woke” backlash against Morrison and his party among people who spend their time at inner-city wine bars. Something else is happening here, and the signs point to it being about competence in the pandemic.
Voters who might otherwise back a Christian leader and a conservative government are not all happy, either, even though so much commentary paints them as a homogenous base for a prime minister who is socially conservative, staunchly Christian and open about going to Pentecostal churches such as Hillsong.
Morrison speaks as prime minister about the importance of faith and prayer in his life, and some assume this means he has a lock on support from people of faith. But it is not so.
While 56 per cent of Christians said they voted for the Coalition at the last election, only 49 per cent said they would do so now. The effect boosted support for minor parties and independents from 15 per cent at the election to 22 per cent today. (These voters showed only the slightest move towards Labor, which was up from 28 to 29 per cent, within the margin of error.)
Resolve political monitor April 2021.Credit:
The recurring theme is the drift away from the government by voters who do not have a firm sense of where they might come to a stop. They reserve their judgment. And the message to Morrison and his government is to lift their game.
When asked an open-ended question to nominate the three biggest influences on their responses, Australians name the obvious issue: the pandemic. COVID-19 shapes their views more than anything, but it is figuring strongly as a question of jobs and the economic recovery, not just health and the vaccine rollout.
The analysis from Resolve shows these issues sit well above concerns about the treatment of women, workplace relations, the cost of living and climate change.
While 26 per cent name the economy, 16 per cent name health and aged care, 16 per cent say COVID-19, 13 per cent say employment, 12 per cent say social issues, 11 per cent say the cost of living and 11 per cent name climate change.
These are important measures of the most powerful forces in deciding the Australian government. What matters is the velocity of those vote drivers – the issues that move Australians toward one box or another on the ballot paper.
Even the appalling stories of sexual abuse in politics in the past two months, beginning with former government adviser Brittany Higgins and her decision to go public on February 15 with an allegation of being raped in Parliament House, are not driving voters to the extent that media coverage might suggest.
Questions about the treatment of women, including policies on harassment in the workplace and protection from violence in the community, are vitally important but rank below the economy, the pandemic and health. Asked to name three top issues, in an open-ended question, only 5 per cent of respondents named the treatment of women.
In another question, when they were presented with a list of topics including the treatment of women as well as health and the economy, people showed a leaning toward Labor as the best party to manage the issue.
While 27 per cent of voters thought Labor best, only 21 per cent named the Coalition. Another 21 per cent chose other parties and 30 per cent were undecided – one of the largest numbers for undecided responses of all issues.
Reed says this suggests many voters see the scandals in Canberra as a reflection on both major parties rather than a reason to choose one or the other.
“No one party ‘owns’ women’s issues and there’s strong evidence to suggest that many people are seeing recent events as a Canberra scandal or a societal issue, not a voting issue,” he says.
“This is true of many issues, including climate change. They may be important and their handling may reflect on the parties or leaders, but they don’t necessarily move people from one camp to another. The main game is still COVID-19.”
But gender is a big factor in how Australians see politics and politicians. The results come through strongly in the Resolve Political Monitor and can be explored in the interactive graphic at the Herald and The Age online.
Men and women generally showed the same support for the Coalition on the primary vote, with 38 per cent, and their support for Labor was similar (34 per cent among men, 33 per cent among women, with the difference within the margin of error).
But their responses split on other questions. Asked who they thought would win the next election, 44 per cent of all voters named the Coalition and 28 per cent named Labor. Women were much less likely to tip a Coalition victory: only 38 per cent of women named the Coalition, compared to 49 per cent of men. The difference came down to a large bloc of women who were undecided. This is a signal, perhaps, about women who are unsure about whether the Coalition has what it takes to hold – or deserve – government.
There is a gender divide on leaders, too. Morrison has a clear advantage as preferred prime minister, 47 to 25 per cent, against Albanese. His lead is similar, 49 to 27 per cent, among men.
Women also prefer Morrison, but they are cooler on both. Only 45 per cent of women name Morrison preferred prime minister, four percentage points below his rating among men. Only 22 per cent name Albanese, five points below men.
These measures of personal standing are important as guides to opinion on Morrison and Albanese, although observers like Kevin Bonham, a long-time commentator on opinion polls, believe the preferred-prime minister metric is useless in predicting elections.
Then again, none of this poll is presented as a prediction of the next election. Instead, the results show the electoral mood as the government wrestles with the economic recovery and vaccine rollout.
The new survey also begins a monthly measure of how Australians feel about the prospects for themselves and their country. The result is broadly positive on the national outlook, with more people thinking things are getting better. The result is 116 points out of a possible 200 points. Australians were also positive when asked if their personal circumstances would get better or worse over the next year or so. The result is a score of 114 out of 200 points.
The message is that voters may be anxious about the next phase of the pandemic but they are positive overall after the experiences last year.
And the impatience with the vaccine timetable is not universal. Many people are comfortable with waiting while they see what happens with any scientific studies on blood clots or other risks.
Liberals know the government has to fix the rollout, but some of them are confident the community will forgive the problems once the pace of the program increases. With the recovery in full swing, and unemployment at incredibly low levels after the dire expectations last year, voters may even reward the government for bringing the nation through the crisis.
“They’ll never give you a tick in Australia but they think we’ve done a pretty good job,” says one government MP.
The responses from voters, in their own words when asked open-ended questions, highlight the most decisive factors for the community.
“We’re watching how they’re going to deal with unemployment and international borders really,” writes one respondent.
Says another: “We need more Australians in jobs than anything else right now.”
This is the mood among the uneasy Australian voters in the political waiting room. Watching the government, waiting for progress – and warning Morrison to produce results.
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