Canberra Times 24 November 2001, commenting on the "Tampa" election.

For background see Marr and Wilkinson, Dark Victory.

Posted on with the permission of the author Nic Stuart,

"The people who voted informal were disproportionately concentrated in the seats the ALP had hoped to win."

People have switched off and are voting informal

THE NORMAL assumption is that oppositions donít win elections; governments lose them. Nevertheless, this time other significant factors appear to have been at work, crippling Laborís vote in the electorates the opposition[i.e. Labor] vitally needed to win.

Thereís no shortage of explanations about why this happened. Labor tells us that John Howard won this election on the backs of the asylum-seekers. The Liberals insist that voters returned the Government for its handling of the economy and a host of other reasons. But an examination of the informal vote reveals a new possibility Labor lost because it could not even win the votes of people who were refusing to vote for the Coalition.

This startling claim is impossible to prove conclusively, but there can be no doubt that a massive number of (previously) Labor voters chose to spoil their ballots, rather than cast a valid vote. And, in many of the swinging electorates, if those voters had chosen to back Labor the result could have been very different indeed. This is the inescapable conclusion of any examination of the informal vote, which soared again at the last election.

The informal vote has been growing steadily for more than a decade. This year 575,844 people (or nearly 5 per cent of voters) voted informal, a rise of about 25 per cent. That number is more than twice the difference between the totals of people, across Australia, who voted for the two sides (227,793). And it is also evident that Labor lost a disproportionate number of these people they just werenít inspired enough to vote for the Opposition.

Where the ALP did well, such as in Victoria, the informal vote rose by only a tiny 0.44 percentage points. Here in Canberra, where Labor won both seats, there was an equally small increase of just 0.63 points in the percentage of informal votes. However, this wasnít the case in the two crucial states where the Opposition had to make significant inroads if it was to win government.

In NSW the informal vote jumped by 1.40 points, to a massive 5.40 per cent of the total vote (214,999 ballots). In Queensland, the informal vote was a smaller proportion of the total (4.82 per cent), although it rose by a whopping 1.49 points. Even within these states the people who voted informal were disproportionately concentrated in the seats the ALP had hoped to win.

This picture becomes clearer by examining the pattern of voting in individual electorates, because there are astounding discrepancies. Only 0.77 per cent of people living in the big houses of the leafy northern Sydney electorate of Bradfield spoilt their ballots. In next-door Warringah, Tony Abbott suffered a swing of 3.27 per cent against him when a popular Independent candidate did well, but in this case the informal vote was just a minuscule 0.6 per cent.

However, this wasnít the case where Labor did badly. After a redistribution, Parramatta had nominally become a Labor seat and local Member Ross Cameron should now be down at his local Centrelink office, registering for benefits. Instead, heís probably choosing furniture for his new suite as a Parliamentary Secretary after receiving 35,280 primary votes, 3469 more than his opponent. A convincing victory: nevertheless the total informal vote in this electorate was a massive 6.21 per cent (up 1.03 points) at 5099.

Similarly in the notionally Labor seat of Macarthur, convincingly won by Liberal former marathon runner Pat Farmer. The informal vote here was up 2.05 points. Nearly 6 per cent of the voters couldnít bring themselves to put any number at all in the ALP box. If these people were worried about the sudden flood of refugees, surely they would have voted for the Government. If they were won over by Knowledge Nation, surely they would have voted for the Opposition.

Perhaps the truth is that actually many of these people couldnít bear to vote for anyone who was standing. They didnít want to be represented by either a runner or the Labor candidate, former mayor Meg Oates.

Michael Lee probably lost the seat of Dobell for exactly the same reason. There was a primary swing against him of 1.94 per cent while the informal vote went up by 1.22 points to a total of 4.26 per cent. These would have been more than enough votes to see him win the seat comfortably. But the Labor voters deserted.

If Simon Crean really wants to win the next election he is going to have to address this issue urgently. The easy interpretation of the rising informal vote is just to insist that Labor voters arenít clever enough to distinguish between the state and federal voting systems, and the way we have to mark the ballots.

Yet this wouldnít explain why some areas (like Parramatta) have a disproportionately large number of people who supposedly canít even understand how to vote. Particularly as they apparently managed to get it right last time. Maybe this time they actually made a positive choice to reject both the major party candidates on offer.

The biggest problem Labor faces is that once someone starts voting informal, it rapidly becomes a habit. The Opposition will need to work extremely hard to get the people who have switched off the people who have tuned out of politics to listen to their message.