The landslide that wasn't: how Labor kept its Sydney heartland
The polls pointed to a landslide to the Liberals in Sydney, but Labor managed to retain its base. How did they do it, and how did the polls get it so wrong? Crikey intern Angelo Risso reports.
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Polling conducted prior to Saturday’s election pointed to a Labor wipeout in Sydney. They needn’t have worried. So how did the party retain its base out west?
Newspoll opinion polls from August 30 suggested a swing of up to 9% in the region, making defeat in the typically stronghold Labor seats of Lindsay, Greenway and Parramatta a mere formality. Even McMahon, then-treasurer Chris Bowen’s Fairfield-based local electorate, was predicted by ReachTEL polls conducted in mid-August to fall into Liberal hands for the first time in its history.
By the time western Sydney constituents woke up on Sunday, however, the Australian government had changed but the same old Labor heartland remained. The ALP bucked the poll trend to retain seven of the eight western Sydney electorates, with the Liberal Party winning only the Penrith-based seat of Lindsay — an electorate that, like “bellwether seat” Eden-Monaro, has been consistently held by the presiding government — in return.
Indeed, Labor MP for Fowler Chris Hayes was the beneficiary (as of Friday morning) of an additional 9.33% swing to the Labor Party. Greenway Labor MP Michelle Rowland got a 2.67% swing in her favour. Other western Sydney Labor MPs suffered swings against them but not nearly as severe as the polls had suggested, and managed to retain their seats in Parliament.
Commentators leading up to September 7 took it for granted there would be an electoral bloodbath. So what happened?
Dr David Burchell, a senior lecturer in humanities at the University of Western Sydney, says it was misleading to suggest that the sentiment in western Sydney was any more frustrated than in the rest of Australia. While “dud” candidates might have been a factor in some seats — most prominently in Greenway, where infamous Liberal candidate Jaymes Diaz humiliated himself on national television — Burchell says there’s little evidence to suggest Labor’s heartland has turned blue. Rather, he says many in large swathes of the area have become swinging voters, ready for a new government but at the same time cautious of electing an opposition.
“The day before the election, I had journalists call and ask me whether eight or 10 seats would fall to the Liberal Party,” he told Crikey. “The western Sydney ‘thing’ has a life of its own now.
“On the whole Australians do not punish governments to the extent of creating one-party systems … once they know an election is gone, they’ll try to limit their power.”
Burchell says the media’s use of specific seat polls in election coverage turned out to be immensely misleading. Huge discrepancies were revealed over the course of the campaign between national polls and seat polls — and come election day, the national polls proved to be much closer to final results.
“People are increasingly doubting telephone polls, and yet the pollsters seem to be overcoming that. These new specific seat polls are revealing themselves as unreliable,” he said. “Polls were clearly unreliable but were still being pushed … media outlets were compelled to use them after paying for the service.”
The field director of NSW Labor’s outreach project Patrick Batchelor, who worked on US President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, says most polls didn’t account for the large number of undecided voters, who often don’t pick a side until the final days of the campaign (or election day itself). “Obviously I was keeping an eye on the polls leading up to election day, but we also weren’t reading too much into it. I don’t think they had accounted for what we were doing a lot of the time,” he said.
Tony Hadchiti, a Liberal member and president of the Western Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils, agrees — the diversity of areas such as western Sydney is captured poorly in polling. And much of Labor’s apparent salvaging of western Sydney comes down to its unrelenting campaigning.
“Everyone knows that Labor are great campaigners, and they’ll go out there day and night and work and work and keep on working,” he told Crikey.