It’s not yet clear just how they’ll work, but the Howard government seems set to go ahead with its plan to arrange plebiscites on local government amalgamation in Queensland, to be held in conjunction with the federal election (whenever that might be).

The idea is that the polls will channel voter anger over the issue, in the hope that will hurt federal Labor’s chances – even though Kevin Rudd opposes the amalgamations as well. It’s an ingenious plan, but there’s some evidence that it might not work the way the government hopes.

This is another case where the Coalition could be misled by the experience of the United States. There, voter-initiated referenda have been used by both sides to energise their supporters: most famously, the polls on gay marriage coinciding with the 2004 presidential election, which were credited with delivering the key state of Ohio to the Republicans.

But the US is crucially different because of voluntary voting; it’s less a matter of changing people’s minds than of motivating them to show up to the polls. Conservative Christians who might otherwise have stayed home turned out to oppose gay marriage, and once there they also voted for George Bush. In Australia, with compulsory voting, that dynamic is absent.

Australian experience suggests that voters are quite capable of distinguishing between referenda and elections. The presence of a referendum question may even act as a sort of safety valve; having expressed their view on that, voters may feel less need to let it affect their vote in the election.

A number of governments in the past have been re-elected despite simultaneous referendum defeat. For example, in 1974 the Whitlam government put up four constitutional changes, all of which went down by substantial margins, but voters still narrowly returned the government to office.

An even more striking case (raised by a commenter on Poll Bludger) was the 1933 secession referendum in Western Australia. Voters approved secession by a 2-1 margin, but at the same time threw out the government that had proposed it, electing the anti-secessionist ALP in its place.

On the other hand, John Howard doesn’t need to make Kevin Rudd as unpopular as council amalgamations are. The anti-amalgamation votes, if they take place, will probably be carried by huge margins (as were those held in Victoria in the early 1990s, which the Kennett government ignored).

So if even a little of that anger rubs off on federal Labor, it might deliver the government a welcome boost.


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