As any taxi driver will tell you, voters don’t like politicians. But that doesnt mean that voters are less interested in politics than they used to be—indeed, quite the reverse. Our 40 year retrospective on Australian voting behavior shows that voters are more interested in politics than they used to be. And they are more likely to care who wins the election.
Voters are also more volatile than at any time in the past. One in three voters make up their minds on how to vote during the course of the election campaign, compared to one in four voters 20 years ago. Nor are voters as loyal as they used to be: the proportion who always vote for the same party has declined from 72 percent in 1967 to 50 percent in 2004.
Voters are also less likely to follow the election on the mass media. The high point of television’s importance in election campaigns was in 1969, when two-thirds of voters said that they followed the election on TV. In 2004, the same figure was just 28 percent. Following election news on the radio and in newspapers show similar dramatic declines.
The main exception to this pattern of declining relevance for the mass media is the internet. In 1998, just 4 percent used the internet as a source of election information; by 2004 that had increased to 12 percent. In this election, we would expect the internet to surpass radio and newspapers as a purveyor of election information.
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What is clear from these long term trends is that voters are less attracted by the symbols and methods of traditional politics, but that they remain interested in the contest and the election outcome. Politicians have been notably slow to realize the potential of the internet for politics. The use of YouTube by the major party leaders is a belated recognition of the internet’s importance in converting voters.
The trends in political opinion reveal other fascinating aspects of changing Australian voting. Health and education are by far the dominant issues that concern voters; with a prosperous economy, unemployment is now rarely an issue for voters. Labor leads as the preferred party on health and education (though their lead over Labor has declined on health). The Liberals are preferred on issues of economic management, such as interest rates and taxation.
With a booming economy and much lower levels of industrial conflict, the trade unions are viewed as much less of a concern by voters than at any time in the last 40 years. Indeed, since the late 1990s more voters have been concerned about the power of big business than about the unions.
And at the end of the day, are Australian voters satisfied with their democracy? The overwhelming opinion is yes; in 2004, 82 percent were satisfied with Australian democracy, the highest number since the question was first asked in 1969. And we are some of the most satisfied voters in the world, second only to Danish voters (94 percent satisfied), and ahead of Norway (80 percent), Switzerland (79 percent) and the United States (78 percent).
Trends in Australian Political Opinion: Results from the Australian Election Study, 1987-2004, by Professor Ian McAllister from ANU and Dr Juliet Clarke from Deakin University was released today.