What makes someone a Labor, Liberal or Greens voter? Normally that question is hard to answer because, as we’ve seen over the years from Essential Report’s data, voting intention strongly influences how people respond to policy issues and view the economy — even their own personal financial situation.

But some data from this week’s Essential Report enables us to flip that and look at what issues are important to different kinds of voters. Essential asked voters to nominate the three issues most important to them. “Improving our health system” is important for all voters — nominated as one, two or three by 47% of voters, which accords with what we know of voters’ stated views on what shapes their voting decisions: “the economy” and “health” come first and second and then it’s daylight to the rest. In this question, different aspects of the economy have been split up: “reducing unemployment” is second, on 37%, for all voters; third, “reducing the budget deficit”, on 32%. But the deficit is the issue most frequently nominated as the number one important issue — 16% of people say it’s first on their list, compared to 14% who put health top. So, as always, the economy and health dominate as issues of concern.

But different voters rate issues differently. Women and men differ markedly on health: 52% of women rate health services as important, compared to 42% of men. Concern about health services also rises with age. Protecting wages and conditions is of more importance to people in the workforce than younger or older voters; addressing climate change is much more important for younger voters than older ones, higher-income voters don’t rate housing affordability as important as much as others. None of these are unexpected, but other breakdowns surprise: higher-income voters rate investment in public transport more highly than lower-income voters, and also say more funding for higher education is important more often than lower income voters.

More substantial splits, however, occur based on voting intention. The most important issue for Coalition voters is reducing the budget deficit — nominated by 60% as important — compared to 46% who nominated health. Third for conservatives was national security and terrorism (35%) ahead of reducing unemployment (33%). At the bottom of the list for Coalition voters are environmental issues (5%) and climate action (8%).

One issue that rates surprisingly highly for all voters and for Coalition voters is tax avoidance (both groups, 27%). In fact, tax avoidance rates about the same for voters regardless of voting intention — Labor (29%), Greens (30%) and Other (31%). Few voters rate it as their number one issue — only 9% said tax avoidance was their most important — but it suggests that multinational tax avoidance, which has received far more attention this year than recently, and which was the subject of focus at the G20, has broken through with the electorate this year (perhaps it’s one of the reasons why voters so persistently nominate higher corporate tax as their preferred solution to fixing the deficit). It may also explain why the government — which may have picked up the issue in its focus group work — is continuing to push on the issue, with Treasurer Joe Hockey flagging following the UK in cracking down on profit-shifting.

In contrast to conservatives, more Labor voters rate health as important (53%) than anything else, then unemployment, then “protecting workers wages and conditions” (34%), then tax avoidance, education and housing affordability. If that’s a little stereotypical — Coalition voters are fiscal disciplinarians and national security obsessives who don’t care about the environment, while Labor voters are worried about bread and butter issues and their jobs and conditions, Greens voters defy stereotyping. This is only a small sample — around 100-odd voters, but enough to identify some key traits — 60% of Greens voters rate climate action as important, and 45% protecting the environment, so the sample can’t be too far wrong.  After climate action and the environment, it’s health, unemployment and tax avoidance, but “investing in public transport”, which one would assume would be a priority for latte-sipping inner-city types, only rates with 17%, and “protecting workers wages and conditions” rates with only 10%, below even Coalition voters (16%), while “housing affordability” rates with only 15%, the same as Coalition voters.

And “Other” voters, which includes the last few remaining PUP voters, continue to be split — Labor-like on economic issues, Coalition-like on social issues. Health and unemployment are their top issues; on reducing the deficit, they’re much closer to Labor voters than Coalition voters, and similar to Labor voters on protecting workers’ wages and conditions. But they also rate national security highly as Coalition voters do and have little interest in climate action or protecting the environment.

A quick comparison of those outcomes with the government’s agenda this year might suggest why things have gone so badly astray: the government has hammered the deficit and national security, but that mainly appeals to its own voters; it has proposed making health services more expensive, something that concerns all voters, and the economy has softened, increasing concerns about unemployment. On the plus side, Joe Hockey has been reasonably active on tax avoidance, although we’re yet to see any concrete moves there. It could yet be an issue that gets the government on side with voters of all stripes.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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