What makes someone vote for “other” parties? To resist the blandishments of the Coalition, Labor and the Greens and support One Nation, or Family First, or NXT? Some new data from Essential Research seems to confirm the intuitive impression that they are motivated by pessimism and a conviction the country is steadily getting worse.

There are some obvious factors in the appeal of key “other” players. Nick Xenophon is now a well-established political brand, combining an outsider’s political integrity, centrism and economic nationalism of the kind that was economic orthodoxy 30 years ago with a political base confined — currently — to South Australia. One Nation is a haven of racists and misogynists convinced the Family Court system is biased against men and the immigration system is out of control. But how do the people who vote for them see the world?

Essential asked voters “compared with 50 years ago, do you think life for people like you in Australia today is better, worse or about the same?”, and the results are fascinating. Greens voters — despite the right-wing claim that they want to drag the world back to the days of the rude hut — are the most optimistic: 60% say things are better now than in 1966. And Coalition voters are the next most optimistic — 54% say things are better, including 26% who say things are a lot better; 47% of Labor voters say things are better — although that result might change if there were a Labor government, given what we know about how which party is in power affects how people view the world

But just 27% of “other” voters say things are better, with 57% saying things are worse for people like them than 50 years ago. That could reflect the small sample size of “other” voters — around 13% of Essential’s 1000-odd respondents (the Greens sample is also small). But Essential also asked “do you think life for the next generation of Australians will be better, worse or about the same compared with life today?” Again, “other” voters were by far the most pessimistic.


Older voters were also less optimistic on that question, as they were on looking back (and of course having actually lived 50 years ago notionally gives them a greater capacity to answer the question), but were still less gloomy than “other” voters — two-thirds of whom thought things would be worse for the next generation. And the feeling is a strong one — 28% say life is “a lot worse” than 50 years ago; 34% say things will “a lot worse” for the next generation.

The other interesting split is on income and education — high income-earners and university-educated respondents were more likely to see things improving; those on low incomes and who had not completed year 12 were more likely to see things as getting worse.

If accurate, the results suggest “other” voters’ experience of the world differs significantly from major party voters (including the Greens) in seeing the world as constantly getting worse, despite the fact that Australians are richer, healthier, better educated and face less discrimination than ever before. But people who vote for minor parties don’t experience, or don’t believe they experience, these benefits to the same extent as the rest of us — they have lower incomes and less education (I’d suggest it’s probable they have poorer health and poorer health services, too, but there’s no evidence for that). That explains at least part of their opposition to market economics, which have delivered rising prosperity to Australians since the 1980s: they simply don’t see that improvement, and they believe things are actually worse than they used to be — and getting worse all the time. In this, they differ markedly from the Coalition voters they resemble on social issues and the Labor voters they resemble on economic issues. And socially conscious, often urban-based professionals who are more likely to vote Green are in a sense their diametric opposites in that worldview.