Coming as it did at a time of chronic wage stagnation and worsening economic malaise, many explanations for Scott Morrison’s surprise election win have turned on cultural rather than economic factors.
In particular, conservatives smarting from the same-sex marriage defeat in November 2017 were keen to claim vindication from a victory built on thumping Liberal swings in areas with high rates of religious observance. As well as outer suburbia and regional Queensland, this phenomenon was said to encompass areas of Sydney which, being dominated by non-western immigrants, were immune from the depredations of “cultural Marxism”.
Such areas had also been notable for their resistance to same-sex marriage, for which western Sydney and rural Queensland stood apart from the rest of the country in returning majority no-votes.
The point was acknowledged by Labor’s Chris Bowen, who, after copping a 5.6% swing in his western Sydney seat of McMahon, said it had frequently been put to him that “people of faith no longer feel that progressive politics cares about them”.
Not everyone is convinced by the “Bowen thesis”, as it was described by academics Andrew Jakubowicz and Christina Ho in The Conversation. Alternative explanations offered for Labor’s sagging support in migrant areas of Sydney included economic issues, a backfiring of Labor’s promise to expand parental reunion visas, and adroit Liberal campaigning among the Chinese community.
However, all of this was based on an impressionistic view of swings at polling booth and electorate level, which can be apt to mislead if extrapolated to the many different types of voters who live alongside each other.
For more instructive insights into what motivated religious voters, migrant or otherwise, those of us without access to internal party research will have to await the publication of the Australian National University’s regular in-depth Australian Election Study survey.
We can, however, glean useful insights from Australian Election Study results of the recent past — and what they show is that religious voters are indeed unusual in their electoral volatility, and hence in their importance to the calculations of political strategists.
As may be expected, those who reported attending religious services at least once a month leaned conservative relative to the rest of the population, but they nonetheless broke evenly on two-party preferred at Labor’s modern high water mark of 2007.
However, this was followed at subsequent elections by a forceful backlash, for which perceptions of the party leaders appeared to be the main driver. Kevin Rudd bucked the usual pattern of Labor leaders being rated less trustworthy by religious than non-religious voters, both in 2007 and 2013, although his standing on the latter occasion was so low across the board as to preclude it being much use to him.
He also faced in 2013 the polarising force of Tony Abbott, who recorded some of the best ratings of recent times among churchgoers, and some of the worst among the non-religious.
The results from the 2016 survey provide some support for the notion, popular on the right of the Liberal Party, that Malcolm Turnbull brought the government to the brink of defeat by losing religious voters, who appear to have flocked back to the party under Morrison.
Notably, the fact that non-religious voters trusted Turnbull a lot more than they did Abbott did not translate into extra votes for the Coalition, whereas a two-party swing to Labor of 7% was recorded among the religiously observant. It may be noted that religious observance is continuing to undergo a steady long-term decline, with 47% of respondents to the 2016 Australian Election Study reporting that they never attended services, compared with 37% in the first such survey in 1987.
However, this is happening far too slowly to do Labor much good in the short term — and the striking fact remains that by far their best result of the last quarter century was achieved under the leadership of a devout church-goer from Queensland.