Bill Shorten loses 2019 election ANU study election
Bill Shorten concedes defeat. (Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

If Sigmund Freud were around to observe the 2019 federal election he might have reckoned that sometimes a dud leader is just a dud leader.

The first longitudinal study on what happened to cause the election result almost everyone got wrong says increasing public antipathy towards Labor leader Bill Shorten was the single biggest driver of support towards the Coalition during the campaign period.

The Australian National University’s Centre for Social & Research Methods has just dropped its initial findings on the election, a look at how and why sentiment changed between its regular surveys held in April and June — a timespan covering the whole of the campaign leading to the May 18 poll.

This regular panel of 1844 respondents found the predominant reason for vote-switching was voters’ view of Shorten, with almost 28% of previously Labor-inclined voters giving this as their motivation. This was more than double any positive impact Labor received from Shorten’s leadership during the campaign — meaning for every two who were turned off Shorten, he could only inspire one voter.

This data set is the first scientific confirmation of the anecdotal evidence during the campaign and feedback after the poll. It explains why the Coalition’s focus was aimed so forcefully at Shorten himself, especially on social media. The ANU study also presents evidence that flies in the face of the conservative narrative that Labor’s policies were its death knell. Opposition policy announcements, generally, were in the fourth grouping of vote-switching drivers, ranking below views of the local candidate, views of Shorten and views of Scott Morrison.

The study, in fact, shows Labor had a net gain from its policies during the campaign with 20.7% of former Coalition voters saying this was one of the reasons for switching to the opposition. This compared to 11.9% of voters who had previously voted ALP, moving to back the government.

Interestingly, of those who shifted their support from Labor to the Coalition because of ALP policies, the biggest share represented those in the lowest economic group — people who were the least likely to be impacted by the opposition’s plans on taxes and dividends but were the most risk-averse of those surveyed.

Overall, the ANU study concluded the Coalition’s vote grew by 7.2% during the campaign, Labor recorded negligible change, Greens’ support shrunk by 2.6% and “others” lost a whopping 42% of their intending voter pool.

Those who were inclined to switch to the Coalition tended to be older Australians, women, non-Indigenous, non-university educated, and living outside the most disadvantaged areas of the country.

The ANU study includes a longer view of sentiment, looking at its panel’s attitudes from November 2018. The broader story here is that voters moved away from the Coalition from November 2018 until April 2019, and then subsequently switched back over the course of the campaign. This confirms the Coalition’s campaigning skills — approaching the 2019 election as an event where they had forensically identified Labor’s key weakness, Shorten’s leadership, and maximised their attack on it when it mattered.

The lesson from the ANU study for the polling companies is they need to find a way to chart volatility and include it in their surveys. After all, Australia’s usually “most trusted” poll, Newspoll, was 3.5% out from the election result just weeks before May 18, numbers that are at the extremes of the margin of error.

The ANU study shows Labor needs to use the net positive approval of new leader Anthony Albanese — plus seven points in the last Newspoll — to establish a connection with voters. Also, some of the kneejerk calls to junk its suite of 2019 campaign policies should be treated with caution. The policy story is clearly much more nuanced and needs a considered response.

Also, if the Coalition wants build on its own success they will need a serious policy agenda and political strategy which extends beyond “we’re not Bill Shorten”.

Dennis Atkins is a freelance writer based in Brisbane where he was a national political editor during the Howard government. He is filling in for part of the time while Bernard Keane is enjoying a break.

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