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Where Is the political centre?

By Tim O'Hare - posted Monday, 17 September 2018


The notion of 'governing for the centre' was popular under the government of Malcolm Turnbull and it suited Turnbull, positioning his socially liberal and economically conservative views against Bill Shorten on the perceived Left and Tony Abbott on the perceived Right. It also suited the ABC and other perceived left-wing media outlets as it allowed them to manufacture a narrative against personally popular Turnbull by claiming that he was hostage to the right-wing of the Liberal Party.

Yet when you break it down this characterisation appears tenuous and self-serving.

The 'centre', is a nebulous concept but implicit in the notion of a political 'centre' is being able to connect with the mainstream voter. Although Turnbull personally polled well (at least before becoming Prime Minister and in the first few months of assuming office), it is fair to say that he did not have the same common touch as say Bob Hawke or John Howard.

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Turnbull was educated at Sydney Grammar School and, although he was on a partial scholarship, Turnbull's tales of hardship were cringed at by most Australians during the 2016 election campaign.

Hawke and Howard both had a decent upbringing and education at selective public schools, but neither of them felt the need to over-emphasize their hardship and when Hawke and Howard claimed to be in touch with voters, it felt authentic. Turnbull, on the other hand, never looked comfortable when talking to voters and his presence at sporting events felt like forced photo opportunities whereas with Hawke and Howard it felt like they genuinely would be there if they were without public office.

Personalities aside, I would like to focus on the macro question of just what is the 'middle' voter?

Conventional political wisdom would have it that the middle voter is the person who swings between the major parties and is not wedded to either one. They vote for parties based on policy and their perceived competence. It is 'middle' voters that parties traditionally focused their resources into as they were the ones who decide elections. The same is presumably true today although phenomena such as focus-groups, triangulation and the rise of minor parties, means that the middle ground is less tangible.

In that case, is the 'middle' voter concerned with the same issues as Malcolm Turnbull – i e company tax cuts, the Paris Agreement, gay marriage and an Australian Republic?

Turnbull may argue that they are but if we are to understand who these fabled 'middle' voters are, then the best thing would be to look at marginal seats.

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The top 10 marginal seats are Herbert (0.02%), Hindmarsh (0.58%), Capricornia (0.63%), Forde (0.63%), Cowan (0.68%), Gilmore (0.73%), Flynn (1.04%), Lindsay (1.11%) Robertson (1.14%) and Chisholm (1.24%).

Of these seats, four are in Queensland (Capricornia, Flynn, Forde and Herbert), three are in New South Wales (Lindsay, Gilmore, Robertson) and there is one each in South Australia, Victoria and Western Australia (Hindmarsh, Chisholm and Cowan, respectively).

The fact that a plurality of the marginal seats are in Queensland puts Peter Dutton's leadership bid into context. Queensland is considered to be Australia's most conservative state and it is unlikely that the Coalition could retain government without holding onto its marginal seats in Queensland (and also possibly winning Herbert from Labor).

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About the Author

Tim O'Hare is a Brisbane-based, History graduate from the University of Queensland. He is a freelance commentator on political and cultural issues with specific reference to economics, education and free speech. Along with his commentary on social media, online publications and blogging he also finds creative expression in stand up comedy in a variety of bars in and around the Brisbane CBD.

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