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From left field: preaching to the converted doesn't attract swingers

By Warwick Powell - posted Monday, 15 October 2001

Labor is most comfortable when talking to the converted, but that’s not enough.

Winning elections is about building coalitions of support that give you the majority of the two-party preferred vote in the majority of electorates. That’s why targeting demographic groups to build this coalition of support is critical to efficient electoral politics.

If people still doubt the centrality of the "distribution of swings" to understanding political gains and losses, cast your mind back to the 1998 Queensland state election when One Nation won 11 seats in the Legislative Assembly with nowhere near 30 per cent of the state-wide two-party preferred vote. They experienced electoral success on that occasion because their swings were concentrated in a certain number of electorates.


So, how are the two main parties performing in 2001 when it comes to demographic targeting? As my previous comments would suggest, my hunch is that the Coalition is getting more impact for the buck as its policies are on the one hand more aggressively targeted to benefit (and woo) the typical swinging voter group, and on the other geared towards exploiting the cultural myopia and xenophobia of the One Nation demographic.

On the flip side, Labor’s GST roll back plan is hitting below the mark because the main beneficiaries will be those who earn low-medium to low incomes, who are not traditionally in the swinging voter category.

But tax is only one dimension, and Labor’s launch fleshes out its policy package as it seeks to build the coalition of support it needs to win government. So is the "complete" package going to make things any better for Labor?

I won’t argue the policy merits or otherwise of the parties’ proposals. Instead, the focus is narrowly on the demographic impact of policies from the perspective of voting behaviour.

Demographically, again it appears that Labor’s policies are geared to appeal most to those families and individuals earning low-medium incomes, public sector workers and university academics.

The politics of ‘Medicare card over credit card’ and ‘public schools versus private school privilege’ makes for powerful rhetoric to the converted. It might even help stem the flow to a small extent of low income, low-education One Nation types to the Coalition by tapping into the veins of hatred of cultural elitism and financial envy.


Much of the Knowledge Nation agenda is about consolidating and growing the public sector because, for a Beazley Government, this represents the best solution to social and economic problems, and funding teachers. Demographic research shows very clear that these two groups fall strongly into the ALP voter profile, with some overlap with the Democrats. They aren’t soft Coalition voters or ‘genuinely’ volatile voters.

Lastly, academics are being enticed by funding promises geared to public sector/university research activities. This is probably the only area where Labor is reaching out. The demographic correlation research covering the Ryan by-election showed very clear, and somewhat counter-intuitively, that university sector workers were not attracted to the Labor agenda.

According to the research conducted using John Black’s "Elaborate" demographic model,

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About the Author

Warwick Powell was an advisor to the Queensland Labor Government 1992-1996, and was involved in marginal electorate campaigning. He is now a research consultant in private practice.

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