The gradual changes in voting behaviour represent an existential crisis for the Liberals going forward, write Dr Sarah Cameron and Professor Ian McAllister.
The 2022 Australian federal election was distinctive in two ways.
First, it was held in the wake of a major crisis – the COVID-19 pandemic. While the salience of the pandemic had subsided by the time of the election, voters’ assessments of the Coalition government’s performance on the pandemic proved to be a major factor in their voting decision, as did the cost of living crisis it helped create.
Second, almost one in three voters cast their ballots for a minor party or independent candidate, the highest since the 1930s. Of the two major parties, the Liberals fared worst, winning their lowest seat share since 1946 (the first election the party contested). But Labor didn’t reap the benefits of this Liberal decline, with the party recording its lowest primary vote since the 1930s.
What explains this seismic result, and what does it tell us about the future of electoral politics in Australia?
Using the just-released 2022 Australian Election Study (AES) – a comprehensive post-election survey conducted at each election since 1987 – we can answer these questions.
A perception of poor government performance played a key role in the Coalition defeat. In 2022 there were three performance explanations for the Coalition’s defeat – the economy, the pandemic, and Scott Morrison’s leadership.
With rising inflation and a cost of living crisis, around two-thirds of voters thought the economy had worsened in the 12 months leading up to the election. This was the most pessimistic view of the economy in over three decades.
In previous elections, voters have usually preferred the Coalition over Labor on economic issues. In 2022, however, voters preferred Labor over the Coalition on the cost of living – the single biggest issue in the election.
The Coalition’s performance on the pandemic was also regarded as unsatisfactory. Just 30 per cent of Australians thought the federal government had handled the pandemic well. Indeed, voters had much more favourable views of their state governments’ performance. Because virtually the whole period between the 2019 and 2022 elections was dominated by the pandemic, the public’s evaluations of the Morrison government’s performance were therefore closely associated with the pandemic.
The third reason for the Coalition defeat was the negative opinions many voters formed of Morrison’s leadership. While Morrison was generally popular when he won the election in 2019, by 2022 he had become the most unpopular major party leader since at least 1987. Morrison wasn’t considered honest and trustworthy, two of the traits most closely associated with how favourable we view leaders. The public’s dislike of Morrison has its origins in his Hawaii holiday during the 2019-20 bushfires, and was strengthened by a perception of poor performance in the second year of the pandemic.
Labor won the election despite their record low vote and a 0.8 per cent swing against them. Indeed one newspaper described it as a “victory by default”.
During the election campaign, Labor adopted a “small target” strategy. While Labor fought the 2019 election on ambitious proposals for tax reform, in the 2022 election they avoided putting forward policies that would deter voters, and emphasised their policy agreement with the Coalition – even promising to keep the Coalition’s stage three income tax cuts.
The effects of this change in Labor strategy are evident in the AES data. Fewer voters cast their ballots based on policy preferences than in 2019, and the proportion of voters who saw “a good deal of difference” between the parties declined from 40 per cent in 2019 to 28% in 2022.
Labor also entered the election with Anthony Albanese as leader, who was more popular than both Scott Morrison and Labor’s predecessor, Bill Shorten. The previous majority government win for Labor in 2007 was one that generally inspired voters. Indeed in 2007, Kevin Rudd was the most popular prime minister in the history of the AES, and satisfaction with democracy was at a record high at that time.
By contrast, Labor’s 2022 win was more about directing attention to the Coalition’s weak performance, rather than putting forward a policy agenda that was really attractive to voters.
The 2022 election brought into sharp focus two major changes in party support that have been slowly eroding the social bases of the major parties: gender and generation.
There’s a significant gender gap in voter behaviour – since the early 2000s, fewer women have voted for the Coalition than men. Labor has the opposite gender voting gap, attracting more votes from women than men (though to a lesser extent).
Since 2016, the gender gap in voting has been greater than in all previous elections covered by the AES. In 2022 just 32 per cent of women voted for the Coalition, the lowest share ever. One contributing factor to this collapse in female support for the Coalition is the treatment of women within the Liberal party.
The divide between how younger and older generations of Australians vote is more pronounced than the gender gap. Millennials (the oldest of whom are now in their 40s) and Generation Z (those born after 1996) make up an increasing proportion of the electorate, greatly outnumbering Baby Boomers.
These younger generations have different voting patterns to previous generations at the same stage of life, and are also much further to the left in their party preferences. Just 27 per cent of Millennials said they voted for the Coalition in 2022.
At no time in the 35-year history of the AES has there been such a low level of support for either major party among younger people.
The assumption that Millennials and Gen Z will shift to the right as they age hasn’t been supported by the evidence thus far. Which generation one is in seems to have a much more significant effect on voting behaviour than one’s age.
Therefore, the implication is the electorate is moving further to the left and becoming more progressive across a range of policy areas.
As the traditional social bases of the major parties have gradually changed, so too have the political ties that have bound voters to parties. Around one in four voters say they don’t have an attachment to a political party, the highest figure ever recorded in the AES. The proportion of voters who considered voting for another party during the election campaign, at 36 per cent, has at no time been higher.
This is reflected most dramatically in the proportion of voters who said they had always voted for the same party. In 1967 this figure was 72 per cent, and in 2022 it declined to an all-time low of 37 per cent.
If voters are drifting away from the major parties, who are they choosing instead and what are the implications for the party system?
The “teal” independents were obviously an important beneficiary. However, most teal voters were former Labor and Green voters casting a tactical vote to unseat a Liberal candidate. The medium-term fate of the teals will depend on how far they can create a distinct political identity to hold their support together at the 2025 election. More broadly, support for minor parties and independent candidates will continue to increase.
The gradual changes in voting behaviour that are taking place, and which were especially pronounced in the 2022 election, represent an existential crisis for the Liberals. With their support base declining through generational replacement, they must not only attract new voters but also stem defection to give themselves a chance of election.
As the political agenda moves towards support for action on climate change, constitutional recognition for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and (perhaps) moving to a republic – all issues on which the Coalition is divided – it’s unclear where these new voters will come from.
Dr Sarah Cameron is a Senior Lecturer in Public Policy at Griffith University. Professor Ian McAllister is Distinguished Professor of Political Science at The Australian National University.
Treasurer of Australia Jim Chalmers joins Mark Kenny and Marija Taflaga to discuss the future of Australia’s economy and society.