‘Quiet Australians’ and tax scare keep government in place

Liberal-National coalition remains in power as opinion polls get predictions very wrong

The question everyone in Australia with any interest in politics is asking is this: how did the pollsters get it so wrong?

As counting of votes in the three final seats continued a week after Australia’s general election, it was clear the Liberal-National coalition had been returned to power with 78 MPs.

With a five-seat majority, the coalition can govern without needing the support of independent or minor party MPs.

Until counting of votes began following last weekend’s election, polling numbers had indicated that the opposition Labor Party would win 80 seats or more. Instead it will end up with 67, two fewer than in the previous parliament.


Prime minister Scott Morrison, who seemed as surprised as anyone to have retained his job, thanked the "quiet Australians" who voted for the coalition.

"Quiet Australians" include religious conservatives. While Donald Trump panders to the US religious right with the zeal of a convert, Morrison is the real deal, an actual Pentecostal convert.

Labor's shadow treasurer Chris Bowen, whose western Sydney seat has both the highest Catholic population in the country and also a high Muslim population, said religion was a factor in the election. "People of faith no longer feel that progressive politics cares about them," he said. Bowen retained his seat, but suffered a 5.5 per cent swing against him.

Tax vs religion

He was attempting to distract from a bigger factor in Labor’s loss. After its leader Bill Shorten announced he was stepping down, Bowen was in the running to replace him. But party hardheads had a word and pointed out that, as shadow treasurer, he would be blamed for Labor’s tax policies, which were a bigger factor in the vote than religion.

Bowen was the architect of Labor’s policy of ending franking credits and negative gearing. Franking credits are the billions of dollars paid to retired share owners as a tax return, despite them not having paid any or enough tax to offset in the first place. Negative gearing allows landlords a tax write-off for the difference between how much rent their property generates and how much they pay in their mortgage.

Though ending franking credits would have affected very few people, the coalition spun it into a “retiree tax” that many thought would affect everyone over 65. It was blatant deception, but it worked. Just as effective was a scare campaign about Labor’s plan for a “death tax”. A plan that didn’t exist. This wasn’t deceptive, it was a straight-out lie.

Negative gearing changes would have affected a lot of people, but Labor said it would make housing more affordable for first-time buyers. The party insisted its negative gearing policy would not cause property values to fall. How then, could they be more affordable?

Maths ‘violated’

If causes of Labor's losses are easier to see with 20:20 hindsight, the reasons the polling companies got it so wrong are less clear. But there have already been consequences. The Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne's Age newspapers have severed their relationship with the polling company Ipsos.

Prof Brian Schmidt, a Nobel Laureate in physics and vice-chancellor of the Australian National University, said in an analysis that he knew something was wrong with the polls "because they were all saying the same thing with a collective similarity that violates the fundamentals of mathematics". Schmidt says sampling errors were introduced through human error. "Whatever led to the five polling companies to illegitimately converge on the same answer, must be a significant contributor."

As for the government, it has a blank slate. It brought very few policies to the election, mostly relying on opposing Labor’s plans in scare campaigns. Having won the public’s imprimatur, the coalition is free to continue as it was and bring in any new policies it wants to.

Labor and the Greens billed the poll as "the climate election", but it wasn't. The coalition's victory shows a tax scare campaign trumps concerns for the environment, and Labor is back to square one and, for now at least, leaderless and rudderless.

Pádraig Collins

Pádraig Collins

Pádraig Collins a contributor to The Irish Times based in Sydney