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An Australian Electoral Commission study reveals Labor would have lost the 2010 Federal Election but for a large number of deliberate informal protest votes in western Sydney. The challenge for the ALP in 2013 is to win those disillusioned supporters back. Wells Haslem Special Counsel, Michael Baume, explains.

Unless Federal Labor solves its deliberate “protest” informal vote crisis in its traditional heartland of western Sydney, it will lose this year’s federal election – no matter how many of the coalition’s marginal Queensland seats may also be at risk. 

When Labor lost enough seats in 2010 to wipe out its majority in the House of Representatives, it was only saved from the loss of several more because disillusioned Labor voters chose to cast an informal ballot, such as blank ones or with protest scribbles or slogans, rather than to switch to the coalition. This resulted in a more than doubling of deliberately informal votes in several seats in western Sydney, as adjudged by the Australian Electoral Commission. 

The problem this has created for Labor is that this clearly flexible vote (much of which apparently did go to the Liberals in the 2011 state election) exceeds the swing needed to lose several of these seats this year, some of them previously regarded as rusted-on Labor. 

The deliberately informal vote in western Sydney’s Labor marginals like Greenway of 3.74% spells the kiss of death where it only takes a swing of less than 1% to lose the seat, and the same goes for Lindsay with a 3.2% deliberately informal vote and a 1.12% margin. 

And formerly safe seats like Banks and Reid are now in the equation, with Labor’s majority in Banks of only 1.45% being less than half the deliberate informal vote of 3.36% and Reid’s margin of 2.7% is well below the 3.3% of deliberate informals. 

And when other NSW seats are added to the list, such as Robertson whose 1% margin is way under the 2.5% deliberate informal vote, the magnitude of Labor’s problem becomes evident even before estimates are made about the extent to which the anti-Labor swing in the 2011 NSW state election may carry over to the federal poll.

This is an issue for those safer Labor seats where the volume of deliberately informal votes is even bigger, rising to 5.73% in Blaxland out of a total informal vote of 14.6% against a margin of 12% and in Watson it is 5.06% out of 12.8% informal, against a majority of 9%. Others identified by the AEC as in the big league for deliberately informal votes in western Sydney are Fowler, Chifley, McMahon, Werriwa, Barton and Parramatta.So what will these disillusioned voters do after three years of Julia Gillard? 

The internal polling reported in November by the Fairfax media that 10 seats in NSW, predominantly in western Sydney, could fall, gives a hint of what the answer will be. 

It listed two ministers, Small Business’s Chris Bowen in McMahon and Environment’s Tony Burke in Watson as being in the firing line, with Cabinet Secretary Jason Clare in Blaxland facing a “close call”.  
This may explain Clare’s recent January intervention on the state issue of crime in western Sydney and Julia Gillard’s all-talk-but-no-funding announcement of a Clare-led investigation into ways to reduce suburban violence and crime.

As Tony Abbott appropriately commented, the federal government should be doing a lot better in protecting our borders from criminal activity, including illegal imports of weapons.

So these federal Labor seats may be at risk in NSW not simply on the basis of the hiding Labor received in western Sydney in the 2011 state election; in the past there has been little correlation between state and federal outcomes, evidenced, for example, by Neville Wran’s 1976 victory coming within months of Malcolm Fraser’s overwhelming 1975 win.


‘… massive falls in Labor support in the seven months from the 2010 federal poll … go far beyond the conventional view that many voters really do discriminate between state and federal issues and vote accordingly.’

But the volume of voters who deliberately voted informal federally in 2010 rather than vote against their Labor MPs suggests that maybe these “protesters” make up a sizeable proportion of the many thousands who switched to O’Farrell in 2011 and will follow suit to Abbott in 2013. 

An insight into the extent of this potential threat to federal Labor is provided by a background paper by the ABC’s Antony Green for the NSW Parliamentary Library which relates state election results with the 2010 federal vote adjusted to state electoral boundaries. 

They show massive falls in Labor support in the seven months from the 2010 federal poll that go far beyond the conventional view that many voters really do discriminate between state and federal issues and vote accordingly.

‘… there is still some merit in relating the collapse in Labor support in seats that lie within vulnerable federal electorates to comparable federal election results. This indicates dire consequences for Labor’s NSW marginal seats, four of which would go with a mini-swing of 1.5%’

There is no doubt that some of the anti-Labor fervour revealed by the 16% swing in the NSW 2011 state election may have already been reflected in Labor’s 4.84% drop in its federal 2010 NSW vote to only 48.84%% (giving the Abbott coalition a 51.16% majority in NSW), and that it may have diminished as the memory of the unpopular Labor state governments fade away despite media reports of enquiries into allegations of ministerial corruption. 

But there is still some merit in relating the collapse in Labor support in seats that lie within vulnerable federal electorates to comparable federal election results. 

This indicates dire consequences for Labor’s NSW marginal seats, four of which would go with a mini-swing of 1.5%, so giving the coalition a lower house absolute majority. For example Robertson includes the state seats of Gosford and Terrigal, with the former showing a cut from Labor’s federal election vote in comparable booths of 53.6% in 2010 to only 38.1%% in 2011, and Terrigal dropping from 46.7% to 25.9%. Neighbouring Dobell includes The Entrance down from 54.6% to 37.5% and Wyong down from 59.7% to 47.4%. Lindsay covers Penrith, with a cut in federal Labor’s 50.5% to 33.7% and Mulgoa down from 52% to 38%. Greenway includes Riverstone, down from 46% to 29.8%. Page takes in Clarence, almost halved from 51.6% to 28.6% and Lismore more than halved from 56.7% to 25.7%. And Eden-Monaro encompasses Bega where Labor dropped from 52.4% to 31.4% and Monaro down from 55.7% to 47.9%. 

‘… there is nothing in the Electoral Act to prevent a P.J. O’Rourke “don’t vote, it only encourages the bastards” campaign.’

So what will happen in this year’s election to the record number of deliberately informal votes of 2010 has the potential to change the government. And there is nothing illegal about voting informal – or even encouraging people to do so. The distinction between being required by law to vote and yet being able legally to avoid voting for anyone was demonstrated by former Labor leader Mark Latham, who satisfied his desperate need to overcome what former Labor Foreign Affairs minister Gareth Evans described a “relevance deprivation syndrome” by proposing on national television during the 2010 election campaign that Australians follow his lead by turning up at the polling place, as required by law, having your name checked off and then simply inserting a blank ballot paper in the box. 

It is, he said, “The ultimate protest vote”.  While the Electoral Act requires Australians to register to vote and to attend a polling place, defines what are formal and informal votes and lists penalties for misleading or deceptive conduct that “might lead a voter to fail to record a valid vote...,” Latham was in the clear, as an AEC spokesman confirmed; his conduct (in this case, at least) was not misleading or deceptive, even though he clearly sought to subvert the intentions of the Act. And there is nothing in the Electoral Act to prevent a P.J. O’Rourke “don’t vote, it only encourages the bastards” campaign. 

So maybe the answer on September 14 will be an even bigger deliberately informal vote; there is a level of disillusionment about political parties that needs addressing for the sake of a healthy democracy.