The July 4 byelection in the highly marginal NSW Labor seat of Eden-Monaro is shaping up to be “very close”, according to participants in focus group research conducted by the University of Canberra.
Climate change, job creation, the federal government’s response to the bushfires, and health care were most frequently nominated when people were asked to choose, from a list of 13, the issue that would be extremely or very important in informing how they would vote.
Climate change was nominated by six of the 16, with job creation chosen by three, followed by the government’s response on bushfires and health care (each nominated by two people). The government’s response to COVID-19, support for tourism and action on the high cost of living received one nomination each.
Most participants believed the summer fires would have a negative impact for the Coalition, and that this might make a difference in a close election.
On Tuesday Scott Morrison campaigned in Bega, with a $86 million package for the forestry industry, wine producers and apple growers hit by the bushfires and the effects of COVID-19. While the money is not confined to Eden-Monaro, its target is winning votes there. Anthony Albanese visited the pre-poll booth in Queanbeyan.
The three online focus groups, totalling 16 participants, were conducted by Mark Evans and Max Halupka of the university’s Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis. People were drawn from various parts of what is a very diverse electorate. Two groups were done last week and the other on Monday. Participants included Coalition, Labor and Green supporters, with a mix of firmly aligned and swinging voters.
Participants were asked their voting intentions and their responses suggested a Labor victory. Swinging voters seemed to have moved to Labor but hard Coalition and Labor voters are remaining loyal.
But it should be stressed focus groups are not predictive of the result, but rather tap into attitudes at a point in the campaign.
Asked about management of the COVID-19 crisis, NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian was seen as the best performer, followed by Morrison and the Chief Medical Officer, Brendan Murphy, who were equally regarded.
Albanese - who has campaigned extensively in Eden-Monaro - was seen as having a low profile throughout the pandemic crisis. In the words of one Labor swinging voter this was attributable to “his lack of a platform”. As another participant observed, “Crises are a great advantage for government”. Participants were luke warm about how good a job Albanese was doing in holding Morrison to account over the management of the COVID-19 crisis.
When asked who they listened to most when looking for guidance on COVID-19, people pointed to Norman Swan and the ABC.
Participants’ trust in Morrison has marginally increased as a result of his handling of COVID-19, but from a low level following the bushfire crisis. One man, a strong Coalition supporter, said the PM “needed to learn and has learned”.
A female Coalition swinging voter attributed Morrison’s improvement to “the national cabinet. He was given some good lessons in leadership and the group kept his tendencies under control.”
Discussing issues, people thought the federal government’s handling of the bushfire crisis suffered from poor federal leadership, inadequate preparation, and insufficient collaboration between federal and state governments.
Critics of the Morrison government’s handling of the fires included most of the hard Coalition voters – although it was not enough to change their vote.
There was also a perception the federal government had lost interest in the bushfire recovery process. “It makes sense to tackle the problem in front of you and that’s the virus,” said a Coalition supporter.
In the discussion, most participants saw a link between the bushfire crisis and the need for action on climate, and said their views on the importance of the climate issue had sharpened significantly over the past six months. There were some exceptions: “Older people don’t go with the mantra of climate change, though they know something is going on,” said a middle aged male Coalition voter.
Coalition voters were more focused on local issues – economic issues, better infrastructure and improved access to health care, education and transport. “The Coalition has the track record to get the economy back on track,” said one man.
People generally thought Australia was more resilient than most other countries to bounce back from the COVID-19 crisis. But they were worried about Australia’s economic vulnerability, particularly its dependence on China.
Participants wanted politicians to be more collaborative and less adversarial in a post-COVID-19 world and for experts to have a greater say in decision making. An older female Labor supporter said, “We need politicians to behave better and take community issues more seriously”, while a male Coalition voter opined, “we need more adult politics as the national cabinet has shown us”.
There was some concern the old politics would resume. “[The national cabinet] started well but it already seems to be falling apart,” said a hard-Labor voter.
In a field of 14 candidates, this is a Labor-Liberal battle, and both major parties are running female candidates with good local credentials. The Liberals’ Fiona Kotvojs, who pushed the former MP Mike Kelly close at the 2019 election, has a background in teaching, science, farming and small business; Labor’s Kristy McBain has most recently been mayor of Bega.
The focus group participants thought the two women were strong on credentials but low on having high constituency-wide profiles, suggesting voters would be likely to vote on party lines rather than for personalities.
But some participants noted the Liberals were spending a lot on Kotvojs’ campaign and predicted this was likely to increase in the time remaining.
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra