Often phrases and words come to represent the accepted wisdom about what motivates voters in an election.
"It's the economy, stupid" became the catchphrase that rode Bill Clinton to the White House in 1992, in the wake of a recession that the incumbent president, George W. Bush, seemed unable to reverse.
"Labour isn't working" was the slogan that won Margaret Thatcher her first election in Britain in 1979 and began an economic revolution that resonates to the present day.
What these slogans have in common is their focus on the economy. When voters feel prosperous, they will support the incumbent party. When they feel economically insecure, they will look to others to fix their problems.
For most of the post-war years, this truism and the dominance of the economy in elections held true. But generational change, the expansion of university education and unprecedented economic prosperity have changed that.
On most economic issues, the major parties have increasingly come to hold the same views. The major distinction has been in "valence" - that is, how well a particular party might perform in achieving a goal that all of the parties agree on, such as reducing unemployment or lowering the national debt.
It is on the non-economic issues that the most significant changes have taken place. What are sometimes called "moral" issues - issues such as marriage equality, euthanasia and drug law reform - have gained greater prominence in Australian elections than at any time in the past.
The current ACT election exemplifies this trend. The platforms of the major parties show that non-economic issues are at least as important as economic ones.
We see this very clearly in the responses provided by the candidates to the ANU/Canberra Timessmartvote tool. There are the familiar disagreements about economic policy and debate about which party would be to best to, say, improve the delivery of health services. However, it is on non-economic "moral" issues that the biggest differences emerge.
While the major parties tended to promote similar answers among their candidates, there are significant differences between the parties' candidates on many of these issues. For example, while almost all of the ACT Labor candidates strongly support euthanasia, Liberal candidates are more divided, with around half in support and half in opposition.
At the 2019 federal election, the Australian Election Study asked both voters and candidates their views on euthanasia. Among voters, 81 per cent agreed with the policy. Among candidates, Labor were most in agreement, at 75 per cent, followed by Coalition candidates, at 57 per cent. ACT Labor candidates would seem to be closest to voters on this issue.
Another example is pill testing at music festivals. While all of the ACT Labor candidates strongly support the policy, the majority of ACT Liberal candidates are moderately against it. At the 2019 federal election, just 6 per cent of Coalition candidates supported pill testing, while 63 per cent of voters agreed with it.
The ACT Liberals would seem to have moved the furthest on these non-economic issues, at least compared to their counterparts in the 2019 election. This may reflect the characteristics of the ACT electorate, which is easily the most progressive on social issues in Australia. It may also say something about the characteristics of the candidates themselves.
Moral issues will not determine the outcome of the ACT election. But within the electorate these issues have risen to greater prominence than at any time in the past. And not least, they provide an important point of distinction for voters who increasingly view the parties as presenting few economic policy differences.
- Ian McAllister is Distinguished Professor of Political Science at ANU.