Approximately 27,000 people used smartvote, an online platform developed by The Canberra Times and the Australian National University to match voters to candidates, at least once during the ACT election last month. It proved a valuable resource for voters looking for candidates whose views matched their own.
But as well as providing information to voters, smartvote allowed users to indicate the relative importance of issues to them.
So what did we learn?
Users of smartvote indicated that the political questions they were most interested in candidates' answers to were:
- Should Stage 2 of Canberra's light rail system commence as soon as possible?
- Should unemployment benefits be reduced to their pre-COVID-19 pandemic level, once the crisis is over?
- Should property developers be allowed to donate to political parties and candidates?
- Should women readily be able to obtain an abortion if they request one?
- Should terminally ill patients be able to end their lives with medical assistance?
- Should the ACT relax its net-zero carbon emissions target?
- Are the worsening bushfire seasons a direct result of human-induced climate change?
Not all of these topics were equally important to everybody. Unsurprisingly, the youngest smartvote users overwhelmingly regarded environmental issues as most important. They also placed a high level of importance on the issue of abortion. Conversely, they seemed much less preoccupied by the tram question and ethics in politics.
These latter questions appeared to be more important to those in the oldest age categories, along with euthanasia and, surprisingly, the question of unemployment benefits. For this question, as well as for the environmental issues mentioned above, there may have been a growing sense of concern among older residents about the conditions of life of their grandchildren.
As expected, the tram question was important in Murrumbidgee and less so in Ginninderra, given that Stage 2 will extend the network to Woden instead of linking Belconnen to the airport, which was another option. But other differences emerged between electorates. Reflecting its large proportion of young families renting their homes, Yerrabi voters thought unemployment issues were more important than Brindabella voters, who are typically older and in more secure employment. Brindabella and Murrumbidgee are the ACT electorates with the oldest population; they are also those in which the issue of euthanasia was considered especially salient.
Kurrajong being by far the most educated area in the ACT made voters living there more likely to consider issues such as ethics in politics (especially donations to parties) more important, compared to voters in other electorates. Kurrajong was also the Greens' stronghold - even more so since the October election - and logically recorded the highest levels of voters' perceived importance across ACT electorates for the two environmental questions. It seems the gap in average education levels between Brindabella and Kurrajong also could have accounted for the differences in saliency for those two environmental questions.
Digging further into those seven most important questions, and looking at the positions taken by candidates in the affirmative or negative, we also discovered how well political leaders aligned with a majority of ACT voters. Both prior to and immediately after the election, observers noted that the conservatism of the former Liberal leader, Alistair Coe, on social issues ran counter to the views of ACT voters. This was indeed the case. But, interestingly, not only were Mr Coe's positions not those of a majority of ACT voters, they were not those of the Canberra Liberals' base either. Voters who indicated that they had voted for the Liberal Party in the 2019 federal election, like the majority of ACT voters, tended to prefer the socially liberal option on those questions in smartvote.
The dissonance between Mr Coe and the Liberal voters did not end there. On the question of whether unemployment benefits should return to their pre-COVID-19 levels, the Liberal leader and his party responded (mostly) in the negative, and yet a clear majority of those who voted for the Liberal Party in 2019 believed benefits should return to those levels. On this question, the position of the party and its leader actually matched the position of a majority of ACT voters, but not its electoral base.
Conversely, in answering each of these seven important questions, both Labor and the Greens matched the position preferred by a majority of smartvote users, and the position preferred by those who indicated that they had voted for Labor or the Greens in the 2019 federal election.
Of course, smartvote did not (and could not be expected to) yield a representative sample of the ACT voting population, but the above analysis was obtained by using weights calibrated to various features of the known electorate, and its results have proven robust to multiple specifications.
Additional insights into behaviour in the ACT 2020 election will appear in further articles and more complete analyses made available online here.
- Professor Patrick Dumont is a professor of political science, and Mark Fletcher is a PhD candidate, at the Australian National University. This opinion piece was written on behalf of the smartvote team.