Are there lessons to be learned from the Upper Hunter by-election? Absolutely. The first thing to note is that almost half of all electors voted for someone not representing a major political party. While by-elections always produce unusual results, this is pretty extraordinary.
The second thing to note is that the primary vote of both the Labor and National Parties declined. This is not so surprising given there were thirteen candidates in the field, but it is unusual still (although the same thing occurred in the Hunter electorate at the 2019 federal election). These points may tell us that people are moving away from the major parties.
But what does that in turn tell us? Are they moving because they like another party’s person or policies more? Or are they deserting the major parties as a protest? Of course, it’s sure to be a bit of both.
One of the great strengths of the democratic system is the secret ballot. When I was younger, it was considered impolite to even ask someone how he or she votes or voted. That is still true but more likely to be so amongst older voters.
But one of the weaknesses of the culture, if not the system, is that we don’t always know what conclusions to draw from an election result. Of course, sometimes it’s easy, I’ll never forget the 1988 state election in which proposed gun laws were a powerful issue. It is my conclusion that the 2019 election was mainly about financial security.
But I’m not sure what the recent Upper Hunter by-election was all about. The four top-performers – Nationals, Labor, One Nation and the Shooters, Farmers and Fishers – all gave big assurances on job security and infrastructure investment. As a result, they received around 80 per cent of the vote between them. But what caused 24 per cent of voters to vote One Nation and Shooters rather than Nats or Labor? Was it just a question of trust?
I wish I knew the answer to that question. Not for my own political advantage but in search of the right response. That’s the other weakness in our democratic system. If we’re not sure why people voted a certain way, or why they did not vote for a particular party, how do we learn from it?
Some would say that’s the whole point. Each party and candidate should promise only what they believe to be right and in the best interest of the community. That makes some sense, to a point. But if you aspire to be a party capable of forming a government, don’t you need to adjust to peoples’ views? Wouldn’t it be foolhardy not to do so?
Maybe we should make room on the ballot paper to allow voters to say in ten words or less, why they voted as they did? Of course, there will be the occasional rude remark, but we get those in any case. Party scrutineers could be present to take note of the remarks. This would be raw democracy.
I’m going to risk a barrage of emails by inviting electors to tell me how they voted and why. In ten words of less please. You can do so by via email address: [email protected] and have in the subject heading ‘Upper Hunter vote’. Of course, all submissions will be kept confidential, but I’ll report back on the results. They are sure to be interesting!