Increase in early voting will change politics in Australia, says political marketing expert

Postal voting applications have increased by 120 per cent ahead of Saturday's Eden-Monaro by-election. Picture: AEC
Postal voting applications have increased by 120 per cent ahead of Saturday's Eden-Monaro by-election. Picture: AEC

More residents than ever before are casting their votes early ahead of Saturday's Eden-Monaro by-election.

According to data from the Australian Electoral Commission, almost 36 per cent of eligible voters may have already cast their votes.

I think it's a good thing for politics. It drops the value of pork barreling, which has been a growth area.

Australian National University senior lecturer Stephen Dann

The AEC said 24,565 pre-poll votes were recorded over the first 12 voting days, which when combined with 16,391 applications for postal votes, means more than a third of the 114,244 eligible voters are avoiding a school holiday voting day with strict physical distancing measures.

Pre-poll voting over the first 12 days has increased by almost 12 per cent on last year's general election, while postal vote applications have increased by over 120 per cent.

As of Monday, 3263 residents had pre-polled in Merimbula, with a further 2681 pre-polling in Bega. Outside of Queanbeyan, which had 788 votes cast at two booths, Merimbula had the highest number of pre-poll votes on Monday with 411, followed by Bega with 321.

Australian National University senior lecturer Stephen Dann, an expert in social media and political marketing, said increased early voting is forcing a change in the way political parties market themselves in the lead up to elections.

"I think it's a good thing for politics. It drops the value of pork barreling, which has been a growth area," he said.

"Even if there is a good announcement in the last few days people will be cynical about it. People want time to think and discuss it, and have a conversation in the community.

"There's a lot of brand and party loyalty among voters, and there's cynicism around late campaign announcements."

He said the AEC has provided one of the world's best pre-polling systems, and many Australians have adopted a "vote early, thank you, it's done" attitude.

"We're seeing that early voting will change politics in Australia, in that you can't rely on that last minute rush," he said.

"If you've made your decision early there's not much coming late in the campaign that will sway you."

Dr Dann said after recent bushfires and a global coronavirus pandemic have impacted the economy, residents are becoming more engaged in politics.

"We've seen communities come together. Suddenly, it's less about what individuals want for themselves, and more about how they can help others. That's real politics," he said.

Dr Dann said the by-election is wrongly being "preached" by parties as a "litmus test on leadership".

"Eden-Monaro is even worse because of its previous status as a bellwether predictor. The election should be about who is a good representative," he said.

"It's about replacing a local member, and that is it."

He said Australians have been "turned off by political advertising", since the "negative attacks" model became standard issue following surprise victories with its use in the 1990s.

"It's not just about promises anymore, it's about delivering," he said.

"Unfortunately we've seen political marketing become political communication.

"As soon as politicians realised they don't have to deliver, then there was no reason to deliver."

Research has shown the approach primarily works with people involved in the political game and not voters, he said.

"McDonalds and Hungry Jacks don't focus on how bad their competitors products are, they focus on what they can offer the consumer that's better," he said.

"The general electorate comes out of it thinking politicians are rubbish.

"I haven't seen a party go out to build trust in politicians at all. If they make a promise and don't follow through they can be seen as lairs.

"The public is at a point where there is a level of cynicism over how things will be made better after the longest period we've ever had to deal with consistent problems.

"It is really easy to do the negative stuff, and point out what's not working, but since the bushfires the public is doing more than that. They want action and not cynicism, and that's what they are doing when they get out and help each other."

Dr Dann said Australia was used as a pilot study for political marketing on the internet in the 2000s, with information collected then used in the United States.

"It's a global business now," he said.

"You can be trained here and get a job anywhere in the world."

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