February 02, 2016

Horse 2066 - The Entirely Unremarkable Bellwether

If Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull wants to hold a simultaneous House of Representatives and Senate election, then the election day must be after the 6th of August 2016 and no later than the 14th of January 2017 (or perhaps a double dissolution bill if the trigger of the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2014 is pulled - such a trigger needs to be pulled before May).

Although a House election can be called at any stage, both governments and the electorate prefer elections to be held at the same time. In all likelihood, the election will probably be held in either October or November so as to avoid football finals and the Christmas period.
Because of the requirements of the Electoral Act, the boundaries of the various seats are redrawn to reflect changes in population and in this last shuffle, New South Wales has lost one seat, to fall to 47; whilst Western Australia has picked up that extra seat.

One seat of interest which thankfully remained untouched, was that of Eden-Monaro on the New South Wales south coast. Eden-Monaro has the reputation of being a bellwether seat and the members that it has voted in have been of the same political colour as the government at every election since 1972.
The term bellwether in politics is obvious to people who live in a rural setting but not necessarily for those of us who live in the big smoke. A bellwether is as the name suggests, a wether who has a bell on her. In situations where stock is driven from paddock to paddock or even being droved in the "long paddock", an older sheep (a wether) who has been around for several seasons and already knows the way to go, is given a bell to wear and the rest of the flock will follow her to the new place. Thus a literal bellwether became a metaphor for any leader of a trend but the term is particularly applied to market indicators, various sectors of the economy which pick up and fall flat the earliest (like the building sector), and those electorates which for some reason, seem to fall the same way in an election as the final result. Eden-Monaro is one of those seats.
The weird thing about Eden-Monaro is that although it has the reputation of being a bellwether electorate, it doesn't really reflect the overall demographics of the nation. Eden-Monaro may also fit the metaphor of a bellwether in a semi-literal sense, as it contains a lot of  sheep and wool, beef and dairy farming; as well as a large contingent of defence personnel.

The average age of the voters in the electorate is significantly older than the rest of the country, and the electorate is also significantly whiter than the rest of Australia. Yet despite all of this, there are enough people in the seat of Eden-Monaro who will change sides when they think that the time is right, yet it isn't really a marginal seat either.

With a Westminster style of parliament, government is formed from a majority of seats. It might sound odd that Eden-Monaro has that reputation of being a bellwether seat but the truth is that because humans like finding patterns in any data set, and election results are a data set, it would be very surprising if there wasn't a localized pattern somewhere in 150 seats. Eden-Monaro has gained the reputation because people searching for patterns have found a pattern. If Eden-Monaro didn't return a member who was the same political colour as the government, we'd all start looking for the next electorate which would then be our new bellwether. If it isn't one thing of a group then it must be another thing. The demographics of Eden-Monaro simply do not suggest that they are some hip happening funky groovy electorate with their finger on the pulse of the nation.

The odd thing about looking at an electorate like Eden-Monaro is that the polls taken well in advance of a general election, often do not go give any indication of what the intent of the country is. In a race like 2010 where the eventual outcome was decided after all of the members had been chosen, it's entirely academic anyway. For races like 2007 or even 2001 where there was something of a landslide, it is the contest in the marginal seats which matter the most. Looking at the results in a bellwether seat tends to resemble more of an air crash investigation rather than a peak into the future. Hindsight is almost always viewed with 6/6 vision.

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