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Survey probes Australia's political attitudes -

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ELEANOR HALL: A long-term survey of Australian voters has found that more and more are making up
their mind well before election campaigns are held.

The Australian Election Study sampled nearly 2,000 people in 2007 just after the Federal election
was held. It also found that people aren't as worried about union power but that concern about the
power of big business is rising.

One of the report's authors is ANU (Australian National University) professor, Ian McAllister, and
he's been speaking to our chief political correspondent, Lyndal Curtis.

IAN MCALLISTER: I think industrial relations was the real swing issue in the election. More people
mentioned industrial relations than any time in the survey since we have been collecting them in
1987, so it was a very significant issue.

The Coalition did have the advantage on issues like interest rates, taxation and so on but it is
also the case that Labor improved its position as the preferred party across a whole range of
issues which traditionally have seen to be the dominance of the Coalition like terrorism and
national security and defence.

So Labor was improving its position across a whole range of issues but industrial relations was the
key I think, the key issue for their success.

LYNDAL CURTIS: Political parties pour an enormous amount of money, time and effort into election
campaigns, but the results of this survey shows that people show that more and more people are
making up their minds further and further from election campaigns. Do you think there is a message
in that for political parties?

IAN MCALLISTER: Well, we've seen a long-term trend in so far as people are more likely to make up
their minds much later in the campaign. Indeed, we find in previous surveys that about one in 10
make up their minds in the last one or two days before they actually cast their vote.

This election was different in a sense that a very significant number of people said they'd made up
their mind before the election campaign even started and that appeared to be a reversal of the
trend that we have seen over a very long period of time.

But there was also other indicators in there which showed that people were much more interested in
the election than previous elections. For example, more people watched the leader's debate in 2007
than at any other time since 1996, and also more people followed the election on television than at
any time since 1993, so there was a general sense of interest and engagement in the election.

People seemed to be making up their minds much before the campaign started, but they seemed to take
a much greater interest in it.

LYNDAL CURTIS: Which does tend to marry with the opinion polls which were solid for Kevin Rudd and
for Labor for a long time running out before the election.

IAN MCALLISTER: I think that is true. That a lot of people had made up their minds, how they were
going to vote, very early on and the interesting thing is the backdrop to Labor's victory was that
people still felt the economy was doing rather well.

They felt their own economic circumstances were really quite positive but they still, in large
numbers, voted against the Coalition and I think a lot of that comes down to the personal
popularity of Kevin Rudd.

He was one of the most popular election leaders we have seen in the last 10 or 15 years or so.
Certainly he compares very favourably with Bob Hawke in the 1980s.

Now John Howard himself has been a very popular leader but in the 2007 election, certainly Rudd was
well ahead of him.

LYNDAL CURTIS: We've seen campaigns getting more and more presidential, but in this survey, people
were still making their minds up on policies before leaders, weren't they?

IAN MCALLISTER: Yes, I think that is right. We find in the survey that more people make up their
minds based on the policies of the political parties than on the leaders but it also has to be said
that people tend to identify a lot of the policies with particular leaders so the two, to some
extent, meld into one and the personalisation of politics is something that has been happening
across a whole range of industrialised countries over the last 20, 30 years or so and whereas
people do identify policies as being most important, they tend to hold leaders accountable for
whether or not they act on those policies, whether they implement them.

LYNDAL CURTIS: As you said, there was a lot of optimism about the economy around - there would
probably be less so now - but the survey found that although people thought that their own
financial situation may be worsening, that governments couldn't do much about either their
financial situation or the country's?

IAN MCALLISTER: Yes, people tended to be a bit pessimistic about the sorts of things that the
Government could actually do to improve their own economic circumstances or those of the country.

And that follows again a long-term trend because Australian voters tend to blame international
economic circumstances for economic performance rather than their own governments, whereas say in
the United States or Britain, the voters there tend to more directly blame the Government.

So it is particularly a characteristic of Australian voters and also the circumstance of the
Australian economy as part of a globalised economy.

LYNDAL CURTIS: And may put arguments about five or 10 cents off a litre of petrol into the shade?

IAN MCALLISTER: Indeed, I think that's correct.

ELEANOR HALL: ANU professor, Ian McAllister, speaking to Lyndal Curtis.