This interview is the first in a series which I had originally planned to title “Meet a psephologist” and use as a series of interesting articles about people who study, work in and write about elections. However not everyone agrees with me that there is a psephologist in all of us (or that there is a foodie in all of us), so in order to avoid scaring away potential interviewees it is now titled “Meet an election specialist” but I still have a list of psephologists (professional and amateur) as well as academics, practitioners and writers on my to-do list!
I recently had the pleasure of catching up with Australia’s second-most-famous psephologist while he recovered from some hip surgery at Canberra Hospital. Malcolm Mackerras is one of Canberra’s living legends. Anyone who is even slightly interested in politics and elections would be familiar with his writing and his famous federal electoral pendulum, which has had many imitations and which he has himself adapted for many other elections. Malcolm’s first published work on Australian politics was written in 1965, while he was working as a research officer for the Liberal Party. In 1970 Malcolm became an academic and had various posts at UNSW, RMC Duntroon, ADFA and now at the Public Policy Institute, Australian Catholic University.
Malcolm’s Wikipedia entry reminds us that he is “famous for making predictions about election results” and “he claims a ‘win’ ratio of ‘two in three’ and adds “at least I’m not boring”!
Malcolm is certainly anything but boring! He is happy to discuss just about anything related to democracy and elections and has a wide-ranging expertise on Australian politics.
I asked Malcolm a series of questions and his unedited answers are listed below:
Tell me about yourself Malcolm. Who are you in a nutshell? In academic parlance I’m a political scientist. Although I’m semi-retired I currently work at the Australian Catholic University in Canberra as a Visiting Fellow. I’m also still writing about elections and have appeared regularly to discuss politics on “Switzer” which is on SkyNewsBusiness. I had seven siblings, including a fraternal twin Colin Mackerras, a leading China specialist at Griffith University. I was born in 1939, worked on my first campaign handing out How-To-Vote cards at a referendum in 1951, joined the Liberal Party when I was 16 in 1955 and have followed every election and by-election in Australia ever since. My academic career started when I became what was then known as a “Research Scholar” at ANU in 1970. By-elections are fascinating. Did you know we had 10 by-elections in Australia between 1951 and 1954? Nine were caused by the death of the local member. These days healthcare has improved so much that we rarely have deaths in political office and most by-elections are caused by resignations.
Where do you live/work/study/teach? I live in Campbell (Canberra’s inner north) and work mainly from home. I have an office at ACU where I still teach occasionally.
What motivates you to write and research about politics? It fascinates me! I’ve also been fortunate to be in the middle of many interesting political contests. In 1975 I had an article published in the Canberra Times which I’d written 10 days before. I had speculated in the article that the political stand-off in the Senate was getting to the point where Kerr may have to sack Whitlam to break the deadlock. 10 days after I wrote the article it was published. Later that morning Kerr sacked Whitlam. I was actually on radio at 11am prior to the dismissal answering questions about the article and heard afterwards what had happened. That afternoon I was flown to Melbourne to be interviewed about the article and the dismissal an appeared on the TV news that night. It was my best prediction ever! I was also the only psephologist who predicted Howard would lose Bennelong.
I also believe that our Constitutional Monarchy is a unique and beautiful democratic process. Australia has been very fortunate to inherit such a good system of government and also fortunate that it has been modified and evolved so well. Our system is one of the best in the world and I still believe the Republican argument lacks a compelling case. Both our houses of parliament are relatively well populated with good representatives and both function well. The senate is genuinely semi-proportional and serves an important role as a house of review. We have a symbolic head of state (the Queen) and a constitutional head of state (the Governor General). Since 1930 when Jim Scullin established the current rules, the Prime Minister effectively selects the Governor General. This system allows an unsatisfactory Governor General to be replaced easily, as has happened, and this is a model of common sense. A popularly elected President or even one elected by a Parliament, would be very difficult to replace. Australian democracy has worked very well compared to other democracies and we shouldn’t change too much without very good reason.
Is there anything you don’t like about modern politics? There is far too much excessive partisanship in modern Australian politics, with the current Prime Minister being most to blame for it. He is in my opinion the most partisan PM we’ve ever had. Abbott is far more partisan than Howard or Fraser and has damaged the office as a result. The PM’s position should be statesman-like and it should not be as partisan as Abbott has made it.
Compulsory or voluntary voting? Definitely compulsory voting. It makes the results more reflective and representative and if it aint broke why fix it?
Do you have a favourite writer? Paul Kelly
What are your favourite websites and news sources? I still read three newspapers each day: The Canberra Times, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian. My favourite websites include Crikey, Antony Green’s blog, Peter Brent’s Mumble blog on Crikey and William Bowe’s Pollbludger website. I also enjoy watching Insiders on Sunday mornings.
What’s the first thing you do each morning? I’m an early riser. I read my newspapers after I pick them up off the driveway. The Canberra Times usually arrives about half an hour before the SMH and Australian.
What is your one recommended must-read for aspiring psephologists? Read Mumble. Peter is good as a psephologist and he also does political commentary well. Peter calls a spade a spade and his dry cynicism can be entertaining.
What’s your favourite political movie/book/documentary/TV series? The Victory was entertaining. The Stalking of Julia Gillard by Kerry Anne Walsh was also a very good book. I recommend both. The book Battlelines exposes Abbott’s dishonesty. He’s clearly a centralist, yet he used federalist arguments to recently argue against and abolish the mining super-profits tax.
Is there a funny or effective political ad you’d like to share? I thought the anti-workchoices ads from 2007 were particularly effective.
What are you currently reading or working on? I’m working on a book collecting all my writing, beginning in 1957 and I’m about a quarter of the way through. I also wrote two recent articles (in the Australian and Canberra Times) opposed to the Electoral Matters Report on Senate Elections. I disagree with the recommendation to do away with party tickets. The Senate system currently works quite well and I think the main arguments are being made by the government because it doesn’t like the result of what happened in the Senate race in 2013. In the 2013 federal election Labor lost 17 seats, all of which went to the Liberal or National parties. However in the Senate there were six seats lost. Of the seven Senate seats lost in 2013, three went to PUP (one each in Qld, Tasmania and WA), one went to Family First in SA, Rickey Muir picked up a Liberal Senate spot in Victoria (which was meant to be won by Kroger), one Liberal Democrat was elected in NSW and one Green in Victoria.
Thank you for your time and frank answers Malcolm Mackerras!
If you’d like to read more from Malcolm then check out some of the links below:
…and here’s a photo from last year which gives me some real cred as an authentic psephologist’s groupie.
Below is an article I co-wrote with a Canberra-based history academic Chris Monnox regarding last year’s federal Labor leadership ballot. it was published in the Canberra Times just before the result of the ballot was officially declared.
Labor leadership ballot a win/win By Elias Hallaj and Chris Monnox
Labor’s Federal Leadership ballot has been a valuable recruiting and organising opportunity for the ACT Branch of the Party, as it has for each state and territory branch. Eligibility to vote in this historic ballot was bestowed on everyone who was a member of the ACT Branch of the Australian Labor Party on 7 September. Around 1,000 people in the ACT joined 50,000 across Australia and had an opportunity to have a direct say in who would be the next Labor Leader.
Labor is the only party in Australia that gives its ordinary members this opportunity and it signals a new era of reform and participation within our party. As national secretary George Wright told Sky, there is a “big appetite” for participatory democracy.
The immediate benefits to the party have been obvious to all those who work in or near its offices and representatives both in Canberra and across Australia:
1. Membership has increased. More new members have joined and more existing members have renewed their membership. The enfranchisement of all members, regardless of length of membership and amount of meetings they have attended was a stroke of genius. It gave an immediate reward to all the new recruits who signed up on the battlefield of the 2013 campaign.
2. The ballot has been an opportunity to test real-life grassroots engagement and communication skills for many experienced and new hands. The ultimate test in genuine democracies is popular support. This ballot has been a test of messages, networks, campaign techniques, and in some cases relationships and loyalties. All this adds to the campaign capacity and skills base of the party and enables better outcomes in future public contests.
3. The candidates have led by example in ensuring mature and convivial competition and debate, without resorting to personal attacks, despite regular baiting from the mainstream media and the party’s numerous external (and sometimes internal) critics. This has been particularly cathartic following the end of the most recent Gillard-Rudd leadership contest.
4. The numerous leadership forums and seminars and debates have ensured a new pattern of regular interaction between the leadership of the parliamentary wing of the party and the membership of the party. The ACT Branch experience is that these interactions are normal, with relatively easy access to our elected representatives. The public display of this access and its reinforcement at all levels will make the party stronger in the future.
5. The federal leadership ballot has utilized a new acceptance (some say obsession) within modern politics of the latest communications tools. Not only did the candidates and their organised teams supporters use the latest communications techniques more effectively than ever before, the party membership and supporters also used new techniques to engage directly with each other and these new techniques complemented well more traditional town-hall style meetings and telephone conferences all over the country.
6. Not all the administrative and organising for this ballot has been conducted by the formal party administration. The loose networks which are a normal part of any human social activity, normally referred to as “factions” in politics, have also played an active role. And (surprisingly for some) the factions behaved very well. The previous PM might be alarmed to learn that one outcome of his innovative decree has been the evolution of the national factions to a point where they have, in a matter of weeks, demonstrated consistent sophisticated and diplomatic communication and organisational techniques and skills. Factions are an inevitable and normal part of democratic politics, but for too long in Australian politics the downside of factions dominated the public discourse. If they behave in a mature and intelligent manner, organised groups of adults (teams in sporting parlance) can achieve great things. When the major groups or factions in an organization can compete AND cooperate fairly, the whole organisation can benefit. After this ballot, we also now have a clearer line of leadership and authority within the two main factions that will make future cooperation, consultation and negotiation simpler and more efficient.
These have been the benefits. There have been costs as well, most obviously opportunity for the party’s regular critics to accuse it of “navel-gazing” and “in-fighting”, despite the obvious examples of policy debate and organisational success the ballot has brought. The ballot has also been hard work. When asked what her favorite part of the leadership ballot was, a young party members instinctively responded “it’s about end, thank god”. Unfortunately it’s hard to imagine that the future timing of these ballots will not inevitably coincide with the end of a hard-fought campaign, so the participants will inevitably be exhausted until both end.
This process of evolution for this ballot is continuing. From an ACT perspective the democracy has been superb and the opportunity for our local political activists to participate fully in such a historical initiative has been wholeheartedly welcomed. This sentiment has been shared in every city and town which has had an opportunity to host a candidate’s forum, or two (as was the fortunate case in Canberra).
Some of the less predictable aspects of the ballot (such as members sharing pictures of their votes on social media) were unpredictable but may become more normal practice in future public campaigns and elections. We have no doubt that the process has been an overwhelmingly positive one that has strengthened relationships and campaigning skills within the Party. Even Christopher Pyne agrees. In 2008 he penned his opinion on this issue, arguing the Liberal Party should adopt the same process. http://www.ipa.org.au/library/publication/1210898292_document_pyne.pdf
This article represents the personal views of the authors. Elias Hallaj has been the ACT Labor Secretary since 2009 and was previously an Assistant National Secretary of the ALP. Chris Monnox is a PhD Candidate in political history and recently wrote an extensive history of the ACT Branch of the Australian Labor Party as part of his research at ANU.
Photo by Andrew Meares sourced from the same article in the Canberra Times http://www.canberratimes.com.au/federal-politics/political-opinion/everyones-a-winner-in-a-clean-fight-20131012-2vfaz.html