A couple of weeks ago I published an interesting interview with famous Australian Psephologist Malcolm Mackerras. At the end of the interview I asked him for some suggestions about other psephologists or election specialists that I should add to my list of interview targets. One of his highest recommendations was Peter Brent, who Malcolm seemed to be very fond of. I have met Peter several times over the last decade or so, usually at political science conferences and seminars around the country. I also got to know Peter while he was still working on his PhD thesis at ANU on the topic of the AEC “The Rise of the Returning Officer”. He reminds us all about the very unique creature that is the AEC which, as Australians, we should all be very proud of (despite what Clive Palmer suggests).
I also developed a bit of respect for Peter over the years as I watch him regularly deal with armchair electoral generals (initially mainly through his blog and then, as it became a mainstream medium, through twitter) with his standard straight-bat dryness and sarcasm. He’s a real sensation on twitter and you should all follow him immediately, although I suspect if you’re reading this many of you already do. BTW I’m not the only one who thinks Peter has a particularly dry wit as the following tweet attests.
@mumbletwits Yes, a plug for Mumbles in there. “Dry cynicism”…. You think?!! It’s sometimes so dry it shrivels my brain.
— Grasshopper (@BuPaul) July 31, 2014
Also, to hammer the point home, when I asked Peter to provide me with his preferred portrait for the interview, this is what he sent:
So tell me about yourself. Who are you in a nutshell? Left-brained, observant, neurotic.
Where do you live/work/study/teach? Canberra, from home and parliament.
What compels you to write and research about politics? It’s an illness. I used to suffer more from it. I don’t consume as much political news as I once did, which is kind of ironic, or paradoxical, as I now write about it for public consumption.
What do you love about politics? Not much, particularly the Australian version. I used to believe it was superior to, for example, American and British politics, but no longer do. Not sure if this is chiefly due to changing perception on my part or changing reality.
Is there anything you don’t like about modern politics? Lots. The adversarial nature, Question Time is a travesty. The profession of politics encourages some people to misrepresent what opponents have done and misrepresenting their positions. For some, it must corrode the soul; you would not be a politician for quids. This no doubt applies across most democracies, but probably particularly so here. Like many, I think the parties’ obsession with polling and research is a problem. Labor seems particularly afflicted with WestWingitis. Just between us, party polling gurus are not as clever as the political class believes.
Compulsory or Voluntary voting? Voluntary, but I don’t feel strongly about it. There are ok arguments either way. Compulsion is I think too coercive and I don’t think the benefits outweigh the negatives. If we got rid of compulsion, turnout would drop and we’d get a better idea of the level of political engagement, at federal and each state level. That’d be a good thing.
Who are your favourite writers? Don’t have any. When I was young I loved Orwell, like many. (Still like him!) My reading tastes are more low-brow than they used to be. For example, I always snap up the latest Michael Connelly book.
What are your favourite websites and news sources? Oh … you know, this and that. This week I downloaded and sent several long reads to Kindle from New Yorker magazine.
What’s the first thing you do each morning? Computer on (if off). Coffee on. Feed cats if first one up. Sit at computer. Write. I used to listen to Radio National Breakfast but now this is my prime writing time and the radio would be distracting. A great pity.
What is your one recommended must-read for aspiring psephologists? Read more on electoral law, something I don’t do enough.
What’s your favourite political movie/book/documentary/TV series? Sorry, another “don’t have one”.
But in the late 1980s I loved “A Very British Coup”, watched it several times on video. Ray McAnally fantastic as a Labour PM from Yorkshire. It would be very dated now. Primary colours was an enjoyable book—and movie. Wag the Dog was good. Haven’t see the US version of House of Cards (the UK one a couple of decades ago was pretty good, not fantastic imo).
As a rule I no longer read political books—that is bios and memoirs—because I’m much more cynical about the process—all that that backscratching and three-act storytelling (which is prevalent in political journalism per se).
Having said that, Don Watson’s ‘Recollections of a Bleeding Heart’ was a ripper, albeit overwritten. Perhaps the last one I’ve read. No, someone gave me the Latham Diaries and I read that. And I bought Lindsay Tanner’s book; it was ok. (Speaking of that book, I am regularly surprised at what I perceive as an absence of electoral perception—an understanding of what makes voters do what they do—from senior political players. Well, they don’t see things the way I do. Most don’t I suppose.)
Is there a funny or brilliant political ad you’d like to share? Nope!
What are you currently reading or working on? Kindle currently has two books: “My Promised Land” by Ari Shavit and a biography of the Beatles. (First book I’ve read about either.)
I should also ask why are you interested in electoral behaviour? My brain is possibly a bit deformed. At school I was very good at maths. In one aptitude test I scored in the top couple of percentiles in maths but actually below average in English comprehension. Then I began a science degree but kind of bombed out and left uni. A few years later I went to uni and studied Arts; I became interested in politics, addicted really, including the electoral side. Contemplating two-party-preferred, playing with Malcolm Mackerras’s pendulum.
My statistics skills are quite limited though.
Being comfortable with numbers might lead some people to be susceptible to numerical explanations of electoral behaviour, but in my case it’s had the opposite effect: I have little time for “analysis” along the lines of, for example, claiming such-and-such is worth X per cent of the vote. I detest that stuff. Of course events and personalities matter, and in theory their influence on outcomes are quantifiable, but humans’ tools are way too flimsy to do it and it’s dishonest to pretend otherwise.
Peter can be followed on twitter here: @mumbletwits
His most recent writing can be found here on his blog.
And this is what he really looks like!
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.