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For the 2022 election, we took the temperature of Australia’s marginal seats. Here’s what we learned

Election posters in Melbourne
‘Reporting this 2022 federal election series told us many Australians are deeply irritated with Scott Morrison. Some of this voter blowback is visceral.’ Photograph: Ellen Smith/The Guardian

It’s been a marathon campaign but the finish line is in sight. Unless Saturday night’s result is too close to call, Australians will know in a few days whether Scott Morrison is returning for three more years or whether Anthony Albanese will be the country’s next prime minister.

Over the past couple of months Guardian Australia reporters have fanned out in marginal seats across the country to try to capture the mood and dynamics of the 2022 election from the ground up. The result of this exercise has been the illuminating Anywhere But Canberra series.

Before sharing what we’ve learned, let’s set the scene. Australia has some parallels with the United States. Our political sensibilities are shaped by geography. Australians are more conservative in the resource-rich states in the north and the west, and more progressive and post-material in the south. Voter priorities in inner-city seats can be different to those in the regions and outer suburbs.

A realignment has been playing out over several election cycles as voters rust off from the major parties and seek representation outside the Coalition and Labor. According to the Australian National University’s Australian election survey, which has assessed electoral trends since 1987, partisanship for the two major political parties reached its lowest level on record during the 2019 election. The proportion of Australian voters who no longer align with a political party reached a record high of 21%.

In 2022 the focal point of that long-term electoral realignment has been the rise of teal independents in city contests. There has also been significant discussion during this election about whether or not Morrison is executing a version of Boris Johnson’s “red wall” strategy – parting company with centre-right progressives in the city and flipping Labor territory in the regions and outer suburbs.

While we are less partisan, it feels as though polarisation has increased. The constant culture warring in Canberra sometimes creates the impression that polarisation is now so entrenched that Australians in different parts of the country have irreconcilable interests.

But the striking thing about our swing through marginal seats in 2022 is how consistent voter sentiment was in every part of the country. The message from voters was similar everywhere we went, from the suburbs of Perth, to Tasmania’s north-west, to regional Queensland.

Reporting this series told us many Australians are deeply irritated with Morrison. Some of this voter blowback is visceral. Patience Stewart, whom I met in Launceston in the ultra-marginal seat of Bass, said the prime minister needed to be “buried” in this contest. “I have no time for him,” she said. “He’s reactive, there’s no forward thinking, I find him very difficult to watch now. I turn the television off when he’s on because I don’t have any faith in what he says.”

But many voters remain on the fence about Albanese, mainly because they don’t have a clear sense of who he is. In the Sydney seat of Reid, reporter Michael McGowan met Shelley Tan, a nurse. Tan said she’ll vote Labor because workers need a pay rise. But this is a passive decision rather than an active one. “[Albanese] is not the greatest but I’ve got no other choice, do I? I don’t want to vote for Scott Morrison.”

In Boothby in suburban Adelaide, Sarah Martin met 73-year-old retired teacher Helen Martin. Martin voted for Morrison in the miracle election of 2019 but she’s not sure she can back him on Saturday. But she’s not in Albanese’s column yet either. “They both have as much personality as earthworms,” she said. “Neither comes across as being able to make hard decisions [and] they are basing their election campaigns on dirty politics and populist voting.”

Election corflutes in the federal seat of Nicholls
‘Based on the sentiment we’ve collected, Morrison could lose this election, but it feels equally possible that Albanese could struggle to win it.’ Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

In the seat of Hunter in New South Wales, Josh Butler met Di and Graeme at Lake Macquarie. Graeme, a lifetime Labor man, wants Albanese in the top job; Di, normally a Liberal voter, didn’t have kind words for Morrison or the Labor leader. Morrison, Di said, was “a dickhead”. “But I’m disappointed in [Albanese] ... For the traditional Labor voters, I think he’s fine. But for people like me, I’m looking for someone that’s got a little bit more oomph to him.”

This major-party disaffection was summarised most evocatively by Burnie-resident Brad Lucas in the seat of Braddon. He characterised the two major parties and their leaders as “two cheeks, same arsehole”. Florence, a real estate agent in St Marys in the western Sydney seat of Lindsay, expressed ennui more poetically. She told reporter Mostafa Rachwani: “People feel depressed, they feel sad and lost – they don’t feel supported by anyone.”

Depending on where they are in the country, voters are looking at the teals, Clive Palmer and One Nation. In north-west Tasmania, every voter we spoke to knew Jacqui Lambie and had a favourable impression of her.

In the Victorian seat of Goldstein, reporter Benita Kolovos met Bill and Jenny Raper who are voting for the teal independent Zoe Daniel. Jenny Raper said: “We’ve lived here 62 years. We’ve never really had a true representative, it’s true-blue Liberal so they’ve always been either ministers or men on the rise into the ministry and so, honestly, they’re absent.”

Reporter Joe Hinchliffe met Bruce Pryde in the Queensland seat of Longman. Pryde plans to lodge a coronavirus “protest vote” against what he describes as “the big three”: the Liberals, Labor and Greens. He’ll vote for One Nation or the Palmer United party. Hinchliffe also met Sharni Kate who quit her job as an early childhood teacher and took up dog grooming rather than receive a vaccine. She’s drawn to Palmer.

While we struggled to find many voters enthusiastic about Morrison, some people believe he has done his best in trying circumstances. In Bondi in the seat of Wentworth, Josh Butler met Clare Murray, a lifelong Labor voter, who said Morrison had done “a difficult job in very difficult times … They’re all going to make mistakes.”

While Albanese’s main problem is that voters don’t know enough about him, those who do approve of his values. Retiree Jenny King in Goldstein, a lifelong Liberal voter, said of the Labor leader: “He’s a very nice person, he’s a lovely person … But I just don’t think he’s leadership material.”

The Anywhere But Canberra series kicked off in late April in the seat of Gilmore, in the pub where Morrison developed his concept of the “quiet Australians” back in 2019. On the south coast of NSW, Sarah Martin met Grant McLaurin and Colin Mullholland and witnessed an exchange playing out across the country as people prepare to cast their ballots.

McLaurin: “Morrison? Oh, shit yeah. He is in big trouble. Let me put it this way – Labor is not putting up anything against him and I still think he is in trouble.” Mullholland: “I don’t think he should be. It’s a very hard job ScoMo has got. He’s walked in at a bloody bad time: bushfires, Covid, two floods.”

The Anywhere But Canberra project is anecdotal not scientific. Published opinion polls, if we believe them, suggest Labor is likely to win on Saturday night, although the contest seems to be tightening. Our voter feedback feels more line ball. Based on the sentiment we’ve collected, Morrison could lose this election, but it feels equally possible that Albanese could struggle to win it.

In any case, a six-week campaign has tried the patience of the nation. In the Victorian electorate of Chisholm, we met friends Emma and Lorraine. They reported suffering from election fatigue. “It is too long,” Lorraine said, and Emma finished: “It gets a bit childish, this snapping at each other.”

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