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The Guardian - AU

Revealed: how the top issues voters care about are not getting aired in election campaign

Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks to the media at a press conference
While voters’ number one issue, cost of living, has been given considerable attention, other concerns have received far less coverage. Photograph: Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images

Surveys consistently show that aged care, climate change and education are among voters’ top concerns this federal election. But you wouldn’t necessarily know it by watching politicians’ press conferences or reading some media coverage.

A Guardian Australia analysis of election issues shows that while voters’ number one issue of cost of living has been given significant political and media attention, other issues that voters care about appear to have been neglected.

The disconnect is stark on aged care and education. Aged care is ranked second most important by voters, but scored much lower in terms of the leaders’ releases, media coverage and questions at press conferences.

The early weeks of the campaign were also punctuated with so-called “gotcha” questions from journalists, such as Anthony Albanese being asked to name the cash rate and unemployment rate.

While the “gotcha” question might lead to headlines, how well they serve voters is questionable, and it’s possible that coverage of “gaffes” leaves less room for coverage of actual policy and topics voters genuinely care about when making the important decision on who to vote for.

This raises the question: given we know from polling what voters’ most important election issues are, how do these issues rank in terms of media coverage, and how often are the leaders asked about these topics?

Priorities of voters v politicians and the media

To assess the disconnect, Guardian Australia compared the results of an ANU survey on voters’ priority policy areas with how much coverage they were given in the media, how often they featured in journalists’ questions to Albanese and Morrison, and how frequently these topics featured in Liberal and Labor leaders’ media releases and in the Facebook posts of major party candidates during the first three and a half weeks of the campaign.

While the original data uses the proportion of ANU survey respondents who listed it as their top priority and the percentage of text for each source that contains keywords for that issue, we have converted these figures to rankings to allow for easier comparison. You can see the original percentages here.

There was not an exact match for many of the issues identified by ANU respondents. The closest match was used (where there was one), otherwise the topic was left blank. Media coverage results are based on Streem data.

One of the biggest discrepancies between voter priorities and political attention relates to aged care. More than 60% of respondents to the ANU survey put aged care as a top priority, but it was the subject of less than 2% of the questions in leaders’ press conferences. That’s despite aged care being one of Labor’s major policy platforms going into the campaign. It also ranked 14th in terms of media coverage, with only 3% of news stories having keywords relating to aged care.

There was also a wide gap between how highly voters ranked education and how much focus it has received from the media and politicians during the campaign.

While more than 50% of people put education as a top priority, it was the subject of less than 1% of journalists’ questions to the two major party leaders. Neither party appears to be making education a focus – issuing fewer media releases related to education than employment, regional Australia, and the budget.

Cost of living is one issue everyone is focused on. Of the ANU survey respondents, 64.7% ranked it as a top priority – the most of any issue – and it has received a large amount of media attention. While it didn’t feature as highly as some other topics in media releases, it is more prominent in politicians’ Facebook posts.

Climate change features more highly than people might expect, but this is in part due to the Coalition’s messaging on emissions reduction technology, with green hydrogen hubs and related projects featuring in media releases.

The one topic area that dominated questions from journalists but doesn’t appear as much in other areas is foreign policy – this is in part due to many questions on Australia’s relationship with China, which is not included in the keywords used for the media coverage data. However, both defence and foreign policy topics were ranked as a lower priority in the ANU survey.

Gotcha questions and media coverage

Almost a third of questions, or 31%, asked at Albanese and Morrison’s press conferences during the first three and a half weeks of the campaign were about politics itself such as polling, leadership issues, election dates, relationships with premiers.

About 5% of the questions could be described as “gotchas”, or follow-ups to previous gotchas (with the caveat that this is a tricky category to define). For comparison, just 3% of the questions were about climate change, Covid or housing.

Coverage of the “gaffes” following some of these “gotcha” questions has been uneven as well, with Albanese featuring far more prominently than Morrison. Here, we’ve compared the number of news articles matching search terms relating to four “gaffes”: Albanese being unable to state the correct unemployment and cash rate, Albanese not listing the six points of Labor’s NDIS plan, Morrison getting the JobSeeker payment rate wrong, and Morrison saying he was “blessed” to have children without disability:

While this includes duplication of articles across multiple publications, the difference in coverage for each leader’s mistakes is stark.

Notes and methods

  • Media monitoring firm Streem analysed over 153,000 published media stories between 10 April and 5 May using keyword searches to identify published media stories relating to topics in the campaign.

  • Guardian Australia used those same keywords (available here) to search campaign press releases by the party leaders and over 15,000 Facebook posts scraped for our Pork-o-meter.

  • Transcripts of press conferences and doorstop interviews by Morrison and Albanese from the start of the campaign were scraped from their respective websites, and the text split into questions and answers. Over a thousand questions were identified and manually classified as “gotcha” or not, and placed into one of 30 categories.