Inside Story

Electoral shadows

Past election results offer good news and bad for the federal government

Paul Rodan 17 April 2024 1291 words

Tough audience: prime minister Anthony Albanese in Brisbane last Thursday. Darren England/AAP Image

One-term federal governments in Australia are rare. The most recent — led by Labor’s James Scullin in 1931 — was one of the many victims (political and otherwise) of the Great Depression. That’s the good news for Anthony Albanese. Closer to the present day, though, Labor was forced into minority status after the Rudd–Gillard–Rudd government’s first term in 2010. The prime minister, a key player in that era, would also be keen to avoid that fate.

Unfortunately for Albanese, every first-term government since the second world war has suffered an adverse two-party-preferred swing. Those swings have varied from substantial to meagre, with John Howard being the best example of the former, suffering a 4.6 point swing against his government in 1998. Indeed, Howard only managed to secure 49 per cent of the two-party vote, but his support held where it mattered and he was returned with a comfortable majority. At the other end of the scale, Robert Menzies lost just under half a percentage point in the 1951 election. Coincidentally, he and Howard went on to become Australia’s longest-serving prime ministers.

Peter Dutton offers Albanese a more reassuring electoral precedent. Since 1914, not a single first-up opposition leader after a loss of government has gone on to be prime minister (and that one — Andrew Fisher — had already been PM twice). Since 1972, those losers have been Bill Snedden, Gough Whitlam (attempting an unlikely comeback), Andrew Peacock, Kim Beazley, Brendan Nelson (who failed to survive long enough to contest an election as leader) and Bill Shorten. Still, Dutton may take some encouragement from the demolition of another long-term hoodoo (albeit at his party’s expense) — Labor’s success in winning a seat from the opposition in a by-election, namely in Aston last year.

No first-term prime minister in the modern era has sought re-election with as narrow a majority as Albanese’s. In May 2022 he secured seventy-seven seats in a House of 151 members — a floor majority of two that subsequently rose to four after the Aston win. Redistribution will reduce House numbers from 151 to 150, so seventy-six will remain the magic number for an absolute majority. On the new boundaries, New South Wales and Victoria will each lose a seat and Western Australia gains one, adding an extra dimension of uncertainty to a very finely balanced set of numbers.

Predictions of hung parliaments may be the last refuge of psephological cowards, and it’s hazardous to bet against a first-term government being returned, but in the present context minority government will inevitably be seen as a possible outcome. Partly because of the teal incursion, the Coalition holds just fifty-seven seats and would need to win an additional nineteen in order to govern with a bare majority. (I am treating the two seats where sitting Coalition members turned independent as effectively held by the party that won those seats in 2022.) We may live in electorally volatile times, but by any measure that kind of gain is the proverbial “big ask.”

State breakdowns of federal voting-intention polls are of variable accuracy (individual seat polls even more so) and only guarded observations can usefully be offered about ultimate voting patterns. Moreover, the imminent redistributions in New South Wales and Victoria render speculation more difficult, given not only that each state will lose a seat and boundaries will be adjusted, but also that existing seat margins will change. Western Australia, meanwhile, gains a seat in its redistribution: more boundary changes, more impact on existing margins.

In Victoria, Labor–Coalition contests might well attract less interest than the several seats where the Greens fancy their chances against sitting Labor members. The divided Victorian Liberal Party still seems as incapable of contributing to federal Coalition success as it is to offering voters a credible alternative state government. New South Wales is home to three Labor seats (on current boundaries) held by less than three percentage points.

In Queensland, Labor holds a paltry five of the state’s thirty seats, their most vulnerable (Blair) on a margin of 5.2 points. Surely, they couldn’t lose any more? In South Australia, a recent Labor state by-election victory over the Liberal opposition suggests that the party “brand” there is still in reasonable shape, which is encouraging for Labor’s most-marginal SA seat-holder, in Boothby, on 3.3 points. Tasmania provides a couple of the closest seats in the nation: Lyons (Labor) on 0.9 points and Bass (Liberal) on 1.4. Expect a few VIP flights over Bass Strait between now and the election.

In the twenty-three elections from 1949 onwards, federal Labor has only secured a two-party preferred majority in Western Australia on five occasions, three of which owed much to Bob Hawke’s standing as local boy made good. It isn’t the worst state for federal Labor: Queensland has only delivered the goods on three occasions. It may surprise many readers (as it did this writer) to learn that Labor’s two-party-preferred vote in Western Australia in 2022 (55.0 per cent) exceeded that secured by Labor in reliable left-leaning Victoria (54.8 per cent).

Minus the Bob Hawke phenomenon, though, it might be too much to expect Labor to repeat that 55 per cent share. But until the redistribution is finalised, speculation on specific seats would be premature.

And the territories? The Northern Territory is undergoing a redistribution of its two seats made more interesting by the very narrow margin by which Labor holds Lingiari (0.9 percentage points). And the three ACT seats remain solidly Labor.

A little recognised feature of Australian electoral history is that most first-term governments have “gone early,” failing to see out their full three years. Menzies (1951) and Whitlam (1974) were responding to Senate hostility and managed to secure double dissolutions. Fraser’s election (1977) was clearly opportunistic while Hawke’s (1984) contained opportunism with elements of constitutional necessity. Howard’s (1998) was ostensibly called to seek a mandate for the proposed goods and services tax.

An unusual feature of the election of 2010 and the double dissolution election of 2016 was the identity of the prime ministers defending their first-term governments. In neither case was it the leader who had won government: Julia Gillard had deposed Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull had done the same to Tony Abbott. Gillard had taken the government virtually full term while Turnbull’s double dissolution election was (by definition) “early.” If Albanese goes full term, he will be in a distinct minority among first-term prime ministers.

A net loss of three seats (on current boundaries) would see Labor lose its majority, but there is fair gap between that and a Coalition majority. And the impact of redistributions on the government’s effective majority remains an important variable in the lead-up to the election. It is not unusual after a redistribution for marginal seats to change status from one side to “notionally” the other when the votes from the previous election are reallocated. In theory, a majority government could become a “notional” minority one, needing a positive swing to retain government.

There is one area where history is becoming a less useful guide. Prior to the emergence of substantial crossbench numbers in the House of Representatives (sixteen of them elected in 2022), the side (Labor or the Coalition) with the greater two-party-preferred vote was overwhelmingly likely to secure majority government. This can no longer be taken for granted, especially if, as some expect, crossbench numbers are more likely to grow than shrink at the next election.

Those with memories of the indecisive 2010 election will hope that any minority government negotiations are conducted with greater despatch than was the case on that occasion. A keen observer will be the new governor-general, Sam Mostyn, mindful that she is entitled to an assurance that any proposed arrangements are workable (although they are ultimately tested on the floor of the House). I suspect that governors-general prefer decent majorities. •