There was speculation this week about the possibility of Labor state governments jumping the gun on Scott Morrison and issuing writs for the Senate elections in their states.
Absurd as it is to imagine that Daniel Andrews, Annastacia Palaszczuk or Mark McGowan would put their state governors in such an invidious position of breaking all convention, it seemed strangely apposite. The election silliness has begun.
The week began with frothing over Morrison’s failure to call the election. Hands up if you’ve been approached by an outraged voter robbed of a May 11 election.
Then the debate about two opinion polls showing a one per cent difference in support for the ALP. Ipsos on 53, Newspoll on 52, then Morgan on 52.5 and Essential on 52. Nothing much has changed? The trend holds? Oh, no. Breaking news: the government can win this, the electorate is waking up, it’s not over yet.
The confected drama of it all. Cliff-hanger storylines. So much empty space to fill. Tune in for tomorrow’s episode.
The silliness sees debates about independents winning some of the safest seats in the nation. It sees electric cars taking centre stage amid ridiculous claims—lock up your ute—and the predictions of an apocalypse under the other mob. The Trumpian war on truth has crept that little bit closer. Count the times there’s an allegation of lies or fake news.
All the while, it seems like a campaign already being fought on Labor’s issues. Coalition MPs are reborn, having discovered infrastructure, hospitals, schools and roads. The prime minister and Paul Fletcher, one of his Sydney ministers, even presided over an announcement of $7.5 million for a carpark in Hurstville.
But the attack campaign has also started. Never underestimate the power of ‘going negative’. It could yet decide the outcome.
What is about to happen? History doesn’t tell us but it does provide a framework for more considered speculation.
Of the 45 elections since 1901, the first three produced hung parliaments, whilst the non-Labor parties have won 28 of the rest, and the ALP just 14, a two to one advantage. As Whitlam put it, ‘the way of the reformer is hard’.
However, of the 19 elections held over the past 50 years since 1969, the coalition has won ten and the ALP nine. It’s a more even contest now.
But conservative governments tend to last longer. Every non-Labor government since 1917 has won a third term, sometimes under different leaders. We have to look back to the first-ever Liberal government of Joseph Cook, elected in 1913, to find a non-Labor administration that failed to be re-elected.
The Hawke government is the only Labor administration to win a third term. A fourth and fifth followed. Under Rudd and Gillard, the usual historical pattern prevailed. Never think it’s easy.
We know the gap narrows as the election draws near. During the Howard years, it was common for the ALP to be leading in the high 50s in the opinion polls, before defeat brought reality crashing home.
Elections where governments change are rarely landslides. As defined by Malcolm Mackerras, landslides occur when the winner’s two-party-preferred vote exceeds 55% and they take 60% of the seats in the House. Landslides occurred in 1917, 1929, 1931, 1943, 1966 and 1975. From Menzies (51.0%) to Abbott (53.49%), incoming governments have tended to have large, comfortable victories. Aside from Fraser, however, they weren’t landslides, although Hawke, Howard and Abbott managed 60% of seats.
Gushing predictions have the ALP sweeping the map. They know it’s not that simple. If Warringah, Kooyong, Higgins and Flinders fell, it would be cataclysmic for the Liberals. Let the heart flutter but don’t hold your breath.
More likely, even if Abbott could be toppled, other independents have a job before them. Kerryn Phelps took out a historic victory in Wentworth last year but no independent has had to defend a win like that six months later. In Indi, Cathy McGowan’s anointed successor is aiming for a unique place in electoral history by becoming the first independent to succeed an independent. None of this is easy.
When the government starts in a minority and needs to hold everything and pick up seats to win, it’s better to look to the usual batch of marginals. All the more so, given the ALP has benefited from redistributions.
If the ALP can pick up Corangamite, Chisholm, Deakin and Dunkley in Victoria, it’s all but over. If Capricornia, Forde and Flynn fall in Queensland, it is over. Gilmore, Robertson and Banks in New South Wales would do it as well. The Liberals hold no seats in Tasmania and that’s unlikely to change. In South Australia, assuming Georgina Downer has made no inroads in Mayo, Sturt is the only seat of interest and then only because Pyne has retired. Western Australia seems to be difficult for the Liberals.
A historical note: a state government did once issue Senate election writs against the wishes of the federal government. In April 1974, Gough Whitlam’s appointment of former DLP leader Senator Vince Gair as Ambassador to Ireland created a sixth Senate vacancy which in those days had to be filled at the scheduled election. In an attempt to stymie Whitlam, Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen instructed his governor to issue the writ for five vacancies.
Events moved fast. Opposition Leader Billy Snedden decided to block Supply and force a general election. On this day—April 10—in 1974, Whitlam announced a double dissolution election would take place on May 18. He won a second term but the Dismissal was only 18 months away.
Like Whitlam nearly half a century ago, Morrison seems to have the ‘crash through or crash’ mentality. He won’t go down without a fight. He’s up against it but maybe it’s all over anyway. Not to worry: on with the silliness.