It is not yet three years since the last federal election on July 2, 2016. Since that fateful day, when the Turnbull coalition government’s majority was reduced from thirty to just one, all eight state and territory governments have faced the electorate. New South Wales completed the cycle last Saturday.
Of the eight elections, governments were re-elected in five (ACT, Qld, Tas, Vic and NSW) and defeated in three (NT, WA and SA). It’s a handy reminder that governments usually win. Since 2000, governments have been re-elected at 31 of the 48 elections held in all jurisdictions. That’s a success rate of 65%. In the thirty years since 1989, governments have been re-elected at 49 of the 79 elections, or 62% .
It was therefore reasonable to expect Gladys Berejiklian’s coalition government to be returned at the weekend. Leadership wasn’t an issue. The government had a batch of infrastructure projects in progress. The Labor opposition had an unknown and untried leader, his two predecessors having each departed under a cloud. On the other hand, things looked crook in the country and the federal Liberals were in a mess. It could have been more dramatic than it was.
The analysts have been hard at work since Saturday. Did Opposition Leader Michael Daley’s remark about Asian immigration turn the tide? Was the stadiums issue even relevant? Why couldn’t the ALP make an impact with health, education and other bread and butter issues?
They’re all interesting questions. What decides an election? Issues or emotion? Practical ideas or appeals to values? Leadership? The economy? The campaign?
They’re also examples of that oldest of political conceits: that everything matters, that everything can change votes, that everyone is tuned in and listening all the time.
The former leader of the federal Nationals, John Anderson, turned analyst. With the coalition, Labor and Greens vote percentages all in decline, he saw in the election more evidence of a global breakdown of trust. The ‘politics is broken’ crowd no doubt nodded in wise agreement. Smell the disengagement.
An alternative view: the electorate did what it always does. It looked at a set of imperfect choices and chose a government. It made a series of practical and pragmatic decisions about individual candidates. It looked for the meat and potatoes.
In those other state elections since 2016, these choices saw a long-term Labor government in South Australia tossed out whilst Western Australia elected Labor in a landslide. Queensland voters chose to re-elect their Labor government with a small majority, while Victorian voters delivered a landslide. ACT voters re-elected their 15-year-old government, and more than 50% of Tasmanians supported the Liberals for another term, albeit with proportional voting taking two seats off the Hodgman government.
These outcomes are reassuring. It’s civic engagement. Citizens taking their vote seriously. Choosing. Rewarding those in politics who concentrate on the basics.
In NSW they did it again, trimming the government’s sails but—despite swings and two more seats—unable to abide the opposition. You can’t win with a 33.4% primary vote, but here’s some gentle encouragement. Try again next time.
The electorate took a look at the four main parties (Liberal, Nationals, ALP, Greens) represented in the parliament and gave them 84.6% of the primary vote. How’s that for trust? Anger with the Nationals in the state’s west saw the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers rewarded with two more seats and 3.3% of the vote. The Nationals warned: ‘Listen to us, help us.’
A motley collection of micro parties scooped up the remaining 12.1%, all of them polling less, and much less, than 1.5% each. Give us a call when you’ve won some real votes.
The vote for the Berejiklian government was qualified. Its majority was reduced—narrowly—while 51 of the lower house’s 93 seats recorded a swing to the ALP. There were 23 Liberal seats that swung to the ALP. With the exception of Coogee, these swings were too small to take seats off the government. The mood for change wasn’t there.
The ALP’s core supporters continued to return from their mass desertion of 2011. In 23 of the 34 seats already held by the ALP, there was a pro-Labor swing. In Newcastle, for instance, the ALP’s 7.4% margin swelled by another 10.6%. By contrast, at last year’s Victorian election, the ALP secured swings to it in 75 of the 88 seats, swings of sufficient magnitude to win a landslide victory.
There has been much talk about the dramatic decline in the Nationals vote. In fact, it only declined by 0.9% statewide. The massive swings against them in seats such as Barwon, Murray and Dubbo were offset by swings to them in Clarence, Cootamundra, Monaro, Northern Tablelands and Oxley. The electoral damage was confined to the remotest parts of the state. It’s the water issues, stupid. And run-down services.
Variations and nuances, all explicable and rational. Voters telling us what’s what. Remember the disappearance of Nick Xenophon’s electoral juggernaut in 2018 when voters rejected his suggestion that he could run South Australia. Or the One Nation surge that was set to sweep Queensland in 2017 but saw it win just one seat. Or the Andrews landslide in 2018 that was supposed to be undone by crime and marauding gangs.
We should rejoice in the judgment of the electorate.
The voters will do it again in May. They’ll distinguish state from federal, as they always do. They’ll choose again, looking for the meat and potatoes. As diligent electors, their minds might already be made up.
Malcolm Farnsworth is the publisher of australianpolitics.com