Saturday’s landslide victory in the Northern Territory was certainly a good news day for Labor. But victories like this only draw attention to the gap between the ALP’s performances in the states and territories and its performance at federal level – a gap that just keeps getting bigger.

To show what we mean, Crikey has compiled the following table, showing the Labor primary vote at last year’s federal election in each state or territory, and the corresponding vote at the most recent state or territory election, with the year indicated in brackets.

Federal (2004) State/Territory
New South Wales 36.7% 43.3% (2003)
Victoria 40.5% 47.9% (2002)
Queensland 34.8% 47.0% (2004)
Western Australia 34.8% 41.9% (2005)
South Australia 36.8% 36.7% (2002)
Tasmania 44.6% 51.9% (2002)
ACT 50.3% 46.8% (2004)
Northern Territory 44.3% 52.5% (2005)

In five of the eight jurisdictions, the gap between the two figures is about the same: Labor is getting around 7% or 8% more at state/territory level than it is federally. Whatever it is that’s holding Labor back at federal level seems to be pretty consistent across the country – which helps to explain why psephologists have been able to pick state and territory results even without much in the way of local knowledge.

One of the three exceptions is the ACT, the only place where Labor can really be pleased with its federal performance (probably because the locals equate a Labor government with increased spending). Another is Queensland, where the difference runs the other way – Labor’s state vote is more than 12% ahead of its federal vote, due to the combination of an exceptionally popular premier and a bad joke for a state Liberal Party.

The interesting exception is South Australia, where Labor is at a different point of the electoral cycle. All the others are in their second or third terms, but the Rann government is still in its first term, with an election due early next year. If it repeats the experience of the eastern states (as the opinion polls suggest) it will gain a swing big enough to bring it into line with the others.

The moral of this, in my view, is that we should be wary of explanations that assert some basic difference between state and federal politics. While that is certainly possible, the biggest single factor seems to be timing. Once federal and state results fall out of alignment, the power of incumbency ensures that they stay out.

Remember, it’s little more than a decade since the Keating government in Canberra was facing non-Labor governments in all but one of the states and territories.