There’s a common view that there’s some difference between state and federal governments that gives Labor a natural advantage in one but not the other. For long periods, however, results at the two levels moved fairly well together. This occurred during the 1980s, when Labor governments were elected and then gradually fell out of favour; the alignment slipped in 1993 when the Keating government unexpectedly won the GST election, producing a period from 1993-96 when Labor was in government federally but in only one or two states.

The two returned to sync with the Howard victory in 1996, leading to non-Labor governments across the country (although not quite simultaneously, because NSW was slightly ahead of the cycle). At the state level, all of those governments then fell at the same point of the cycle, and Labor governments took office all with very narrow majorities (South Australia being the last in 2002). The federal government, however, although it suffered the same sort of adverse swing in 1998, managed to hold on.

In 2001 it looked as if the pattern would return; the Labor state governments were progressively being re-elected with landslide majorities, and Labor was set for a landslide in Canberra as well. But then came Tampa and 9/11, ensuring the return of the Coalition. Since then, state and federal governments have both entrenched themselves further, so that the difference between the two now looks like the natural order of things.

But imagine that the luck had run the other way in the 1998 or 2001 federal elections – by now, the Beazley government would probably enjoy the same sort of majority that Labor has in the states. Alternatively, imagine that Coalition governments had held on in a couple of the big states in the late 1990s (some of them were very close – the Kennett government only lost by 16 votes in 1999). Things would look very different.

Everyone wants to believe in deep causes rather than luck, but it seems to me that the only structural change has been the increased power of incumbency: once governments slip out of alignment, even if by chance, it’s much harder for them to be dislodged.