With the tenth anniversary of the remarkable 1996 election, it’s an
appropriate time to review some of the psephological features of John
Howard’s decade.

First, Australia’s voting pattern remains very stable. No leader,
Howard included, ever has overwhelming electoral support; even a
landslide victory like 1996 only involves about one voter in 20
switching. It’s worth remembering that 47.3% of us voted to make Mark
Latham prime minister in 2004, just as 46.4% voted to keep Paul Keating
in 1996.

Second, long-serving prime ministers have a lot of luck. Robert Menzies
won eight elections, but five of them with less than 52% of the vote
(two-party-preferred). The same goes for three of Bob Hawke’s four
wins, and two of Howard’s four. Their winning averages were all about
the same, 51.5%. Malcolm Fraser did a little better with 53.5%, but you
have to go back to Lyons and Hughes for an average that reaches 55%.

Third, Howard has nonetheless changed the electoral map significantly,
not by the magnitude of his wins but by their location. Over his four
victories, Australia has swung an average of 4.2% to the Coalition. But
five seats have swung more than 12%, and four of them are in the outer
suburbs of Sydney: Macarthur, Hughes, Lindsay and Greenway.

Conversely, the least favourable territory for Howard is the homes of
the well-off and the well-educated. About 24 seats are better for Labor
now than they were in 1993, including unashamedly “elite” places like
Higgins, Curtin, Ryan, Boothby, Adelaide, Kooyong and Canberra.

There’s a state pattern as well. Of the 20 biggest swings to the
Coalition, 17 are in Queensland and New South Wales. Only one, Aston,
is in Victoria. Victoria was once the jewel in the Liberal Party crown;
now Labor holds the majority of its seats, 19 out of 37. Queensland is
now the Coalition heartland, with 21 seats out of 28.

Probably the most interesting features of the last decade,
psephologically speaking, are elsewhere: the decline of the National
Party, the replacement of the Democrats by the Greens, and the ALP’s
clean sweep of state governments. But the relationship of these to John
Howard is still debatable. Most likely, there are trends at work that
predate Howard and may outlast him.

Peter Fray

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