For a while there, everyone (including me) was talking about the analogy with 2001: could John Howard once again survive a near-death experience?

This week, as more and more people take heed of what the polls have been saying all year, the talk is of 1996, the last time federal government changed hands. Paul Keating added his contribution yesterday, saying that some of Howard’s recent comments were “reminiscent of things I said ten years ago.”

The parallels with 1996 are certainly quite strong. In each case, the polls consistently forecast that the government would be defeated, but many observers expected the prime minister to again “pull a rabbit out of the hat”. And in each case, commentators had been burnt by their poor showing the previous time, and were ultra-cautious about predicting the government’s demise.

In 1996 as now, the government’s poor standing seemed to conflict with the strong economic climate, but that could just mean that voters become confident enough about the economy to experiment with change. As Keating says, “The economy is safe from the political figures”; Labor’s economic reforms ensured that “Even a God-ordinary fellow like [Howard] could run it for ten years.”

But there is one big difference from 1996 that needs to be kept in mind, namely the size of the target the opposition was facing.

Although we remember it as Keating’s great triumph, the 1993 election was actually very close. Labor won a majority of just 13 seats, and in 1996 the Coalition needed only a 0.5% uniform swing. This year, however, the government is coming off its very convincing 2004 win, with a 26-seat majority and a buffer of 4.2%.

To be confident of forming government, Labor needs to pick up 15 seats (although the number 17 inexplicably keeps cropping up — it did again yesterday in an Oz editorial). In 1996, Howard only needed seven. That’s a big difference.

If the current poll numbers hold up, this is all academic: Labor is recording swings in the neighborhood of 10%. But assuming they come down to more terrestrial levels, the size of the swing needed may well give Labor some moments of doubt.