There’s nothing new about John Howard’s centralism. Like most federal politicians, fighting the states comes naturally to him. But the most recent twist – trying to sell the idea that the states are to blame for upward pressure on interest rates – still comes as something of a surprise.

As commentators are pointing out, the economics of this are dubious at best. If state deficits were such an important factor, you’d think we’d have heard more about them over the last few years, instead of waiting until (at least if yesterday’s leaks is correct) Crosby/Textor told the prime minister to make state governments an election issue.

But it’s the politics that are really interesting. There’s no doubt that unpopular state governments can sometimes help the other party federally; many in the Howard government will remember the 1990 federal election, when the Liberals won nine seats in Victoria on the strength of an unpopular state Labor government.

At this point in the cycle, however, all the state governments have more recent mandates than Howard’s; indeed, all bar Western Australia have been re-elected in the last 18 months, and all by large majorities.

As Peter Brent put it last week, “on the available evidence, the state Premiers are more popular than John Howard, and generally always have been.”

If Kevin Rudd can get even close to the levels of support his state counterparts have been getting, he will win comfortably. The following table shows the Coalition’s two-party-preferred vote in the mainland states at the 2004 election compared with the most recent state election.

Federal State Difference
New South Wales 51.9% 47.5% 4.4%
Victoria 51.0% 45.7% 5.3%
Queensland 57.1% 45.1% 12.0%
Western Australia 55.4% 47.7% 7.7%
South Australia 54.4% 43.2% 11.2%

Moreover, those state figures seem to be holding up for Labor. There haven’t been any recent polls for NSW and Victoria since their state elections, but in the other states the most recent Newspoll show the Coalition vote steady in South Australia, down slightly in WA and down sharply in Queensland.

Asking people to choose who they trust as between the Howard government and the states is a risky strategy. On the figures, it looks as if people have already made that choice pretty clearly.

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