As Labor governments came to power in one state and territory after another between 1995 and 2002, a theory emerged that state government had become the natural habitat of the social democratic party, whom voters trusted to deal with bread-and-butter issues such as health, education and public transport. At the federal level, where the sharper-edged concerns of economic management and foreign policy prevailed, conservatives were seen to provide a safer pair of hands.

Like so many electoral axioms before it, this one proved to have a limited shelf life. If the latter half of the equation in any way survived the defeat of the Howard government, Kevin Rudd has put it to rest in 2008 by cementing his supremacy in the federal domain. However, the sting in the tail for Labor has been that its ageing state governments must now realise they are no more invincible than John Howard.

This lesson was forcefully demonstrated when the first domino fell in Western Australia in September. The result carried many sobering implications for governments in other states, many of which have been laid out in a report conducted for the state party by former Senator Robert Ray (an expurgated version of which was made publicly available yesterday on the state party’s website).

Ray noted that the federal and Western Australian elections collectively put paid to a “formerly inviolable rule of politics”: that re-election was a certainty if at least 55 per cent of voters believed the country or state to be “heading in the right direction”. In the case of WA, this was trumped by the belief of 53 per cent that “it was time to give someone else a go”. There is no doubt that party polling ahead of the federal election showed very much the same thing — all of which is consistent with the well-understood phenomena of declining party loyalty and rising electoral volatility.

Between next year and 2011, the other five state Labor governments will face electorates with every reason to think it’s “time to give someone else a go”. Nowhere is the stench of political mortality more apparent than in New South Wales, which has today produced one of the most remarkable opinion polls of recent memory. The bi-monthly Newspoll survey puts Labor’s primary vote at 26 per cent — 3 per cent lower than in the previous poll, which was already the worst result for either major party (taking the Liberals and Nationals together) in Newspoll’s 23 year history.

While the situation is not nearly so dire for the other Labor premiers, all will be viewing the electoral calendar with an increasingly nervous eye. John Brumby continues to lead in the polls as the Victorian government passes the half-way mark of its third term, but that could change very quickly if a quarrelsome opposition can get its act together. Melbourne is increasingly suffering the kind of problems which cranky voters know to sheet home to state governments, notably traffic jams and train delays. Brumby’s personal ratings are still respectable, but his perceived negatives — arrogance and irritability — are very similar to those of Alan Carpenter, whose approval rating plunged once he was exposed to the blow-torch of an election campaign.

In Queensland, Anna Bligh is said to be toying with an election as early as late February, notwithstanding her repeated denials and the disastrous precedents of early elections in Western Australia and the Northern Territory. Whether she goes early in the year or later, Bligh will enter the campaign without the gift that kept on giving for Peter Beattie: an opposition divided between a Liberal rump and a National Party with little appeal in the state’s increasingly dominant urban south-east. While the Liberal National Party will undoubtedly prove a fractious and perhaps even unsustainable marriage in the long term, it is clear the scent of victory will impose a discipline the state’s conservative forces haven’t known since the emergence of Pauline Hanson — at least until the election is out of the way.

The next cab off the rank will be South Australia, where Labor’s troubles have been sufficient to prompt suggestions that Treasurer Kevin Foley has been counting heads for a possible move against Mike Rann. Here too the conservatives have been presenting an unusually united front under the leadership of Martin Hamilton-Smith, who is making a more convincing stab at the job than his two predecessors. Most importantly, the government is being worn down by an issue that will clearly not go away before the election due for March 2010 — water, which is in ever diminishing supply due to the ongoing decline of the Murray-Darling Basin. The Liberals are no doubt sharpening lines about the government’s failure to effectively deal with the problem while presiding over an economic boom, which proved enormously potent in Western Australia even before the onset of the financial crisis.

Tasmania will go to the polls at around the same time as South Australia — perhaps on the same day, as was the case in 2006. The state is otherwise a unique case in that it has proportional representation, which more often than not leads to minority governments. Labor performed exceptionally well to win majorities in 2002 and 2006, but its chances of making it a hat-trick are just about zero. The polls were bad enough for Labor in the twilight of Paul Lennon’s premiership to raise the prospect of a Liberal majority, but his successor David Bartlett has overseen a recovery despite ongoing scandals involving the forestry industry. In such an environment, it can only be said that nothing can be taken for granted if the Greens assume the balance of power as expected.

Peter Fray

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