For a brief moment last year, it seemed that early elections were about to go out of fashion.
First came the Northern Territory poll of 9 August, which Chief Minister Paul Henderson sprang on what was left of the Country Liberal Party a full year before it was due.
Henderson’s government went into the election holding 19 of the parliament’s 25 seats and emerged just a handful of votes from defeat, suffering a bruising 8% swing.
It was a result that sent a chill down the collective spine of Labor in Western Australia, where Premier Alan Carpenter had just called a snap election six months early.
Sure enough, Carpenter’s government was duly booted from office at the election on 6 September, in Labor’s first defeat at state level since 1997.
At that stage, it seemed a crisis of historic dimensions would be needed before any further leaders would consider taking a punt on an early election.
Right on cue, the global financial crisis reached critical mass one week after the defeat of the Carpenter government, initiating an unrelieved torrent of frightening economic data and a severe deterioration in state government balance sheets.
So it is that a third Labor leader, Anna Bligh, has calculated that Queensland’s third election in little over five years constitutes a lesser risk for her government than whatever it is that lies in store in the looming state budget.
Much about the onset of this election is reminiscent from WA, with the Premier pleading that an end must be put to “uncertainty”, and the Opposition Leader offering a word-perfect recital of the WA Liberals’ line that a Government which had squandered the resources boom now stands unprepared for the downturn.
If the campaign continues to follow the WA script, Labor will find early election cynicism feeding into existing perceptions of arrogance, causing a sharp dive in poll ratings that will knock its campaign fatally off course.
However, history rarely repeats in quite so neat a fashion, and there are important distinctions between the current circumstances and those of last year.
While the environment of uncertainty invoked by Bligh is almost entirely self-generated, it is nonetheless very real thanks to an extended period of election speculation in the media, which has set off a number of false alarms in recent months.
The atmosphere at the time Alan Carpenter made his fateful trip to the Governor last August was quite different.
Expectations of an early election had actually faded as Troy Buswell gave the impression he would grimly hang on to the Liberal leadership, which looked set to doom the Liberals to defeat whenever it was held.
Only after the unexpected and entirely bloodless transition to Colin Barnett did Carpenter spring the election on the Liberals — a move Labor research shows engendered sympathy for Barnett, who was seen to have been “unfairly ambushed”.
It is also interesting to note that yesterday’s Essential Research poll found a slight majority of committed respondents would support an early federal election if the Coalition continues opposing the government’s financial measures, which might suggest voters are ready to accept that “certainty” is a precious commodity in the current environment.
Before last year, it was generally believed a government indulging in an opportunistic early election could expect a backlash in the short term, but that it would soon run out of steam as bread-and-butter issues came to dominate the campaign.
Bligh might not be fooling too many people with her claim that the early election is “not about my political interest”, but she is nonetheless in a better position to confirm this conventional wisdom than was Carpenter.
Crikey’s brand spanking new Queensland election blog, Pineapple Party Time, launches today with exclusive content from regular Crikey contributors William Bowe, Mark Bahnisch and Possum Comitatus.