What do last weekend’s election results in South Australia and Tasmania mean for Labor’s chances at the federal election?

Plenty, if you believe the anointed commentariat, who have has been desperate to drain as much analytical mileage from the final tally as possible, whether it’s “disillusionment with the Labor brand” (Geoff Kitney in The AFR), the potential to “feed into the psychological battle in Canberra” (Michelle Grattan, The Age) or “a warning to Kevin Rudd to concentrate on policy” (Dennis Shanahan, The Australian).

Those leaps of logic have been rightly rubbished by experts like the ABC’s Antony Green, who are quick to recall similar excursions made after every state election in recent memory in the service of cheap headlines (Crikey‘s favourite is this ABC story quoting Kim Beazley in the wake of the 2006 Victorian state election).

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You’d think experienced former party chiefs in the states would be hesitant to read too much into the South Australian and Tasmanian results. Not so, it seems, when you’ve got the Herald Sun on the phone demanding some fly-by-night “research” on what the other states’ results mean for Victoria.

That’s exactly what the Victorian tabloid dished up on Monday [not online, strangely], with state political reporter Matt Johnston opining on the probability of Victorian Premier John Brumby losing government amid a “voter backlash” that has the potential to  somehow creep across Bass Straight and the Wimmera in into the halls of Spring Street by November.

Johnston’s report, just like this one on the implications for the Green vote on the last month’s Altona byelection, was based on outsourced research provided by CPI Strategic, the firm setup last year by former Victorian ALP State Secretary Stephen Newnham and former Liberal operative Rick Brown.

Crikey dealt with the Altona report at the time. But CPI’s “Analysis of What SA and Tas Elections Mean For Victoria” hits new heights in the extrapolation game.

The two-page report, that correctly concedes that “translating the experiences of one state Government to another is difficult and risky”, nevertheless attempts to do just that, with only a fleeting reference to Tasmania.

Newnham and Brown say that “a perception of arrogance”, “an issue of complacency”  and an “it’s time” factor somehow knit the three states together. Fair enough, but it’s when attempts translate that into a likely change of government that the logic gets shaky.

Reading off ABC Elections analyst Antony Green’s Victorian pendulum, Johnston helpfully listed the Victorian seats that would fall to the Liberals (but not the Greens) “…if results went a similar way during the November election.”

But wouldn’t the current Victorian polls, which have the current swing against Victorian Labor at about 5%, been a safer guide than simply reading off the South Australian swing of 7-8%? On those readings, the Brumby government would be returned, albeit with a reduced majority.

ABC Elections analyst Antony Green was livid over the media’s attempts to spin the SA results into a pre-ordained narrative when contacted by Crikey:

“I don’t see why the media and the pundits can’t just say the voters of South Australia voted to elect a South Australian government on South Australian issues. That’s where the focus should be on from Saturday’s results. Why pick the South Australian swing in Victoria? A five, 10 of 15% swing would make just as much sense.”

The interpretation appears to be cooked up by Johnston to lend credibility to his desire for a “dire warnings for Brumby” piece to fill up space in Monday’s paper.

Green was damning on the “what it means” meme on The 7:30 Report on Monday:

“I’m not sure there are many electoral implications, apart from the warning to the Liberal Party that if they help to win the next election, they’ve got to worry more about marginal seats than the overall vote. That would be the lesson from South Australia. The Tasmanian — I don’t think there’s any lesson from that in terms of the votes because you’ve got such a high vote for the Greens but the fact there’s instability in the formation of a new government will put a spoke in the Federal Government’s attempts to reform health arrangements for the states.”

Over at Larvatus Prodeo, Mark Bahnisch makes the point that analysts based hundreds of kilometres away from the site of a political skirmish should think carefully before applying a critical lens to contests they probably don’t know too much about.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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