Fixed-term parliaments are a newly promised novelty in Britain, but in Australia we already have experience with them, at least at state level. So we know that Victoria will go to the polls in six months, on November 27, when John Brumby’s ALP will be seeking a fourth term in office.
Labor has dominated state politics across the country for more than a decade, but there are ample signs that era could be drawing to a close. One state, Western Australia, has already gone, electing a coalition government (albeit very narrowly) in September 2008. Two others, South Australia and Tasmania, gave Labor the thumbs down in elections this year, although it was able to cling to power in both. The New South Wales and Queensland governments (especially the former) are also looking shaky.
Victoria has looked the most secure of the lot for some time. After 10½ years in government, however, it’s not surprising to find a desire for change starting to be felt, and no one now seems to think that November’s election is a foregone conclusion. So how likely is a change of government?
At the 2006 election, Labor won 54.4% of the two-party-preferred vote, and 55 of the 88 seats (against 23 Liberals, 9 Nationals and one independent; the independent, Craig Ingram, sits for what would otherwise be a safe conservative seat, so I count him in the opposition total). To win a majority, the opposition would need to pick up 12 seats, requiring a uniform swing of 6.3%. (Results are here: Adam Carr has a handy pendulum.)
The polls have been improving for the coalition, but not to that extent. The last Newspoll, released a month ago, shows them on 48%, a swing of 2.4%. An earlier Nielsen poll gave them 47% — a big improvement on their poll numbers from a year or two ago, but still only enough to gain three seats on a uniform swing.
While fixed terms help an opposition in some respects — most obviously by removing a government’s ability to manipulate the election date — they can also work against it. Without fixed terms, Victoria’s media would now be full of speculation as to when Brumby would call the election. Much of it would no doubt be silly, but it would at least be turning people’s minds towards state politics and giving opposition leader Ted Baillieu some extra oxygen.
Baillieu does, however, have some significant advantages. The government is beset by problems that generate bad headlines — public transport, branch stacking, the bushfire inquiry — and often looks wrong-footed in its response. Brumby has never been personally popular, having been treasurer before taking over the leadership in 2007 (think Peter Costello and Gordon Brown), while Baillieu by contrast has provided the Liberals with an unaccustomed degree of leadership stability.
There is also the prospect of a federal election in the two or maybe three months preceding the Victorian poll. While that, too, will divert attention from Baillieu’s message, and a decisive Rudd victory could boost Labor’s morale, a swing to the federal opposition — which now seems quite likely — may create a bandwagon effect in the coalition’s favor.
No Labor government in this cycle has won its fourth-term election without some anxiety, and the trend is clearly for them to get more difficult: Queensland in 2006, New South Wales in 2007 and Tasmania this year. But they have nonetheless all won. At this stage the odds must favor Victoria going the same way, but the contest is still open.