So much has been said of what was unprecedented in the New South Wales election result that it’s worth recalling how, despite of everything, it can still be viewed within the continuity of recent electoral history.

The Coalition’s success in recording 51.2% of the primary vote is an enormous achievement by any standard, and one that would not have been possible without the disciplined and united front presented to the public over the past four years. However, in historical terms the figure is eclipsed by the “Wranslides” of 1978 and 1981, when Labor respectively polled 57.8% and 55.7%.

Two more recent elections from other states stand testament to the havoc that can be wrought in a perfect electoral storm: the 2001 election in Queensland, when Labor under Peter Beattie recorded 48.9%, and the 1993 election in South Australia, when the Liberal and National parties managed a combined vote of 53.9% in ousting a decade-old Labor government.

It must be granted that there are no such precedents for the depths plumbed by Labor’s primary vote. Despite being higher than most polls were predicting, its 25.5% has been matched only in circumstances where party splits sent rival factions into electoral contest with each other. However, the factors that drove them to this nadir are familiar enough to students of history.

What gave them record-breaking force was a long-term and continuing decline in partisan attachment, which has made electoral behaviour more volatile, enabling swings of a size that would have been impossible when voting behaviour was more deeply rooted in class identification.

Many are reluctant to credit explanations that fail to sheet home blame to the government’s specific policy failings, the party’s large cast of factional villain figures and the broader cultural malaise that is said to underscore both. Not for a moment should the role of these factors in reducing Labor to its present state be discounted. However, they should also not mislead us into underestimating the significance of such well-understood phenomena as the role of governmental longevity.

It has been more than three decades since a government stood before the people asking for an advance on 16 years, something that — despite Bob Carr’s audacious claim to the contrary yesterday — seems objectively impossible to achieve in modern politics. The glacial epoch of class-based electoral behaviour, when governments could survive off apparently permanent majorities for decades on end, is gone forever. For this reason, the worst landslides are usually meted out to governments that were clearly granted that one term too many, usually as a result of the failings of the opposing party. This becomes especially forceful when four-year terms are in place, as they are in most states but not federally.

One telling comparison here is with John Major’s Conservative government in the United Kingdom, which was annihilated in 1997 after being unexpectedly returned in 1992. That government recalled NSW Labor’s final term in another way: the all-pervasive air of sleaze that descended upon it after a dizzying procession of sometimes hair-raising personal scandals. Combined with a general readiness to think the worst of politicians under even the happiest of circumstances, a steady drumbeat of such stories can activate a “last days of Rome” image in the public mind which colours every aspect of how the government is perceived.

Another point of continuity between this and past elections was that the swing, while unprecedented in size, was familiar enough in shape. The headline-grabbing exception of Bathurst notwithstanding, the biggest swings were recorded in the new suburbs on the fringes of the city, just as the textbook tells us to expect when an electoral realignment is under way. Outstanding examples were Riverstone (a 29.9% swing), Menai (27.5%), Mulgoa (23.5%) and Penrith (25.2% when compared with the 2007 election rather than the byelection).

As such, prognostications about a fundamental redrawing of the electoral map are almost certainly premature — particularly given that no supporting evidence was offered by the federal election just seven months ago. It is true that electoral convulsions have on occasion been harbingers of long-term change — votes swathes of rural Queensland moved from Labor to the Country Party amid the wreckage of the split, and remain conservative to this day — but the lesson of history is that familiar patterns of electoral behaviour usually reassert themselves.

For all that the electorate has become more volatile over the past three decades, 80% of respondents surveyed by the Australian Election Study after the 2007 federal election were ready to express an identification with one major party or the other. In 37% of cases the identification was with Labor — a far greater share than voted for them in one of their traditionally strongest states on Saturday. No doubt that figure has come off a little since the happier times of 2007, but clearly many of those who defected on Saturday stayed with Labor at the federal election, and maintain an attachment of a kind that can survive the occasional dalliance with the other side.

When the horrors of the Carr-Iemma-Rees-Keneally years fade from memory — one might even say, when they come to be seen in clearer perspective — old habits will reassert themselves. However, there is no guarantee for Labor that this will happen for sooner rather than later. For every encouragement offered by Labor rebounds in New South Wales in 1991 and South Australia in 1997, there are several other examples of landslide results that were all but repeated the election after: New South Wales in 1981, Queensland in 2004, Victoria in 2006, federally in 1977.

Quite often it takes several applications of the lash to weaken a party’s vested interests to the point where it finds the strength to re-orient itself, and there is little about NSW Labor at present that offers cause for optimism about its regenerative capacities.

A further sense in which this election could not be said to have marked a paradigm shift was in the failure of minor parties and independents to reap a harvest from the collapse in support for Labor. While the Greens increased their vote, and perhaps picked up seats in the upper house and Balmain, the outstanding fact of the election for them is surely that they were only able to poach 1.4% from the 13.5% that went missing from Labor.

One difficulty was familiar from the Victorian campaign: the lack of a substantial state leadership figure, in marked contrast with the party at federal level. However, an issue peculiar to the NSW party has been its “hard left” image and policy orientation and how this played with the kind of moderate swinging voters whose support was there for the taking. Much has been said in particular about Marrickville candidate Fiona Byrne’s role as mayor of a council that imposed a boycott on Israel, in light of her failure to win a seat where most would have backed her a few months ago. This seems to have been significant not only for the policy itself, but also for what its existence says about the party’s sense of proportion.

Greens activists are quick to deny that their party contains competing tendencies, but tension between purity and pragmatism is an unavoidable fact of life for any party of a progressive bent. The NSW Greens’ recent performance suggests the former has carried more weight than the latter, which they will need to address should they decide that electoral under-achievement is really what bothers them.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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