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Apr 3, 2012

Labor could be cycling toward its doom

The same pattern keeps repeating: a party wins government federally at the high point of its fortunes, then the tide starts to run out again and it loses seats at state level until eventually it loses federally as well and the cycle starts again.


I remarked yesterday on the way pundits keep trying to interpret the polls either without any historical context, or at best trying to introduce a historical context that they proceed to get wrong. All the more refreshing, then, to read a commentator who knows what he’s talking about. Step forward Antony Green, with a fascinating piece yesterday on the cycles of state and federal politics.

Green’s graphs, going back to Labor’s low point in 1969, clearly show the cyclical nature of party fortunes. The same pattern keeps repeating: a party wins government federally at the high point of its fortunes, then the tide starts to run out again and it loses seats at state level until eventually it loses federally as well and the cycle starts again.

There’s nothing new about what’s happened over the past four years, it’s only that it’s been unusually sudden. Green’s second graph, just showing the proportion of state seats held, makes vivid, as he puts it, “how Labor’s representation has fallen off a cliff at the last two state elections.”

That certainly suggests that the Gillard government is doomed; whenever a party has previously reached that low level of fortunes in the states (Labor in 1975, the Coalition in 2006) it has lost the next federal election decisively.

But the cycle also provides comfort for Labor supporters who may be concerned that their party is beyond recovery; there are plenty of precedents for parties coming back from disaster. Green has valuable things to say about the changing nature of our political parties and their class basis, but ultimately he remains unconvinced by the argument that Labor’s predicament today is radically different to what parties have faced before. For what it’s worth, I think he’s probably right.

That’s not to say the trend always moves uniformly. Labor recovered somewhat from a trough in the late 1980s, winning the 1989 Queensland election and almost winning in 1991 in New South Wales. In an earlier period, the Coalition recovered from its low point in the early 1950s (when it was out of government in every state bar South Australia), going on to win a further five federal elections — it was saved by the great Labor split.

The historical record certainly warns against explaining election results by short-term factors — the personalities of the leaders, election campaigns, the headlines of the day. No doubt those things have some influence, but clearly there are longer-term causal influences at work.

It’s not at all clear, however, what they are. Green suggests (as have several others) that being in federal government is itself causally responsible for poor state performance: “the party in office federally clearly has a deleterious impact on that party’s representation across the country.” But I’m not sure that’s the best explanation.

I’d suggest that what’s happening is that over recent decades winning government federally seems for some reason to lag a bit behind a party’s performance at state level, so that the federal win tends to represent the high point of a party’s achievement. (This seems to be connected with the fact that close federal elections always go to the incumbent, whereas there’s no such regularity at state level.)

From that point they lose ground both state and federally (federal governments never seem to get big swings in their favour, but they almost always start with a bigger cushion) until they reach a new low point, which tends to coincide with a change of federal government, starting the pattern afresh. It’s not that people are consciously “balancing” state and federal governments, just that the two cycles are not perfectly aligned.

Ten years ago, for example, the Coalition was clearly on the nose at state and federal levels, but the “stickier” nature of federal elections meant that dissatisfaction showed up mostly at state elections. When Labor finally won federally in 2007 that was its peak, and the subsequent decline has been precipitous.

The question now is whether Labor can reverse that decline before it claims Julia Gillard. History is against it, but of course there is no precedent for anything until it’s done a first time.


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19 thoughts on “Labor could be cycling toward its doom

  1. Mike Flanagan

    A perceptive an interesting observation of both you Charles and Antony.
    I would like to add that Queensalnd have had a predominantly conservative bias in their governments from the second world war. The Peterson gerrymander only explains a part of this trend. I suggest that the past number of Labor Governments have been both against the trend and anomalous. I think modern history tells us that queensland is naturally conservative in its’ politics and will probably continue to be in contradiction to its’
    earlier political history
    The closeness of the balance of the parties in Victoria is an indication that the collapse of the labour support in NSW has some individual characteristics related to the
    Sussex St influence and syndrome. This also points to an anomalous trend pertinent to NSW
    Even so it is not uncommon in post ’69 political history to have a Federal Government that is not of the same persuasions as the majority of the state governments.
    Prior to ’75 the DLP had a major impact on the governments throughout the nation and the rise of the Greens in replacing the Democrats is significant associated with the reinvgorated interest of the younger voters throughout the nation.
    Their(Greens) distribution of prefernces may have a dramatic impact on the future of both government makeup and the dominance of the two party equation.
    We could also see the development of more and more independants successfully contesting Federal seats thus requiring us to get use to minority coalition
    governments from either side of politics

  2. Michael

    Wishful thinking Charlie boy and probably the only thing left for you guys to hold on to.
    However, I don’t recall history throwing up results like NSW (2011) & Qld (2012) elections.
    The fact is that Labor as a trademark is utterly rooted. The public know this, the Coalition know this, the media know this, the Greens know this. The only ones who don’t know this are Labor & the moronic Unions.

  3. Charles Richardson

    @Michael – well, actually, history has thrown up quite a few results like those. Labor in 1974 was reduced to 11 seats in Queensland – do you really think there’s a big difference between 11 and 8? The Liberals were reduced to 3 seats in Queensland in 2001, and 17 in Victoria the following year. Labor got down to 17 in Victoria in 1961. It happens. Everyone likes to think their own era is unique and special, but it’s usually not true.

  4. Michael


    Make that 7 Labor with Anna Bligh looking very likely to still lose her seat.

    You can close your eyes, say your prayers, meditate or simply get pissed but rest assure that life as you once knew it is over!
    Labor is finished 4 ever, wether it comes back as the New Democrats, the Social Democrats or whatever else, it will never have credibility again as the Australian Labor Party.

  5. Mike Flanagan

    I am not dismissing Antony’s cyclical hypothesis but am trying to
    point out there are some peculiarities and anomalies that are relevant
    today that may not show up in graphs and analysis of recent past
    There are some fundamental questions and challenges that are
    confronting the populace in general. Our experience of the banking
    meltdown (GFC), the western nations sovereign debt crisis and climate
    change are questions that I think stimulate our youth. Lots of
    people find these issues confronting. Over the past generations,
    perhaps since the end of the second world war, we have experienced
    and accepted an ever improving and more secure lifestyle and
    standard of living that is now economicly and scientificly in question.
    Whilst we confront these challenges and try to find solutions,it is my
    contention we will experience considerable volatility that will
    manifest itself in the ballot box.
    The polarisation that these questions create could explain a fair
    bit of the Queensland results together with the inherent conservatism
    apparent in the states’ history. Admittedly the losing party had some
    self inflicted wounds but there must be more to it to explain the
    enormity of the swing. Traditionally a 5% or 8% swing was enough for
    incoming party to form a healthy majority. Today the swings are
    double that figure.

  6. Liz45

    @MICHAEL – Yes, and if Abbott’s elected, he’ll go after two terms at the most, and the Libs can only blame themselves. He’ll be so right wing with lots of horrors to come, that eventually, he’ll be responsible for a similar position that faces the ALP now! (I hope!) Probably won’t affect you as you’re probably one of the ‘chosen few’? Pity about women and young workers! Too bad how sad, I suppose you’d say!

  7. Michael

    Liz you thought the same thing about Howard but looking at Oz then & Oz now can you not see how average Australians are so much worse off? Or does ideology consume you so much that you don’t care?

  8. Mike Flanagan

    My posting (still under the moderators boot) at 5.38 requires an explanation. I read your
    response to Michael and although I thoughht it a bit formal I thought
    it was a response to me. I read Michaels posting earlier and dismissed it as
    not deserving of a response.

    Keep your pecker up, there are 18 months to the election and the
    volatility in the electorate can be radical both ways .

  9. mattsui

    Perhaps the poll bludger guys could do more with this data. The premis is quite true but anomalies between states makes it difficult to draw any conclusion from bum-on-seat percentages alone.
    Irregularity of term length as well as local bias and the varied nature of lib/nat coalitions all spanners in this type of calculation works.

  10. David

    Charles you were never very good at picking, apart from your bugle…no doubt Crikey paid you for that load of twaddle

  11. AR

    It is a phenomenon well observed that, whenever & wherever left(ish) governments raise the living standards of the workers one of the first results is that those same people begin to get greedy and want to ape their ‘betters’ and raise the draw bridge.
    In amerika there is the added element of race – 40 yrs it would have been rare for the Repugs to attract black or hispanic (apart from Miami cubans) votes.
    When there is no compulsion to vote, the greatest threat to left(ish) government is less the resurgent Right than complacency of the Left, followed by disenchantment & self disenfranchisement when the Tories return to their congenitally nasty ways.

  12. Liz45

    @MICHAEL – I sure did! The only difference between them, is Abbott is a misogynist as well as hating workers, Unions etc.

    What was the interest rate under Howard?

    How many wage rises did his Govt support?

    How much did he improve the income of pensioners? Under Labor, my pension is $180 more than when Howard lost his seat!!!!!The most we got from Howard was maybe double figures in March & September – always behind the 8 ball!

    How much did they spend on infrastructure, education etc?Very little!

    Unlike some people, I don’t just concern myself with my own position. Next to too many people, although I’m on a full pension, (which means I have no other income?) and live in public housing, there are many people raising kids or ill or with a disability or are carers etc, who’ve been doing it tough for years. show me where Abbott & Howard helped them!

    Under Howard millionaires were in receipt of family benefits, and even now, too many wealthy people are receiving a part pension, or full pension but live in a home that is worth lots!

    I couldn’t stand Howard, and I like Abbott even less! I believe that Abbott would be worse than Howard re workers rights, women’s rights and human rights in general. It would be like having Pell in the Lodge with his ‘hand’ on women’s ovaries!!!!!(they might get some ideas from the Republicans in the US?).

    @MIKE FLANAGAN – Indeed Mike! I don’t agree with much that Labor is doing, but I prefer them any day to the Libs. Menzies would turn over in his grave with this lot! Even Malcolm Fraser looks like a ‘leftie’ by comparison. I often wonder how the alleged catholics sleep with themselves? Whenever any of them waffle on about values etc I want to be ill! Jailing kids? What does that have to do with being a good person? Disgusting!

    The trouble with people like Michael, is they’re so self focused, they don’t give a s**t about their fellow compatriots, let alone human rights for all – particularly babies and kids!

  13. mattsui

    Helluva rant there Liz,
    I agree with where you’re coming from on the Abbott as PM scenario, It’s pretty scary.
    An all mandate and no policy liberal rule seems like a disaster from here (Queensland will be the true litmus for what’s to come). But incumbant government can’t campaign on the “if THEY get in they’ll wreck the joint” platform. It’s just too week.
    The slight hope is that WA, Qld, Vic and NSW voters will be so screwed by their liberal party masters they’ll vote Labor in protest.

  14. Mike Flanagan

    Mattsui & Liz 45;
    I do agree the experience of many in the electorates of the programs
    that the State conservatives are offering is going to have an impact on
    the Federal election. The state elections have an element of the
    Keating baseball bat syndrome that was apparent in the election that
    he won. The one for the ‘true believers’. The confusion and challenges
    that is endemic in the community have caused the electorate
    to let off a bit of steam in Queensland and NSW that has been added to
    their self inflicted wounds. And so we witness massive swings.
    Abbott lacks a cohesive narrative and is actually visionless. He has
    never shown any leadership or ambition for the nation. His drive is
    about his personal ambition and his national perspective is vacuous.
    Non of his front bench are much better and so he stands as a ‘fine’
    example or result of Howards lake of leadership skills in establishing
    a leadership succession plan.
    Abbott is the embodiment of Howard in so far as he is totally self
    indulgent and consumed by an ambitious for power regardless of how
    he gets there or who has to run over to accomplish his ambition

  15. Charles Richardson

    @Michael – No, Anna Bligh won her seat comfortably. That’s academic, though, because she’s resigned, so there’ll be a by-election on 28 April. In the meantime it looks as if Labor’s lost Bulimba, which would bring them down to 7 – so 6 if they lose the by-election.

    @David – Yes, Crikey does indeed pay me. Since you don’t seem willing/able to engage with the argument, perhaps you’d be better off just not reading?

  16. Michael


    Well that leaves Labor with 7 seats in Qld. Nothing to worry about there, it’s a nice comfy base to build from.
    SMH drew the analogy between Comical Ali & Labor – it becomes more & more relevant each day.

  17. Mike Flanagan

    Well said Charles;
    I did find David’s comments gratuitous and offensive.
    With reference to your comments to the turning of Labor Gov into
    rumps of oppositions, if I recall correctly, occured over two
    elections. The first election undermining their margins in a wide
    range of electorates and the second election reinforcing the first and
    decimating them.

    Liz 45
    Further to my above comments on Abbott, I recall that sometime
    ago Abjorensens of the ANU observed that Abbott discontinued his
    seminary studies and ambitions because jesuits could not become
    popes. The man has always had an undue inflated view of himself
    and his abilities.

  18. catts stan

    I have worked my arse off and all labor has done is take from me…and they boast about it.Polls or no poles i am finished with them….it,s not to late Craig might give me a job,i don,t even need a CV.Does it come with a plastic card mate.??

  19. Liz45

    And what do you think the other mob will do for you? What do you think Govts should do. Lots of people work their arse off, but I can bet you one thing – the Conservatives take more from the ‘ordinary’ workers than the ALP. I don’t agree with many policies, but as a pensioner, I now receive almost $180 more per fortnight since September 2009 – thanks to the Rudd/Gillard Govts.

    Howard at his most generous only gave pensioners $10-15 twice a year – when he was feeling generous. At the same time, households with an income of $1million were in receipt of Family Benefits; the same applies to some pensioners! Tell me how fair that is?

    Howard gave private schools 75% of the allowed budget, while public education got 25%, even though they make up 75% of the numbers of pupils. The state schools have raffles for library books or to fix or install decent toilets, while the wealthy private schools have golf courses, swimming pools and heaps more resources for pupils! Want to go back there?

    Let’s not even mention how he let infrastructure run down to such an extent, that even if Labor was in for a couple of more terms, we still wouldn’t fulfill the needs. After almost 12 years, the Princes Highway down the south coast is a death trap – even though this is the only Highway that goes right around the country? Bridges have needed replacing, restoring for some time – Local Councils don’t have the funds for this type of expense. But, Howard could boast of huge surpluses?

    If I’d been negligent and not fed my kids properly or didn’t provide clean beds, clothes etc, I could’ve had money in the bank? But, what sort of a mother would I have been? Neglectful, bordering on criminal! Tell my one big thing that Howard produced in his almost 12 years!

    Have you forgotten WorstChoices so quickly? If Abbott gets in, we’ll see it back only with more horrific impact than Howard could only dream about! Don’t say you weren’t warned!

    Abbott will also reverse the soon to be tax on profits by wealthy mining companies. Screw the poor and disadvantaged while allowing the wealthy to ‘steal’ our resources, leave behind crap, and then piss off to the next mine!

    Why is the worst poverty in areas where there’s a lot of indigenous people???Northern Qld, WA and the NT – which just so happens to be full of BILLIONS of Dollars of OUR resources? The wealthy mining companies keep on repeating about how their mines will employ indigenous people, put money into the area, blah blah blah, but it hasn’t happened in my lifetime? Perhaps in yours?


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