Kevin Rudd John Howard

The word “landslide” has been used by some commentators to describe Labor’s loss at the recent federal election. History suggests otherwise.

Was John Howard’s loss in November 2007 a landslide? An academic book to which I contributed on the August 2010 election (Julia 2010: The caretaker election) opened as follows on the first page, written by editors Marian Simms and John Wanna: “Labor emerged from the 2007 federal election with an overwhelming victory in the House of Representatives — commanding a substantial majority of some 16 seats over and above the Coalition plus the two Independents. Labor had captured an additional 23 seats across the land and secured swings towards it across all States …”  If Kevin Rudd gets a 16-seat majority in 2007 and Tony Abbott gets a 30-seat majority in 2013, are both wins landslides?

The problem is that the term is undefined. Under my definition all three of the following conditions must be met. First, the defeated government must suffer a substantial loss of seats. Second, the defeated government must suffer a significant swing against it. Third, the defeated government must not be able to gather a significant vote at the election at which it is defeated.

Since 1950, three federal Labor governments have been defeated (Whitlam, Keating and Rudd), but in my opinion only one of the three could be said to have been defeated in a landslide. That was the Whitlam government in 1975, when Labor could win only 36 seats in a House of Representatives of 127 members, or just 28% of the seats. Labor’s share of the two-party preferred vote was 44.3%, a swing against Labor of 7.4%. That was the only election of recent times when the distribution of the two-party preferred vote was outside the range 55-45.

The Whitlam government was defeated in a landslide in 1975, and the Rudd government suffered a respectable loss in 2013. But what of the defeat of the Keating government in 1996? Having examined all the data I would call it a respectable loss. The Bruce-Page government in 1929, the Scullin government in 1931 and the Whitlam government in 1975 were each defeated in a landslide. The governments of Andrew Fisher in 1913, Joseph Cook in 1914, Ben Chifley in 1949, Billy McMahon in 1972, Malcolm Fraser in 1983, Paul Keating in 1996, Howard in 2007 and Rudd in 2013 each suffered a respectable loss.

What about the states? I assert that the following five state governments were defeated in landslides — ranked in order of the extent of defeat: Kristina Keneally (NSW) in March 2011 (getting only 35.8% of the two-party preferred vote after a swing of 16.5%), Anna Bligh (Queensland) in March 2012 (37.2 and 13.7), Lynn Arnold (SA) in December 1993 (39.1 and 8.9), Joan Kirner (Victoria) in October 1992 (43.7 and 5.8) and Barrie Unsworth (NSW) in March 1988 (44.2 and 8.3).

Labor supporters will be distressed to notice that the five worst defeated state governments since 1980 were all Labor, those listed above. However, Labor supporters will be equally glad to know that their federal governments have been less heavily defeated as time goes by: Rudd the least heavily defeated, Keating the second least heavily defeated and Whitlam the most heavily defeated.

Get more Crikey, for less

It’s more than a newsletter. It’s where readers expect more – fearless journalism from a truly independent perspective. We don’t pander to anyone’s party biases. We question everything, explore the uncomfortable and dig deeper.

Join us this week for 50% off a year of Crikey.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
50% off