By any measure, the ALP has had a pretty horrendous time of late. In the last four years it has lost six state or federal elections, most of them by large margins, and its only victory (last March in South Australia) came despite winning only 47% of the two-party-preferred vote.
But the party could turn things around in Victoria, which goes to the polls in just under two months, on November 29. The Coalition scored the narrowest possible win there four years ago, taking a two-seat majority, and since then has had its fair share of troubles.
One premier, Ted Baillieu, gave up in disgust mid-term, and his successor, Denis Napthine, has been plagued by the lack of a majority in the Legislative Assembly due to the rogue member for Frankston, Geoff Shaw.
There have been no major scandals or evidence of gross incompetence, but Napthine is widely seen to be muddling along in an unimpressive fashion.
Controversy over the signing of contracts for the phenomenally expensive East West Link is just the latest issue to show the government in a poor light — although it must be said that many find Opposition Leader Daniel Andrews to be equally lacklustre.
A redistribution since the last election means that Labor notionally needs a swing of just 0.9% to win back government (Antony Green, of course, has the pendulum). The polls have consistently shown it well ahead of that target. Yesterday’s Age, for example, reported an Essential Research poll putting Labor on 52% two-party-preferred, a swing of about 3.5% from 2010.
For Napthine, that’s actually relatively good. Other polls have been worse: the last Newspoll, back in July-August, had Labor ahead 55%-45%, which on a uniform swing would give Labor a 20-seat majority.
No one thinks the margin will turn out that big in November. The hypothetical question in an opinion poll gives people the opportunity to flirt with a little more risk than they might take in real life. When they come to do it for real in the voting booths, there’s a tendency to swing back to the safer options: to the incumbents, to the conservative parties, or to the way they voted last time. All those things favor the Coalition.
But the biggest factor counting in Napthine’s favor is the electorate’s well-established reluctance to dispense with a first-term government.
Out of the 30-odd first-term state or federal governments that have faced the polls in the last 40 years, only three have been defeated, the last one being 16 years ago in Queensland. It hasn’t happened in Victoria since the third Cain government blew its brains out in the Labor split in 1955.
Of course, that doesn’t stop the media talking up the prospects of a change of government: that’s what sells newspapers and air time. But even when such governments have looked to be in trouble — for example, the Gallop Labor government in Western Australia, which was regularly behind in the polls towards the end of its first term — they almost invariably struggle back.
One warning sign for Napthine, however, is that when first-term governments are defeated it often seems to be related to their lack of a solid majority in the first place. The Borbidge government that lost office in 1998 was reliant on an independent; the previous case, in Tasmania in 1992, was a Labor government dependent on the Greens. And going further back, three cases close together between 1970 and 1974 involved two minority governments and one with just a one-seat majority.
So while no one should write off the Napthine government yet, it may end up paying the price for its uncontrollable member for Frankston.
* Charles Richardson was a member of the Liberal Party from 1978 to 1996 and worked in the Kennett government.