With a brace of state elections on the horizon, and a long way left to run for the Section 44 saga, Australia faces a busy electoral calendar in the year ahead, with a number of pitfalls looming for Prime Minister and Opposition Leader alike.
Two state elections are in store for March — in South Australia on March 17, and Tasmania either on the same date or a fortnight earlier — followed by a Victorian election on November 24, which is already exerting an outsized influence on the calculations of certain figures in the federal government.
Politicians like to flatter voters by pronouncing them smart enough to distinguish between state and federal issues, but to whatever extent this might be true, it clearly doesn’t follow that federal politics has no bearing on state election outcomes.
It can hardly be a coincidence that only seven out of 29 state elections held since the dawn of the Howard years have been won by the party that was in power federally, which reduces to four when restricted to clear victories achieved with parliamentary majorities and majority shares of the two-party vote.
In Howard’s time especially, these results didn’t always prefigure disaster for the federal government, but there have been occasions when federal implications have been impossible to miss — most notably when Campbell Newman’s record-breaking majority crumbled into dust at the Queensland election of January 2015, which was followed less than a week later by the first spill attempt against Tony Abbott.
So it’s just as well for Malcolm Turnbull that it’s Labor governments that face the verdict of the voters in two out of the three states, and that the exception is the marginal case of Tasmania.
In South Australia, Labor under Jay Weatherill will seek an extension on four terms and 16 years in office — which is to say that the Liberals will have no excuses if they lose.
Last year’s electricity crises appeared to put the matter beyond doubt, but the applecart has since been upturned by the intervention of Nick Xenophon, who has abandoned his Senate seat to lead an assault on state parliament that poses far more downsides for the Liberals than Labor.
Should the Liberals once again fall short, at least some of the responsibility will be sheeted home to a federal government that stood aloof from pleas to salvage the state’s automotive industry, and offended local sentiment by signalling that the local shipbuilding industry would not be up to the task of building the navy’s next generation of submarines (albeit that this ended in a backflip three months out from the July 2016 federal election).
In Tasmania, Will Hodgman’s Liberal government faces a formidable challenge in securing a second term in a state that is usually extremely difficult for the party, the landslide win of 2014 having been an historic aberration.
Only in the 1980s was the Liberal Party able to achieve consecutive parliamentary majorities under the state’s Hare-Clark electoral system, and a hung parliament would very likely leave them at the none-too-tender mercy of the Greens.
However, the year ahead holds perils in store for Labor as well, and not just in Bill Shorten’s home state of Victoria, where the Liberals are convinced that a racially charged law-and-order campaign holds the key to limiting Daniel Andrews’ government to a single term.
After long appearing immune to the depredations of Section 44, Labor ended the parliamentary year with clouds hanging over a number of its MPs.
One of the two whose cases have already been referred to the High Court is David Feeney, who looks all but certain to be disqualified, and no less certain of losing his inner Melbourne seat of Batman to the Greens should he be audacious enough to try to win it back.
Reports suggest that Labor may well dump Feeney in favour of Trades Hall Council organiser Clare Burns — who, while doubtless a more attractive prospect than Feeney, was unable to defend the corresponding state seat of Northcote from the Greens at a byelection last November.
Federal governments that suffer mid-term electoral embarrassments can always invoke local factors in the case of state election defeats, or the well understood tendency of byelections to go badly for whichever party happens to be in power.
But for an opposition to lose skin between elections looks a lot more like carelessness than misfortune, and is sure to cause hard questions to be asked of the leadership.