IT HAS BECOME a truism in Australian electoral politics that we don’t throw out governments lightly and that our adherence to the doctrine of the “fair go” means that we extend a benign tolerance to first-term administrations. Indeed, the only two occasions on which a single-term government has been voted out of office were during times of grave national emergency – the outbreak of war in 1914, which saw off Joseph Cook (elected in 1913), and the Great Depression, which in 1932 felled James Scullin (elected 1929). There were, of course, other factors at work in each case – most notably (and destructively) the split in the Labor Party under Scullin.
But our supposed tolerance is not as benign as it might appear. While governments have changed only six times in the sixty-one years since 1949, a clear pattern has emerged in which a new government can expect to take a hit at its first bid for re-election. This happened to Robert Menzies in 1951, Gough Whitlam in 1974, Malcolm Fraser in 1977, Bob Hawke in 1984 and John Howard in 1998. And if the opinion polls are a guide, this is surely the fate awaiting Julia Gillard on Saturday.
In the election for the House of Representatives in 1951 – a double dissolution election – the Coalition led by Menzies lost five seats to Labor but won control of the Senate. The next close call Menzies had was in 1961 – the so-called “credit squeeze” election – in which he survived by a single seat, only to bounce back in an early election in 1963.
Gough Whitlam, after breaking Labor’s twenty-three-year drought in 1974, was forced to an early election in 1974 by a hostile Senate, suffering a tiny swing of just 0.3 per cent and a net loss of one seat, although the Coalition increased its numbers by three owing to the creation of two new seats.
Malcolm Fraser’s thumping majority of 1975 was clawed back significantly in 1977 with a 5 per cent swing and a loss of five seats, four of them having belonged to the National Country Party (now the Nationals); in retrospect, this was the onset of the Nationals’ steady decline from the high point of 1975, when it held 23 seats in a house of 127. The 1977 election was unusual in that Labor also lost ground (its share of the vote fell 3.2 per cent) but it gained an extra two seats in a chamber reduced from 127 to 124 after a redistribution. Fraser, however, still held a majority of forty-eight.
Bob Hawke called an early election in 1984 after his win in 1983, this time for a greatly enlarged house of 148. In the longest campaign in modern times, the government suffered a swing of 1.9 per cent while the Coalition’s vote held steady. The outcome was a gain of seven seats for Labor and sixteen for the Coalition.
In 1998, a savage 7.6 per cent swing pushed John Howard perilously close to defeat. Labor actually outpolled the Coalition and picked up an additional eighteen seats, but Howard managed to hang on, later increasing his majority in 2001.
Similar patterns emerge in the states – but so also do notable exceptions. In 1976, NSW Labor under Neville Wran scraped into office after eleven years of Coalition rule with a majority of just one, despite having gained 49.75 per cent of the vote. But when Wran next went to the polls in 1978 it was a different picture altogether, with Labor winning almost 58 per cent of the vote and increasing its majority to twenty-seven – a victory that came to be known as the “Wranslide.”
A similar story unfolded in South Australia a decade-and-a-half later. Under Mike Rann Labor squeaked in as a minority government in 2002, but by 2006 was able to engineer a swing of almost 9 per cent and a comfortable majority. In each of these cases it is worth pointing out that the oppositions at the time were in total disarray, verging on the unelectable.
Another truism in politics is that oppositions do not win elections; rather, governments lose them. Certainly, in 1949 Labor was vulnerable after eight hard years in office, and in 1972 the “It’s time” factor was potent, even if it was as mindless as it was nebulous. The dismissal election of 1975 had its own peculiar circumstances, and 1983 drew attention to a government that was accident-prone. In 1996, reform fatigue had set in, along with Paul Keating’s growing unpopularity and his inability to sell a political message; 2007 will be remembered as the WorkChoices election.
But just why voters often appear to have second thoughts two or three years after changing government is not at all easy to explain. Is it, perhaps, that the much-trumpeted “fair go” has a limited shelf life? Is it a collective sense of regret, perhaps, or a warning not to get too carried away, an inherent defence against hubris? One thing we can say is that the notion of “party convergence” – the increasing similarity between the two main parties – is not the cause: half a century ago, when there was at least an ideological divide, second-term retribution was already in evidence.
Do changes of leader have an impact? The 1951 election was a rerun of 1949 with Menzies against Chifley; in 1974 it was a new opposition leader in Bill Snedden against Whitlam. In 1977 it was the same contest as in 1975 – Whitlam against Fraser – but in 1984 it was another new opposition leader, Andrew Peacock, against Hawke, just as it was in 1998 when John Howard faced Kim Beazley. There is no discernible pattern there, and no clues to what happens when there’s a new leader on each side.
John Howard certainly took seriously his close call in 1998, and his determination to hold on to power lifted several notches along with the quality of governance. His first term, it is often forgotten, was a shocker in many respects, with a series of resignations and a general sense of incompetence acknowledged even within the government’s own ranks. I recall at the time putting the proposition to a senior minister that this was arguably the worst government the country had ever had, eliciting the intriguingly unexpected response: “You won’t get an argument from me on that.” (When Labor raised this exchange in parliament after it appeared in print, Simon Crean opened a book on the likely source of the remark but never came close to identifying the minister.)
A general conclusion, albeit tentative, that we can draw from a “two bob each way” approach to politics – which, in today’s parlance, probably translates as “whatever” – is that the urge to get rid of a government is seldom matched by an equal willingness to endorse its successor.
In his book Power and Prosperity the American economist Mancur Olson came close to putting a finger on voters’ attitudes, identifying what he called a “rational ignorance.” That is, the value of the effort required to become acquainted with all the issues being debated is weighed against the value to the individual (rather than the society) of the “right” and “wrong” election outcomes multiplied by the probability that the individual’s vote will alter the result. He concludes: “Since the probability that a typical voter will change the outcome of an election is vanishingly small, the typical citizen, whether he or she is a physician or a taxi driver, is usually rationally ignorant about public affairs.”
We are indeed a fickle electorate. We don’t like frequent change, but when we do opt for change we don’t want to set it in concrete. Irrational, inconsistent, unpredictable – all that. But then we never did like our politicians; we never want them to feel comfortable. And isn’t an election a great time to make them squirm? It is, essentially, the only power we have. Whatever… •
Norman Abjorensen is a Visiting Fellow in the Crawford School of Economics and Government at the ANU and co-author of Australia: The State of Democracy.