The systemic consequences of big election victories

Today’s Galaxy poll was more of the same old bad news for the government, another week of no rain in a long electoral drought. Because of the way single-member electorate voting systems exaggerate results, a uniform swing would see the Coalition’s 44% of the vote translate into only about a third of the seats in the House of Representatives.

An election victory that big would have systemic consequences. Voters wouldn’t just be changing the government now, they would effectively also be limiting their choices for the next couple of elections at least, since even being optimistic it would take that long for the Coalition to rebuild to the point that it passed the threshold of credibility as an alternative government. And unless parties pass that threshold, even bad or unwanted governments seem secure.

This is already the problem we have at the state level. In a Galaxy Poll last November respondents were asked whether, based on its recent performance, the NSW Labor government deserved to win the next state election. Only a third of voters thought that it did. Yet the same poll showed Labor leading on the 2PP 52-48, roughly what it in fact got at the subsequent state election. The Opposition has never really recovered from its dismal showing at the 1999 state election. At this distance, the Beattie/Bligh government in Queensland looks to be struggling towards mediocrity even less successfully than the Iemma government in NSW, but it too seems secure in power, because the Opposition is not credible.

There are signs in other polls that voters, at least in principle, are concerned about the systemic consequences of their vote. Winning parties in federal election typically get lower votes in the Senate than in the House of Representatives, as some electors opt to try to put a constraint on the government in the upper house. Several polls have found support for the Senate blocking legislation. An ACNielsen poll in February 2005 found more people thought that the Coalition’s Senate majority would be a bad thing than a good thing (47% v. 39%). A Newspoll in April this year found that about one in five Labor voters believed Labor in power at both levels of government would be at least ‘somewhat bad’ for Australia.

The Coalition’s Senate majority in 2004 was a surprise to almost everyone, and perhaps more people who wanted Howard returned would have voted strategically in the Senate had they realised the possible outcome. But this time every poll for many months has pointed to a massive Labor victory with no sign of the continually expected but never arriving correction. The Coalition itself can’t alert voters to the systemic consequences of such a big defeat without looking panicked. But perhaps, as election day draws closer, the pundits will start pointing out that a massive Labor victory in 2007 would effectively decide the 2010 and 2013 elections as well.

59 thoughts on “The systemic consequences of big election victories

  1. But would that be a good thing or a bad thing? 3 years isn’t very long – just time to see how ministers settle in, then have a re-shuffle. Given that there seems so little difference between the parties, would it matter if Rudd had a guaranteed 6 years?

    Surely we need a little balance: with the Libs having had so long to appoint High Court judges etc, we need to leave the ALP there for a few terms for things to even up.


  2. Yes. Well.
    I still find it nigh-on impossible to believe in a Labor victory with more than 53.5%, but… who knows?
    Should have changed leaders. Even within the confines of this hydra-like absurdity Costello seems to be demonstrating more imagination and vision than the incumbent has ever had. Might have been able to connect and stop the Ruddernaught before we’re stuck with wall-to-wall Labor.


  3. PS – I am actually preferencing Labor over the Coalition… I just have grave doubts about the rightness of a change of government. Can’t vote for the PM though.


  4. Russell, these things come and go. The coalition has been in power for about 11 years now. Prior to that, the ALP was in power for about 13 years. On top of that, it is not clear that either party can rely on high court judges that they appoint necessarily doing their bidding.


  5. Andrew, its not so much that a big victory decides the next poll but rasther that it means that a larger number of voters have to be convinced that the another change is needed for it to occur. Like Russell, I am not sure that that is such a bad thing, as long as the opportunity for such a change exists.


  6. Actually, I wouldn’t discount quite a quick change of government. If the world goes into recession thanks to the situation in the US, it isn’t hard to imagine people blaming whomever happens to be in power at the time. People always need someone to blame. The fact that other poor quality governments haven’t been booted out in recent(ish) years may simply be because no matter how bad they have been, things haven’t been too bad for the average person. If interest rates begin rising over the next few years with poor economic growth, it isn’t hard to imagine that the political system will become much more unstable than now, where people simply ignorantly vote for the non-incumbant to see if a change makes things better.


  7. Damien, Conrad – Any result is theoretically possible, and indeed Howard came close to losing in 1998 after a comfortable victory in 1996. But my point was not just that incumbency gives governments advantages in marginal seats, but that bad defeats cause division on the losing side and take out of the Parliament people important for the credibility of the Opposition as an alternative government (eg Turnbull, and Costello’s seat would also be borderline with a uniform swing on the scale the polls suggest).

    Howard’s 1998 problems were linked to the GST – Labor is so conservative these days that I’d be surprised if they made such bold policy moves.

    Also, though Labor likes talking itself into a crisis, they have the internal resources through the union movement to deal with the Opposition more easily than the right-of-centre parties.


  8. Andrew: people were writing-off the ALP for at least two terms after the last federal election, when it got its lowest primary vote in the Reps in the post-war period. I don’t think it is past election results that have caused the credibility problems for state opposition parties. Surely it is the other way around.


  9. Stephen – Regardless of how these things start – and arguably this one will start with a huge defeat for a government that has had very good outcomes by the standards of the last 35 years – they acquire their own momentum. The Liberals had a wipe-out result in Victoria in 2002 (not undeserved), and they were never credible for the 2006 poll because there weren’t enough good frontbenchers. It becomes hard to persuade able people to enter Parliament when they think there is little prospect of forming government, which makes it hard to build a good frontbench.


  10. The notion of “slow recovery” from a bad election result is a furphy. The turnaround from Howard’s 52-48 victory to his likely defeat by at least 45-55 this time simply wouldn’t be possible if that applied. There is a sort of mass psychology in the community that can snowball if the right catalyst is present – this time it was Krudd’s accession and the (probably accurate) perception that Howard had lost control of the Coalition. The extent of self-indulgent disloyalty among some of his ministers and backbenchers (Costello, Georgiou et al) and the behaviour of idiots like Joyce, and the “water dripping on rocks” effect of the Howard-hating press finally drilling a hole have had an enormous effect.

    However it will take the Coalition (if it survives as a Coalition) a long time to recover. It will need a new and strong leader (Costello isn’t it – it’s not enough to be a star comic act in Question Time) who can rally the non-left in this country. The left is enjoying a huge resurgence and we should brace ourselves for a huge step backwards in the next decade. To paraphrase Kerry Packer “You only get one Hawke labor government in a lifetime, and we’ve had ours”. This one is far more likely to resemble the destruction of Whitlam than the reforms of Hawke.


  11. the major reasson why Oppostions stay for some time in Oppostion after being for some time in government is that it takes some time to realise what Opposition is all about and how much work you have to do. In that a good look at one Paul Keating 1975-82 would be highly instructive.

    In government one has a Department to assist one a very good department can help the laziest minister as costello constantly shows.


  12. whyisitso, your anguish is breaing my heart. Yet, at the same time, your whinge about the press just cracks me up. Newsflash: the Murdoch press has an 80% market share. It may be described as many things, but Howard-hating is not one of them.

    Guys, enjoy the wilderness years. They will be long, bitter and cold, as your side spends boundless energy blaming each other for losing an election in the midst of unprecedented prosperity.


  13. There are recent examples of oppositions needing a couple of elections to get back in the game after a bad defeat – think of the NSW Lib/Nats after the Wranslide or the Qld ALP after its 1974 whitewash, not to mention the examples in the last decade.

    Although a party may be severely depleted in a single member seat system, this may be ameliorated if a PR systems exists side-by-side (as in most states for their upper house).


  14. “At this distance, the Beattie/Bligh government in Queensland looks to be struggling towards mediocrity even less successfully than the Iemma government in NSW, but it too seems secure in power, because the Opposition is not credible.”

    An interesting question is ask is, what makes an Opposition (or government) credible? I suggest that a precondition is that it has a sufficient number of competent-looking front-benchers.


  15. It will be fascinating to see how the Liberal party survives (win or lose the election) in the face of the “uglies” in the NSW right faction. I’m hoping Barry O’Farrell can at least put up a contest at the next NSW election – maybe a big federal loss is what the Liberal party needs to clear the decks a bit and get some ideas that didn’t come out of the Ark or are hastily written on the back of napkins.


  16. Spiros:

    Enjoy the victory because the way it looks to me the happiest day in Rudds political life will be election night.

    Tighten up the labor market/ stick a recession in there and we’ll have unemployment back at the old labor standard of 8-9%. Add to that the generally incompetent state labor governments running deficts despite years of accumulated boom times and you end up with a labor party that won’t be in power for a generation.

    Never lose sight of the fact that labor has rarely tasted victroy since federation. The is a very good reason for that.

    The electorate is basically conservative and these days aspirational. There’s nothing worse that a mortgage, a couple of kids and unemployed to focus the mind on better times past.

    I’m now looking forward to 2010. My bet is 60/40 Libs, that should leave labor with about 20 odd seats.


  17. I’ve never understood the line that a landslide victory assures a government of more than one term. Theoretically median voter theory should make looking at “swing needed” irrelevant because each election is a whole new contest – they’re independent events.

    Because each party in a two party system seeks the median voter there’s no reason to believe there’s path-dependence in the time series – rather it’s likely, from the time series point of view, to be a random draw with something like a normal distribution around a 50% mean. IOW the results of the previous election gives no information about the likely results of the next one.

    That oughtta be easily testable, BTW – the degree of autocorrelation in the two party’s votes in successive elections could be interpreted as the power of incumbency. Maybe it’s a good paper for someone like Andrew Leigh.


  18. You wish, JC, you wish.

    After this election, the Liberals will do what they do best, which is eat their own. What a sight that promises to be. Here we are with unemployment at 4%, the stock market at record levels, a plasma is every room in every house, and still it looks like they are going to get wiped like a dirty rag. They will tear each other apart over this one.

    If there is one thing to Liberals don’t do well, it is opposition. And tha’s not because they don’t get much practice at it. At the state level, they are rarely out of opposition, and still they are no good at it.

    Feel free to bet on Labor having only 20 odd seats after 2010, any time you like.

    The next Liberal Party Prime Minister is probably still in high school.

    As for the economy, here’s a free tip. We’re going to be selling rocks to China for decades to come, at premium prices. That’ll happen whoever is in government. With a free kick like that, prosperity is a done deal. It’s just a matter of how it’s spent. I’m guessing that for that the next 10,15,20 years, it’s not going to be spent on ways you like.


  19. JC – you’ve said this: “incompetent state labor governments running deficts” before, and I asked you which ones – because I think WA, QLD and Vic at least have been running surpluses, haven’t they?

    DD – this “Because each party in a two party system seeks the median voter” also seems a truism, but is it really so? The phrase ‘rainbow coalition’ comes to mind – where was the median voter in that? They certainly seek a majority of votes, but where/how they look for them seems to change.


  20. Governments are almost always re-elected, at least once, because the voters are prepared to give them a go, and because it takes more than one term for them to forgive the party they booted out in the first place. It’s as simple as that. No fancy statistical analysis is required.

    The only one term government in living memory, state or federal, was the Borbidge government in Queensland, and it was a special case, having come to power after a bye-election not general election, and then done in by the One Nation factor.


  21. Interesting call, Spiros. If the Australian business cycle is dead (at least for a generation) and prosperity assured, presumably politics will become more about personalities and ‘charisma’, whatever that means. Could that mean a more fickle electorate than what you’ve assumed – perhaps the UK is a forward indicator? Based on your call, what are you buying? Sydney property, resource shares, both?


  22. Rajat, I didn’t say the business cycle is dead. It will most likely cycle around greater and lesser degrees of prosperity. The politics may still be about the economy, but more about how the ever growing cake is spread around. This may have many dimensions: rich, poor; metropolitan, regional; and intergenerational. to name just three.

    And of course there’s national security, with us having to make hard choices between pleasing our old friends the Americans and our customers, the Chinese; terrorism, climate change and a whole of other meaty stuff, before we need descend into the politics of personality.

    It’ll be interesting times.


  23. Spiros, what you’ve described sounds more or less like the last 5-10 years, or more generally, the Howard era after the initial budget cuts. So are you simply saying that we will have more of the same regardless of who is in power? If so, I’d basically agree with you, except that I would say that we are already into the politics of personality – there are no real differences between the parties; even the IR differences are slim. The one unknown is whether the Labor party will become more radical in power and you seem to be implying they won’t.


  24. “So are you simply saying that we will have more of the same regardless of who is in power?”

    Yes, though there will much change on matters where the government of the day can have a gigantic ideological wank (appointing members of the ABC Board, pontificating on how history should be taught, etc) which gets people all hot under the collar, or momentarily really happy, but which counts for very little in substantive terms.

    Labor will do more, or appear to do more, on climate change, because it has fewer denialists in its ranks; it will be less obviously fawning to whoever is stting in the White House; and it will make it slightly easier for unions to organise workers.

    But, basically, more of the same. Those who take great pleasure in Labor being in power will ultimately have to do so on tribal grounds — their tribe is in; the other side is out.

    Those who are most angered by having Labor in government will be driven by the reptilian side of their brains, as per normal.


  25. DD – I know most people’s understanding of politics is weak, but elections are not random events. Elections of leaders and parties that look under-prepared are rare. The only recent example I can think of is Bracks in 1999, and his government was a minority one for its first term.

    The point is not that voters having decided to vote for a party keep doing so, but that the factors that might influence their vote are affected by their previous votes.


  26. This is already the problem we have at the state level.

    Andrew, you assume that a change of government federally would have no effect on state politics. I think this is a mistake.

    Howard gives no help to state Liberals while blasting those who step out of the line he sets. He has drained financial and human resources away from the states. In his absence, Labor will change the way Australia is governed. State Liberals will be freer to respond to both aspects of the changed environment than they are today.

    The Liberals’ road back to government goes through Macquarie Street, Spring Street and the other state parliaments. The Liberals need experience of government led by someone other than John Howard. Soon-to-be-unemployed Liberal staffers need jobs – there will be fewer jobs in opposition and PR/government relations positions will not absorb all ex-staffers and even ex-MPs who seek such work. Some will have to swallow their pride and go and work in – or run for – state parliament.

    Last time the Coalition went into opposition in shrugged off the legacy of the Fraser government quickly. I agree that it will be harder for them to dispose so quickly of Howard, but that’s neither the responsibility nor the fault of those of us outside the Liberal Party.

    Voters … they would effectively also be limiting their choices for the next couple of elections at least

    Those who choose are not limited by the perceived fragility of those who provide the choices. It’s like an employee who threatens self-harm if dismissed: it’s not the employer’s problem and actually reinforces the original decision.


  27. Andrew – I think you are right that a federal defeat will probably help the state Libs, not just for the reasons you state – there will also be an exodus of Ministerial staff, and possibly bureaucrats too, from the states to the Commonwealth, weakening further the performance of state Labor governments.


  28. “weakening further the performance of state Labor governments.”

    The Queensland government could be even worse?

    I didn’t realise that was possible.


  29. Leopold, are you implying that another State government is even worse than the Iemma mob? Surely not?

    Australians long ago relegated “good government” to a low level reason in their priorities as a reason for voting. NSW is dually unfortunate in 2007. We have re-elected the second worst State government since federation (Brian Burke’s in WA was worse), and we’re about to evict the equal best Federal government since Federation (equal to Hawke in the eighties).


  30. Spiros.

    You’re starting to sound as though the Labor party is the natural government party of the country. I looked back in my history books to see if were true and I was suprised to read that it wasn’t the case. Gee I even found out that the ALP is one of the least successful left parties in the West…. outside of Japan of course.


    Don’t rely on selling rocks to the Chinese, Spiros. Don’t rely on that to underpin a restrictive labor market.

    Very few firms in china actually make money. Unless that changes the China boom is temporary.


  31. JC – you’ve said this: “incompetent state labor governments running deficts” before, and I asked you which ones – because I think WA, QLD and Vic at least have been running surpluses, haven’t they?

    No they are not. It’s the way they accounting for their forward committments in all sorts of spending. By 2010 the tradtional budget for all these places will begin to show a deficit of about 3% .

    In other words they’re terrible money managers. Nothing new. Would you allow Julia Chavez-Gillard manage your retirement money. Any of the ALP front bench?


  32. JC: “Very few firms in china actually make money”

    JC, I think your imagination to reality filter is on a bit strong. Lots of firms in China make money, feel free to look at the HK stock exchange as a quick example.


  33. I agree with whyisitso in that the present NSW government is the worst in our history given the circumstances. Which idiots actualy voted for them. I voted for Greg Smith!!

    to give Howard his due he hasn’t stuffed up too much but then he had little to do when he won. He, like Keating in 96 is si9mply past his useby date.


  34. Getting back to the point of Andrew’s post, the relatively few data points may make it difficult to see whether his proposition is supported by the evidence.

    One would firstly have to define what “a big defeat” for a party would be and then presumably count the number of elections (or normalised years?) before it won again. But how many “big defeats” have there recently been?

    (I was also thinking that the ALP under Beazley came close to winning in 1998 after a huge defeat in ’96.) I’d say that the big defeats have been:

    Federally: ALP 75, Coalition 83, ALP 96
    NSW: Coalition 78 (?), ALP 88, Coalition 99
    Qld: ALP 74, Nationals 89, Coalition 2001
    Vic: ALP 92, Coalition 2002
    SA: ALP 93 (?), Coalition 2006
    WA: ALP 93
    NT: CLP 2005

    These are from memory thus the question marks.


  35. Still not convinced about ALP state budgets – in WA at least we’re funding huge projects like the Mandurah railway (probably about $2 billion) without borrowing, whilst running massive surpluses and retiring state debt. JC, how come the debt is being paid off if we’re running deficits? (and the only place you’ll find pokies in WA is in the casino!)

    “Would you allow Julia Chavez-Gillard manage your retirement money” Yes, I reckon she’d do worse than I would (I expect nobody will argue with that).


  36. Sacha – interesting that you have the ALP as big losers in WA in ’93, because they got back in in 2001 – in fairly good economic times.

    The Tonkin state government in WA was a 1 term government which was generally thought to have been a reasonably good government that was swamped in the anti-Whitlam maelstrom.


  37. Russell, I’m not sure about the ALP losing big in 93 – maybe 97 (was it?) was a bigger loss.
    BTW: It’s commonly accepted that the ALPs big loss in the 1974 Qld state election can be substantially attributed to anti-Whitlamism.


  38. Sacha – I think another possibility is that the ALP is more resilient in Opposition, because they have a union base that the Liberals lack – the money keeps coming and their union hack MP recruitment base is not so negatively affected as the broader Liberal recruitment base, where people have to give up more rewarding private sector careers.


  39. Andrew, this brings up the point that people often have to make substantial sacrifices even to just run for election. There are often expectations that they will be able to campaign full-time before the election which may necessitate them giving up work (with the subsequent loss of income).

    In the recent NSW election, I know of one major party candidate who gave up working for two months (before the election) to campaign in an almost-certainly unwinnable seat. While this could be an investment on their part (to enhance the chances of being a better-placed candidate in the future), the amount of time and energy candidates put in can be very large (not to mention the opportunity cost).


  40. Conrad:

    For chinese Stocks you need to look at the Shanghai stock exchange.

    I’ll repeat, very few Chinese firms actually make a profit in the western sense.


  41. Russell

    It all depends on how the payment plan is structureed.

    Government accounting is not done on an accural basis. it is bascially cash accounting.: you have 1 billion dolls coming in and there is 1.5 billion going out. the net result is a deficit of 500 mill.

    So the payment plans for these expenditurews are important. They begin to incur large balloon type payments in later years beginning in 2010 for projects started now.

    I would take a guess and say that Julia Chavez would be a worse money manger than you think you are. In any event you’re ruining your own retirement, not some elses.


  42. JC, I certainly wouldn’t want you to manage any of my retirement money. Apparently you think the only way to make money out of China is to be in China.


    I don’t think investors in BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto would agree. These are the companies that dig up rocks and sell them to China.


  43. Spiros:

    I actually do manage money ( not just my own ) and have scroed decent returns.

    No, I don’t think that, Spiros. I think that the Chinese boom is temporary if most of the firms there are not making any profit. I know it’s hard for an ALP supporter to get your head around this, but a firm cannot sustain itself for an indefinite period of time if they aren’t making any profit. Try to at least suspend your views that profit is an evil word while you’re busy figuring all this out. I know it;’s hard.

    The issue becomes important if in the not too distant future China’s economy begins to contract due to the unstainable position it finds itself in.

    Try and keep up with the class.


  44. Russell, if I was near retirement age, I’d be hoping for a Coalition win federally. They love buying the votes of older people with a bit of pork.

    The sad fact of the matter is the electorate has basically two choices, conservative socialism in the case of the Liberal Party (aggricultural socialism for the Nationals) and plain old union dominated socialism in the case of the ALP.


  45. JC — what on Earth are talking about when you say “Western sense”. As far as I can tell, lots of them make money and give me dividends, which end up in my bank account. Some of the funds that conglomerate lots of the companies also seem to do pretty healthily. I don’t see this as much different to my Australian shares. In addition, the HK stock exchange is better to look at the the Shanghai Red CHips (or the Shenzhen exchange), because this is where all the big listing go, like Bank of China, China Eastern, Ming An, China Mobile etc. Are you trying telling me these firms don’t make a profit? — if so, you are certainly wrong.
    In any case, even if they didn’t make money in a “Western sense” it wouldn’t matter, as long as they could attract capital. In this latter case, you just need consider them speculative shares, like many companies on the Nasdaq are.


  46. “a firm cannot sustain itself for an indefinite period of time if they aren’t making any profit”

    Well yes, but BHP and Rio are making squillions by digging stuff up in Australia and selling it to the Chinese.

    This has been the basis od our bomming economy for the last 5-10 years and every analyst who looks at this and knows what they are talking about says it will continue for a long time. This is why the BHP and Rio share prices are at record highs.

    Why is this so hard for you to understand?

    If you really think China is about to go bust, why don’t you short the shares of all Australian companies with exposure to China?


  47. Brendan – why are you addressing your remarks about being near retirement age to me? I won’t be able to afford to retire ’till I’m about 70, so a good 15 years or so yet!

    JC – so how do you explain the story on the front page of The West Australian today “The Carpenter Government under-estimated its tax collections by a massive $646 million last financial year on the wat to achieving a record $2.3 billion budget surplus … the surplus saw State debt slip below $3 billion, its lowest level on record”

    I like that ‘lowest level on record’ – what, only when it reached $3 billion did someone think “better start writing this down somewhere”?


  48. Russell, it was for both you and Spiros. You wanted to entrust your retirement to Julia, an absolute economic dumbass. Nevertheless, Howard wants your vote as a 55 year old, and will probably be willing to pay you incentives to keep working until you’re 75, let alone 65. Bribing old folk with young folk money.
    Socialism is socialism whether it be conservative or progressive.


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