Is losing an election ever a good thing?

Third-time unlucky Lawrence Springborg must be feeling a bit down today, while Anna Bligh is triumphantly not packing her office.

But can there be elections it is better to lose?

I can think of two basic scenarios in which this might be the case. The first is when the party is (if in government) no longer capable of doing a good job and risks damaging its reputation if it wins another term or a party is (if in opposition) not ready for government and risks damaging its reputation if it nevertheless wins office.

The second is when there are events over which the government has no or insufficient control, but which overwhelm it and destroy its prospects at subsequent elections.

Unfortunately for the hapless citizens of NSW, both versions of scenario one were at play at the March 2007 election. However for Labor – having so rundown the public institutions of NSW that no quick recovery is possible, even with competent Ministers – a narrow loss would probably have been preferable to the agony of being in terminal decline for years. Despite on-going doubts about the Opposition, Labor runs the risk of severe electoral punishment at the 2011 NSW election.

The Victorian election of 1988 is an example of the second scenario. Labor won, but it was probably too late to avoid the financial disasters of the coming few years. Instead of the Liberals winning a narrow victory and being destroyed by these problems, Labor won a narrow victory and was wiped out by Jeff Kennett in 1992.

The GFC creates a potential second scenario for the winners of the 2007 federal election, 2008 WA election and 2009 Queensland election.

I don’t follow WA or Queensland politics closely enough to judge whether the first scenario applies in these cases, though the quality of state governments and oppositions is generally low.

For the 2007 federal election, I thought at time that the Howard government had run its course (though of course I voted for them anyway). In hindsight it is fortunate that it got out with a postive result on the before-and-after test of a government. It is almost certain that Australia will be a significantly worse position at the time of the 2010 election than it was in 2007, which is not good news for the victor of the 2007 election.

Though most of Rudd’s Ministers are politically competent, policywise I have seen nothing that impresses. They are way below the quality of the Hawke and Keating governments. So I doubt they are up to the challenges the GFC creates.

It is too early to tell the long-term political fates of the winners in 2007, 2008 and 2009. But mediocre Ministers facing major issues does not augur well for their long-term standing.

12 thoughts on “Is losing an election ever a good thing?

  1. You’re spot on Andrew. It probably is better to lose some elections. The thing may be though, that politicians get few chances in a career to lead or have major jobs and so want to win every time.

    Do Australian’s vote against unpopular State governments in Federal elections and vice versa?

    It’s easy to suspect that the Liberal and National Party leadership is not unhappy at losing in Queensland if this is the case.

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  2. What about the 1993 Federal Election – that may have been an example of your first category. Instead of getting smashed in 1996, if Labor had lost 1993 by a small margin, there may have been a serious backlash against Hewson and the Liberals due to the implementation of Fightback! But then, don’t most last terms end in a landslide to the opposition (eg 2007)?

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  3. In hindsight it is fortunate that it got out with a postive result on the before-and-after test of a government.

    Yes, in future we can no doubt expect more misleading ads from the Libs, such as their “Interest rates are lower under us” ads of the last couple of compaigns. Next time is will be about deficits and debt, even though they would probably be little if any better.

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  4. Interestingly though – Do government get tossed out because of difficult economic times, or more because of their own incompetence plus the presence of difficult economic times? I would think that difficult economic times may make voters risk averse and they will stick with whom they know, unless whom they know are really proactively stuffing things up themselves e.g Victorian Labor in 1992 and US Republicans in 2008 (the stuffing up in that case went beyond economic policy). This post makes me think that somebody should write an “alternative history” of Australia a la Harry Turtledove – What if Victorian Liberals won in 1988, or Federal Labor lost in 1993 etc. Sadly few people would read it!

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  5. I doubt any party is ever happy about losing an election, but certainly it can be a blessing in disguise with hidsight. But hindsight takes a few years to appear.

    “I don’t follow WA or Queensland politics closely enough to judge whether the first scenario applies in these cases, though the quality of state governments and oppositions is generally low.”

    I think the fear or perception that the quality of the Opposition in Qld was too low was a key reason for why many people stuck with Labor, despite some dissolusion.

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  6. Given the tendency of governments to decline in quality over time (either real or perceived quality), with first terms seen as being the time to get difficult policy decisions, and the fact that governments in Australia basically just swap between Labor and Liberal/National parties, surely a forth term government is better off losing so that it will be closer to being a first term government again.
    I believe treasury officials refer to election results like this as ‘deferred governing.’

    But on a more serious note I think you raise some good examples. As a resident of NSW i am interested to see if Anna Bligh can refresh her government and bypass the factional hacks. Certainly neither Morris or Nathan seem to have been able to do so. I cant help but think that parties need to get voted out every now and then in order to remind them of the reasons for being in the business in the first place.

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  7. Yes, ex post some elections are better lost. But ex ante it is always better to win. No-one knows what the future holds, so it is always better to play to win.

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  8. The Victorian election of 1988 is an example of the second scenario. Labor won, but it was probably too late to avoid the financial disasters of the coming few years. Instead of the Liberals winning a narrow victory and being destroyed by these problems, Labor won a narrow victory and was wiped out by Jeff Kennett in 1992.

    I don’t know I agree with the conclusion. The Liberal government was thrown out two elections later. Two terms seems pretty short for a Liberal government (although I’ve only been watching politics since the election Bracks won, reading the front page of the newspapers I was delivering), and the economic cycle has lead to a longer lasting Labor government afterwards. I would say in the longer term it was probably to Labor’s advantage to have lost when they did—or, more likely, made no difference.

    Do Australian’s vote against unpopular State governments in Federal elections and vice versa?

    I’ve recently read a study which concludes Australians vote against governments during bad economic times, and votes for them in good times, at both levels. So that would mean they largely swap at about the same time. We did just see an era of Labor state governments and the Liberal commonwealth government which sustained itself for a while, which ended pretty much straight away when the Labor party won. I would say, if anything, Australians vote against successful federal governments in state elections. Which was, I think, the received wisdom until Labor won in Queensland last Saturday. I don’t think one exception should be enough to reverse it!

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  9. There is also a 3rd scenario, where a party runs to lose an election but in the process sets up a long-term ideological shift (aka the 1964 Goldwater campaign). Although I doubt we’d ever see such a thing take place in Australia.

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  10. Hi Andrew –
    I think federal 1990 is a better case to look at than 1993. Whoever won in ’93 was heading into good economic times, whereas if Peacock had won in 1990 he would have had to bear the worst of the recession, Keating would have become opposition leader and won back government after one or two terms, Howard would have retired, and everyone would have lived happily ever after. Possibly.

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  11. Andrew Norton Says:

    Though most of Rudd’s Ministers are politically competent, policywise I have seen nothing that impresses. They are way below the quality of the Hawke and Keating governments. So I doubt they are up to the challenges the GFC creates.

    The Hawke-Keating ALP’s economic miinstries were pretty well run. Not much impressed with their cultural policies, though.

    The Rudd-Swan ALP are coasting on the success of Howard-Costello L/NP’s version of the Lucky Country. Nicely positioned to take advantage of stiill dear mineral exports, still cheap capital imports and a plentiful supply of skilled immigrants to prop up the bubbly property market.

    Its economic policy is largely window-dressing. The stimulus is all about ameliorating political pain, rather than maximising economic gain. It has had very little stumulatory effect, being mostly used to amortise debt, although every little bit helps.

    The GFC is primarily about overleveraged financial institutions being caught short going long on unsustainable housing boom. Howard-Costello have covered this base by tighter prudential regulation which improved the quality of credit-provision and a massive increase in immigration which improved the quality of debt servicing.

    So long as Rudd-Swan keep our interest rates stay below 10% and our industrial unemployment stays below 10% we will probably muddle through without too much damage. ie property price falls less than 10% (on a four trillion dollar RP market that is still not chicken feed.)

    That has been my prediction since early FEB09.

    BTW I would love to see a government advised by Andrew Norton and Christopher Joye, two guys who prove that think tanks are not just partisan hacks.

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