Election preview: Australia

Australians go to the polls tomorrow to elect a new House of Representatives, plus half of the Senate. At least, those that haven’t already voted will – as I’ve been documenting lately, the number of pre-poll votes cast has seen a big increase, although it is now slowing down (as of yesterday the total has hit four million, but the cumulative rate of increase has fallen below 60%).

At the last election, in 2016, the centre-right Liberal/National Party coalition government (hereafter just “Coalition”) under then-prime-minister Malcom Turnbull was returned with a reduced majority, winning 42.0% of the votes and 76 of the 150 seats. Its centre-left Labor opposition won 34.7% and 69 seats.

The remaining five seats went to an assortment of minor parties and independents. Three of them – Katter’s Australian Party, the Nick Xenophon Team (now known as Centre Alliance) and independent Cathy McGowan – were always likely to support the Coalition on a vote of confidence, bringing its effective majority to 79-71.

That was still uncomfortably close, and it became less comfortable last year after Turnbull was removed in an internal party coup. He resigned from parliament, and an independent, Kerryn Phelps, won his seat in a by-election. Another Liberal MP, Julia Banks, resigned from the party in protest to sit as an independent.

That reduced the Coalition to 74 seats, and only 73 on the floor of the House, because the Speaker votes only to break a tie. But the underlying numbers remained at 79-71, and while new prime minister Scott Morrison had some uncomfortable moments in parliament, there was no real danger that he would lose a vote of confidence.

One further complication: a redistribution has increased the size of the House by one, abolishing a Labor seat (Port Adelaide) and creating two new ones (Bean and Fraser), improving Labor’s notional position to 72: 70 seats of its own, plus one for the Greens and one for independent Andrew Wilkie, who could be counted on to support a Labor government.

The redistribution also changed the boundaries of two marginal Liberal seats in Victoria to the extent that Labor would (Dunkley) or might (Corangamite) have won them on the 2016 figures, but the margins are so small either way that I shall continue to count them as Liberal seats.

So Labor needs to win four seats to be in a position to form government, or six to be sure of governing in its own right. On a uniform basis, those targets represent swings of 0.6% and 1.0% respectively. The opinion polls have consistently shown a swing of around two per cent, suggesting that Labor should be favored but that it remains very close.

There are a few reasons for thinking that Labor is better placed than that. One is the pre-polls, and specifically the way that the rise in early voting has been front-loaded to the early part of the campaign. That suggests a larger than usual contingent of voters who have made up their minds and are therefore immune to the (hypothetical) late swing back to the Coalition.

A second reason is the pattern of the swing: the polls have Labor doing particularly well in Victoria and Queensland, where there are plenty of marginal Coalition seats, while the government’s hopes for a swing back rest mainly on New South Wales, where there are relatively few marginal Labor seats.

A third is the precedent of last year’s Victorian election, where federal issues were prominent and where the polls failed to detect the size of the swing to Labor. This time the polls are giving results that are unusually close together, leading some observers to accuse them of “herding” – in which case a similar error could be on the way.

Finally, there’s the death last night of Bob Hawke, a much-loved former Labor prime minister, which has dominated the media ever since. Labor leader Bill Shorten, without having to do anything to exploit it, has been able to bask in Hawke’s reflected glory. It’s hard to imagine that the sympathy vote will not be worth something to Labor.

Are there any corresponding reasons to think the Coalition might do better than expected? The main one is the well-established rule in Australia that close elections go to the government. No party since 1949 has won from opposition with less than 52% of the two-party-preferred vote.

The question is whether this rule has some structural logic to it or is basically just coincidence, and I confess I am in the latter camp. (It only applies in federal, not state, elections, and no-one has ever produced a convincing reason why this should be the case.)

More intangibly, there’s the pessimism induced in many on the left by the last few years of political developments around the world, and particularly the 2016 presidential election in the United States – where, in a broadly similar contest to this one, the right-wing populist candidate overcame the verdict of polls, pundits and betting markets to win just enough votes in the right places for a victory with a minority of the vote.

My view is that the analogy between Morrison and Donald Trump is closer than most people think, but I’ll leave my personal view for a separate editorial.

Time, though, for a quick word about the Senate, which is superficially more complicated than the lower house but actually quite straightforward. There are 40 Senate seats up for election, six in each state and two in each of the territories. The normal result in each is that it splits evenly (3-3 or 1-1) between left and right.

If that happens across the board this time, the Coalition and its centre-right and far-right allies will finish with 40 seats as against 36 for the combination of Labor and the Greens.* A Labor government would at a minimum need Centre Alliance’s support as well as the Greens to get its legislation through.

So for a majority, Labor plus Greens need to improve on parity in three states or territories. Two seem reasonably possible, namely a fourth seat (i.e. three Labor and one Green) in Victoria and Tasmania.

Beyond that, however, prospects are fairly slim. A fourth seat in New South Wales is probably the best, with a faint chance of winning the second seat in the Australian Capital Territory. As against that, there is the risk that the third seat for the left-of-centre parties may not be completely secure in Queensland or South Australia.

Apart from the last term of the Howard government in 2005-07, no government has had a Senate majority since 1981. It certainly isn’t going to happen this time.


* Although it’s described as a “half-Senate” election, slightly more than half – 40 out of 76 – is elected each time because the territory senators don’t get full six-year terms.


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