For years uninspired journalists have joked about decimated oppositions being able to meet in phone booths, well it’s finally happened. Nobody anticipated this, the most conservative estimates gave Labor ten seats but now there are seven, possibly six if Labor loses the South Brisbane by-election sparked by Anna Bligh’s resignation. Naturally within Labor circles, pessimism is rife. The two party system which has protected the Labor and the Liberal roles as law makers in this country since the 1950’s is under the greatest threat seen in living memory. Even in New South Wales, in the wake of its most devastating loss in political history Labor commands a healthy supermajority over the non government parties , but Queensland is different. The crossbench is more than half the size of the entire opposition caucus, some are wondering if Labor will ever command a majority again of if it will be forced to rely on coalitions. It’s all very pessimistic for a government that commanded a majority for twenty one of the past twenty years.
This morning Anthony Albanese bravely suggested that this was all part of the political cycle and was predictably laughed off the stage (metaphorically). ‘How can an unprecedented event be part of a cycle?’ some have sneered. The answer is that the shattering of previous records need be built into the cycle to begin with. The Queensland Labor Party had won every general election since 1989, it entered government seven years prior to the long serving Federal Howard government and departed some five years after it, the electoral gravity against it was astronomical, an aberration effected by events outside of the typical electoral cycle. The bungling of the Borbridge Premiership from 1996-1998, seized on the floor of the house and beset by scandals for its duration set back the electoral clock and saw Peter Beattie maintain Labor’s consecutive election victories. The anomalous rise of One Nation and Pauline Hanson helped consolidate Labor’s rule, the controversial Howard government in Canberra didn’t hurt either and one could even argue Peter Beattie had rather a greater gift for politics than most of his contemporaries. Like the Howard government, the Beattie government also benefited from a roaring economic boom for its duration.
The crucial re-election Labor could have done without was of course 2009. It was an old, unpopular government that was already lacking in direction and purpose, ambling into the abyss but it was saved by a farcical opposition campaign. The 2009 opposition campaign was conducted under the spectre of Liberal-National Party merger. The merger combined with the resurfacing of former Nationals Leader Lawrence Springborg proved a monumental blunder, the oppositions message was conflicting and misguided, the authority with the Liberal National Party was unclear and against the proven, reliable albeit unpopular Bligh government, the LNP appeared an unstable rabble. From John Hewson to Mark Latham, Australian politics has repeatedly shown that even the most unpopular governments can gain be re-elected under the better the devil you know principle if the opposition prevents something that represents instability. Poor Anna Bligh was in the wrong place at the wrong time, on Saturday night against a popular opposition leader and a disciplined opposition she suffered the culmination of three Labor re-elections and eight years of government her electorate had reluctantly given her.
Yet Labor’s pessimistic rhetoric about facing a prolonged period in exile, possibly perpetuity doesn’t ring true with me. The margin of Labor’s defeat is artificially inflated by the extenuating circumstances and they have enormous swingbacks to look forward to in the upcoming election. Let’s compare the electoral fortunes of four state Premiers, Mike Rann and Steve Bracks versus Dean Brown and Jeff Kennett. In 1999 Steve Bracks won 42 seats in a parliament of 88 and formed government with the support of three Independent MP’s. Some Liberal MP’s might have seen the closeness of the result as a cause for optimism, after all they only needed to win back two electorates and they were back in government, but it didn’t work like that. Bracks had an unusually small majority for an incumbent Premier which made for a more disciplined, on message backbench. None of his members had inflated margins in their own electorates due to an anomalous result so they were largely relaxed and secure about their position and of course a smaller backbench means fewer bitter members sulking about not being in the cabinet. They presented a slick, professional, well disciplined government and when it came to re-election time they swept to victory with an enormous 20 seat increase in their majority.
Across the border Mike Rann’s career followed a similar trajectory. In 2002 he snuck into government, winning 24 seats to the Coalitions 23. Some Liberal MP’s who just held onto their seats probably breathed a sigh of relief, they probably thought they were safe and that having staved off the change of government swing they would probably be comfortably returned at the next election. The fools! Rann went on to increase his majority by eight seats at the next election and the Labor vote rose by 7.7%
Wind back the clock 1992 and Jeff Kennett is a hero in Victoria. He’s just won a spectacular 56 percent of the vote and 62 seats to Labor’s 27. Enjoying such a large mandate, Kennett went on to be proactive in government, aggressively reforming the public service but apparently voters felt they had given Kennett too much power and that he was now riding roughshod over procedure and protocol. The government suffered a decent swing against in 1996 and then again in 1999 whereby a certain Steve Bracks ascended to the throne.
In 1993 Dean Brown was elected with the biggest majority in Australian political history with 37 seats to Labor’s ten. But in 1997 just four years down the track Brown had been replaced as Premier and the majority was reduced from 27 to just 5. In 2002 the last vestiges of that majority were obliterated by a certain Mike Rann whose Labor government went on to preside for more than ten years thereafter.
Politics isn’t an exact science for sure, Campbell Newman might be re-elected handsomely in four years time like Malcolm Fraser was in 1977 but extrapolating from historical trends, I’d rather be the new Queensland Leader of the Opposition or John Robertson (NSW) right now than poor Daniel Andrews in Victoria who opposes a first term government sitting on just 51% of the popular vote. He’s a gunna get thrashed.