by Malcolm Mackerras

One of my peculiarities is that I do not like to discuss the results of elections until I KNOW those results. For that reason I prefer to discuss only the outcome in the House of Representatives election where I DO know the result: Coalition 90 (Liberal 75, National 15), Labor 55, and “Others” five, in the seats of Denison (Andrew Wilkie), Fairfax (Clive Palmer), Indi (Cathy McGowan), Kennedy (Bob Katter) and Melbourne (Adam Bandt of The Greens).
 
It looks to me at the moment that the Senate election will see an absolute drubbing for Labor and a triumph for the incoming Abbott government. However, I do not know the result so I defer comment until I do. ABC election analyst Antony Green keeps telling us that Ricky Muir of the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party will be elected as a senator for Victoria. I remain sceptical but I shall comment when I know whether it is true or not. The same goes for all the other doubtful Senate seats, particularly that for Wayne Dropulich of the Australian Sports Party who Antony Green seems to think has been elected in Western Australia. In Tasmania the sixth seat is very doubtful. It may go to Sally Chandler (Liberal), to Jacqui Lambie (Palmer United Party) or to Robbie Swan of the Sex Party.
 
Watching the count for the House of Representatives I noticed that, on the morning of Wednesday 11 September, the count in Indi was such as to lead me to think Sophie Mirabella (Liberal) would retain her seat. She was catching up very quickly on her Independent challenger, Cathy McGowan. Then they discovered a thousand missing votes for McGowan and Mirabella’s position became hopeless. The same could easily happen in the Senate election – hence my decision to defer further comment on that.
 
So, what is my reaction to the House of Representatives election? Essentially I think it was, all things considered, a reasonably good result for Labor. I am aware that the share of the primary vote for the Australian Labor Party is the lowest since 1934 but I do not think primary votes are important. I attach importance to seat wins and to the two-party preferred vote, not to the primary vote.
 
I have drawn up tables which are titled “Defeat of Federal Labor Governments 1975 to 2013” and they compare the defeat of the Whitlam government on 13 December 1975, the Keating government on 2 March 1996 and the Rudd government on 7 September 2013. (These are available on request to any reader who wants them. Just write to my e-mail address which is malcolm.mackerras@acu.edu.au). The conclusion to which I have come is that each Labor government was defeated less heavily than the previous one. In other words the Rudd government was defeated less heavily than the Keating government which was defeated less heavily that the Whitlam government.
 
The word “landslide” is undefined. Consequently it depends on whether the commentator wants to engage in propaganda or analysis. Thus, on “The Bolt Report” on Sunday 8 September commentators used the word “landslide” repeatedly. They were gloating in their usual anti-Labor propaganda so one would not expect serious analysis from them. The same applies to right-wing commentators on the ABC program “The Drum”. Determined to prove that Labor is now unelectable and out of office for many terms they quote only Labor’s low primary vote to prove that Labor is unelectable. It is not so long ago that Labor propagandists were declaring the Liberals unelectable for as long as they persisted with Tony Abbott as their leader!
 
I claim to be a serious analyst and, in my judgment, only one Australian federal government was defeated in a landslide. That was the Whitlam government in 1975 when Labor could win only 36 seats in a House of Representatives of 127 members, just 28 per cent of the seats. Labor’s share of the two-party preferred vote was 44.3 per cent, a swing against Labor of 7.4 per cent. That was the only election of recent times when the distribution of the two-party preferred vote was outside the range 55-45.
 
By comparison with the Whitlam debacle of 1975 the defeats of Billy McMahon in 1972, Malcolm Fraser in 1983, Paul Keating in 1996, John Howard in 2007 and Kevin Rudd in 2013 might best be described by the use of the term “respectable loss”. To sum up the three Labor defeats, the shares of the two-party preferred votes for Whitlam, Keating and Rudd were 44.3 per cent, 46.4 per cent and 46.3 per cent, respectively, and the swing against Labor was 7.4 per cent, 5.1 per cent and 3.8 per cent, respectively.
 
A look at my tables for seats is instructive. The most interesting state is Queensland where Labor won only one of the 18 seats in 1975 (Oxley) and only two of the 26 seats in 1996 (Brisbane and Rankin). However, in 2013 Labor won six of the 30 seats in Queensland, Blair, Griffith, Lilley, Moreton, Oxley and Rankin.
 
How many seats did Kevin Rudd save for Labor by becoming leader again on 26 June this year? I would say ten seats, and the basis for my calculation is that back in early May and again in early June (when Julia Gillard was Prime Minister) I was predicting 45 seats for Labor. Now they have 55. I would say the ten seats were three in Queensland, four in western Sydney, the north-east NSW coastal seat of Richmond, the south-east Sydney suburban seats of Kingsford Smith and the Western Australian seat of Brand.
 
In addition to the tables advertised above I have drawn up a table of all the defeats of Australian governments (federal, state and territory) from 1975 to 2013. There are 27 cases, of which 16 I describe as respectable losses and 11 as landslide defeats. The landslide defeats are nine Labor and two non-Labor. The respectable losses are five Labor and 11 Non-Labor. The five Labor governments were those of John Brumby (Victoria) in November 2010, Alan Carpenter (Western Australia) in September 2008, Wayne Goss (Queensland) in July 1995 and the federal defeats for Keating and Rudd.
 
One never knows the future. However, back in May I told Peter on SWITZER that I was willing to make a long-range forecast which was: “I predict that the Abbott government will win big in September 2013, small in October 2016 and be defeated in November 2019.” That prediction may turn out to be correct so I may as well stick with it. However, in arguing against myself I could easily note the substantial similarity of the Keating and Rudd defeats. If John Howard could win four elections (1996, 1998, 2001 and 2004) then Abbott could also win four elections, 2013, 2016, 2019 and 2022 and, in the process, become Australia’s second longest-serving Prime Minister.
 
However, whether the defeats of Keating and Rudd truly are substantially similar does not depend solely upon comparing the general elections for the House of Representatives. When I know the outcome for the Senate I may decide that the half-Senate elections of March 1996 and September 2013 are very dissimilar.
 
I shall comment on that when I know the results. In the meantime I should let readers know that I have refused to join the chorus of other commentators who call for the reform of the Senate electoral system. I commend my readers to an article on the opinion page of “The Australian” for Friday 13 September by Jo Nova. The title of the article is “Three Cheers for Micros” to which the editor added the description “Shame on Liberals for attacking the new senators”. I am in substantial agreement with that article and I hope to elaborate my views in my next contribution to Switzer.com.au. That will come when I actually know the Senate results.
 
(Malcolm Mackerras is Visiting Fellow in the Public Policy Institute, Australian Catholic University, Canberra campus. malcolm.mackerras@acu.edu.au)