Anthony Albanese addressed the first meeting of Labour’s new caucus and revealed the prospect of “back-to-back premierships”. But a second term in government is not a given, he implied – it is something Labor will have to earn. Does he really believe that Labor might not be re-elected?
Not since 1931 has any government been able to succeed in winning a second term. So predictable has the victory become that political commentators often refer to the “unwillingness” of voters to send a government to just one term. Given the historical record, one journalist even argued Albanians’ focus should be on a third term.
Predictably, Peter Dutton had none of that. His plan, he told his troops, was to limit Labor to just one term. To anyone looking at the coalition’s figures, it may have sounded unimaginative. Yet, some have remarked, it may not have been a bad election for the coalition to lose. Labor often won office only to be subdued by economic forces – of course after 1929; but also after his 1972 and 2007 victories. With declining economic growth in the United States and China, 2022 may not be any different.
Second term governments lose votes
What happens to election support for governments seeking a second term is quite different from what we might imagine as all we knew was that they almost always win.
Since the war, seven governments have sought a second term. Three were led by Labor prime ministers (Gough Whitlam, 1974; Bob Hawke, 1984; Julia Gillard, 2010), and four by Liberal prime ministers (Robert Menzies, 1951; Malcolm Fraser, 1977; John Howard, 1998, Malcolm Turnbull, Malcolm Turnbull ).
On each occasion, the government’s two-party system deteriorated. In the 1950s and in the 1970s and 1980s this loss of votes was not particularly great: 0.3 percentage points (1951), 1.0 (1974), 0.9 (1977) and 1.4 (1984) – a average of 0.9. But since the late 1990s, the loss of votes has been greater: 4.6 percentage points (1998), 2.6 (2010) and 3.1 (2016) – an average of 3.4.
The contrast between the two periods is even sharper when we think of prime ministers rather than parties seeking second terms. In 2013, when Gillard was looking for a second term, Labor’s two-party system declined by 3.6 points. In 2022, when Morrison sought a second term, the coalition’s two-party system declined by 3.3 points. In all the other elections, the prime minister who wanted a second term was the same prime minister who got a first term.
It is governments seeking third or fourth terms that have sometimes received votes
Why could post-war governments always be returned with their first attempt? Is it because the swings against them were more muted at the end of their first term than at the end of their second or third term?
For Labor, yes. Labor governments shook off an average of 1.7 percentage points after their first term; after their second, the average figure is 4.0 points.
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For the Coalition, however, the opposite is true. At the end of their first terms, coalition governments shook off an average of 2.2 percentage points. But at the end of their second term, after increasing their vote on two occasions, their average loss was just 0.7 points. And at the end of their third term – again, after doubling their vote – they actually got a point.
On this evidence, the idea that voters are reluctant to throw out governments for the first term is wrong.
So why do governments win second terms?
Governments fail to fall at the end of their first term because of the margins by which they are elected in the first place.
The Howard government, which was elected by a majority of 40 seats in 1996, hung in 1998 despite a 4.6-point swing that should have caused it to lose. In 2010, Gillard survived due to the magnitude of Rudd’s victory in 2007, although she was now at the head of a minority government. In 2016, Turnbull survived by the smallest majority, saved by the magnitude of Abbott’s victory.
The idea that good results reflect voters’ “ambivalence” is a categorical error: voters are not “ambivalent,” even though some voters are. The view that close elections show that voters think neither side “deserves” to govern is another category error. Most likely think most voters deserve one way or the other to govern. It’s just that those who think the coalition deserves to govern are more or less matched by those who think Labor deserves to do so.
Does labor get a second term?
If the fluctuations endured by first-term governments in 2010 or 2016 – or the fluctuations endured by a first-term Morrison government – are any guideline, the chances of an Albanian government returning as a majority government are low. .
Although Labor has won 51.9% of the two-party system, it will only take small swings – 0.2 percentage points in Gilmore (New South Wales) and 0.8 in Lyons (Tasmania) – to lose its majority.
How many other seats can it afford to lose and still rule in minority? A two-party swing of 3.1 percentage points – the smallest swing any of the last three first-term governments has suffered – could lead to the government losing eight seats to the Coalition, leaving Labor with 69 seats and the Coalition with 66 4.6 points – the biggest swing any of these three governments have suffered – could cause it to lose four more: Labor 65, the Coalition 70. Because the election pendulum is not a perfect predictor, these are estimates.
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Should the Coalition win back a few seats now won by the “green-green” independents, Labor’s position would become even more uncertain. It might rely on the four Greens plus Andrew Wilkie to demand the support of 70 MPs. But if the Coalition won 72 or 73 seats and a larger share of votes (primary and two-party) than Labor, it might be better placed than Labor to reach an agreement with the remaining independents. Where Labor would need almost all eight or nine independents to form a minority government, the Coalition might need only three or four.
Other possibilities could weaken Labor’s position even further: a loss of a seat or two to the teals or to the Greens; or the Coalition wins back a seat or two from the Greens. If any of these things happened, Labor’s hold on to the government might not save any more.
The last one-term labor government was a victim of the Great Depression. After Labor won 48.8% of the first preferential vote and 46 of the 75 seats in the House in 1929, Labor received only 37.7% of the vote and 18 seats in 1931 – even if we include the breakaway party, Long Labor. , in.
Will economic circumstances help the non-Labor parties again?