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Another 'True Believers' election?

By Jo Coghlan - posted Wednesday, 4 September 2013

It is twenty years since Paul Keating won the 'true believers' election. No one thinks the Labor Party can win the 2013 election but no one thought Keating would win either. While Whitlam and Hawke are mythologised as Labor heroes, they were always likely to win the 1972 and 1983 elections. In 1972, it was 'time' after decades of Liberal government. In 1983, a 'drover's dog' would have beaten the Fraser Liberal government. While some political commentators are pointing to 1993 as the comparison for this election, a better comparison might be the 1998 election.

Winning the vote and losing the election: 1998

In 1998, John Howard called a general election following a period that saw his government plagued by ministerial gaffes and a perception of poor public administration. Having won the 1996 election, a second term was always likely. However winning an election is never simple. To form government in Australia a political party or coalition needs to secure more than half of the 150 federal seats being contested. Securing more than 50 per cent of the vote does not guarantee government. Just ask Kim Beazley.


In the 1998 federal election, the Beazley-led Labor Party secured 51 per cent of the popular vote compared to the Liberal-National Coalition's 49 per cent, but failed to form government. Labor won the popular vote in five of the eight states and territories. Labor won the majority of the vote in the Northern Territory (50.6 per cent), NSW (51.5 per cent), Victoria (53.5 per cent), Tasmania (57.3 per cent), and the Australian Capital Territory (62.4 per cent). The Liberals secured clear majorities in Queensland and South Australia and a smaller majority in Western Australia. This translated into the ALP securing 67 seats and the Liberal-National Coalition securing 80 seats (one independent was elected making up the then 148 seat federal parliament). Elections are about counting votes but also importantly about counting seats.

The unlosable election: 1993

While political commentators and journalists are obsessed with opinion polls reflecting voting trends, they rarely consider the impact of voting trends on seats. In 1993 the unpopular Keating government faced an electoral drubbing. However the ALP secured 51.4 per cent of the vote – only 0.4 per more than Beazley would in 1998 – and were returned to power with 80 seats in the 147 seat parliament (the Liberal-National Coalition won 65 seats and two independents were elected). What a difference 0.4 per cent of the vote makes and it made a difference because of where it occurred. While Beazley was able to consolidate the Labor vote in seats already held by Labor, Keating was able to secure Labor votes in marginal seats.

Keating's marginal seat campaign focused resources on securing seats with small margins and challenging for seats held by the Coalition on equally small margins. This strategy is markedly different for the Rudd-led Labor Party that appears to be focusing their electoral resources on shoring up seats in the heavily populated areas of suburban Brisbane and Sydney. Unlike the Keating strategy, Rudd's is probably being driven by polls that show likely Labor loses of ministers. Bradbury in the Sydney western suburb seat of Lindsay is of concern to the ALP. Keating's strategy was driven on margins alone. When Labor leaders say they don't read polls they rarely mean it – Keating did.

The Keating-Rudd comparison: 1993 and 2013

There are however some similarities in the Keating and Rudd campaigns. Both Keating and Rudd were behind in the polls and faced a concerted media effort that appeared to favour the Liberal-Coalition. Both leaders attempted to focus public and media attention on the economy. Keating attacked the Hewson-led Liberal Party on the basis of its 'Fightback' policy which included the proposal to introduce a 15 per cent goods and services tax (GST). Similarly Rudd's focus has been on attacking the Coalition's policy costing and raising the spectre of an increase in the GST. Similarly both men had to overcome issues associated with their ascendancy. Keating had rolled the popular Bob Hawke in 1991 while Rudd's return to the leadership in 2013 meant neither leader had a popular mandate for their Prime Ministerships.


The Party is over: Labor states and mates

There has been a dearth of publications and comments mainly from Labor insiders and former MP's that the party is over for the ALP. There is much to critique about the ALP and its lack of policy reform and failures at internal democratisation. The consequences of the Party's inability to do either, coupled with corruption allegations in NSW, means the ALP in 2013 is fighting the election from a very different structural position than it did in 1993.

At the time of the 1993 election, Labor was in power in Queensland (Wayne Goss), South Australia (John Bannon), West Australia (Carmen Lawrence) and the Australian Capital Territory (Rosemary Follett). Three state governments changed hands from Labor to Liberal in the year before the 1993 election – John Fahey (NSW), Ray Groom (Tasmania) and Jeff Kennett (Victoria). While the electoral changes in NSW, Tasmania and Victoria might suggest rising Liberal fortunes, having all occurred in 1992, there was enough time for voters to consider the spectre of what a Liberal government might look light. As with voters allocating a vote to one party in the Senate and a different party in the House of Representatives as some assurance that no one party will run amok, a similar thing happens at a state level. If the Liberals are in power in the state, some voters are more likely to vote Labor at a federal level and vis-a-versa.

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About the Author

Jo Coghlan is a lecturer in the School of Arts and Social Sciences at Southern Cross University.

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