Australian Financial Review
LIES & STATISTICS
Peter Brent. Peter Brent is publisher of mumble.com.au, a website
that looks at electoral behaviour.
25 June 2005
The next election may not pan out as expected, argues Peter Brent.
Opposition Leader Kim Beazley can reshuffle to his heart's content, he's
still unlikely to win the next election, whenever it is. The government is too
entrenched, the required swing (about 5 per cent) is all but insurmountable,
Prime Minister John Howard's grip is too firm and Labor stands for nothing.
That's the accepted wisdom. But it's wrong. It's the coalition that will
struggle at the next election.
Elections rarely turn on all those things commentators talk about.
One overriding rule that is rarely acknowledged is that young governments
find re-election easy, while old ones find it increasingly difficult.
Take recent history. Since 1970, Australia has elected four new federal
Gough Whitlam won two terms starting in 1972, Malcolm Fraser won three from
1975 and Hawke-Keating Labor won five from 1983. The present coalition
government, elected in 1996, recently embarked on its fourth term.
(The year 1970 can be seen as the beginning of modern politics, with
reasonably fair boundaries and bipartisan professionalism).
If we throw in the states and ignore the governments in power today, in the
past 35 years we have seen three one-term governments, eight two-term
governments, seven three-termers, two four-termers and one five-term government.
So two terms has been the most common life-span of a government, followed by
At the two extremes, short and long governments are rare.
"So what?" you might say. Elections are like the game of two-up:
you may keep tossing heads but eventually your luck will run out.
However, that analogy doesn't work. With two-up, each new throw has a 50 per
cent chance of success. Not so electoral contests, where the odds stack up
against you with time in office.
Of the 21 governments elected since 1970 (ignoring incumbents), 18 made it
to a second term. Of those, 10 won a third term. Of that group, only three made
it into a fourth term. Just one of those made it five in a row and none made it
That represents success rates, respectively, of 86 per cent, 56 per cent, 30
per cent, 33 per cent and zero. It's called electoral gravity: re-election just
Here's another number. The average tenure of all governments elected since
1970 rounds out to seven years. We know that statistic: it's the seven-year
"itch" in a marriage, the average time in one residence . . . It's
human nature, and electoral behaviour is mainly about the voters, not the
As a government gets older, the "neutral position" goes from there
being no reason to change to there being no reason not to. That largely
explains, for example, why Howard succeeded in 1996 but not 1987.
Of course, no one knows what will happen between now and the next federal
election, and much depends on the behaviour of both the government and
opposition. And, yes, it is a good time for incumbents around the world.
But on the question of likelihood, the evidence points in one direction.
Labor will probably win the next federal election.