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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
Australian Financial Review

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 governments.

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 three terms.

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 to six.

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 gets harder.

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 politicians.

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.

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