The landslide victory for the ALP in the Western Australian election is further evidence of a phenomenon that must concern John Howard’s Federal Government.
Elections over the past 10 years have indicated that governments of all persuasions are finding it next to impossible to win a third term in office.
Victoria: John Cain’s Labor government was first elected in 1982 and was re-elected in 1985 and 1988. This followed 9 consecutive election wins and 27 years of Liberal government. The Kennett government was elected in a landslide in 1992 and repeated this in 1996, although evidence of voter dissatisfaction was evident in country areas. Kennett unexpectedly lost the 1999 election after a revolt by rural and regional voters.
New South Wales: Neville Wran’s Labor government was first elected in 1976 and went on to win 3 more elections until it was defeated in 1988 under the leadership of Barrie Unsworth. The Liberal government of Nick Greiner lost its overwhelming majority at the next election in 1991 and was forced to rely on the support of Independents. The government lost in 1995 to Bob Carr’s Labor Party. Carr was re-elected in a landslide in 1999. He faces the people for a third time in 2003.
Queensland: After 32 years of National Party or coalition government, Labor’s Wayne Goss won the 1989 election. He was comfortably re-elected in 1992, but saw this majority decimated in 1995. After losing a by-election in 1996, Goss was voted from office. The Nationals’ Rob Borbidge then lost the 1998 election to Labor’s Peter Beattie in a poll that saw One Nation garner over 20% of the vote on its first electoral outing. Beattie has since lost his parliamentary majority and face the electorate on February 17.
South Australia: John Bannon’s Labor government was elected in 1982 and was re-elected in 1985 and 1989. In the wake of economic difficulties, the ALP was defeated in a landslide at the 1993 election. The new Liberal Premier, Dean Brown, was dumped by his party prior to the 1997 election and his successor, John Olsen, was reduced to minority status in that election. An election is due in South Australia by early next year.
Western Australia: The Burke Labor government was elected in 1983 after 9 years of Liberal government, most of it under Sir Charles Court. The ALP was re-elected in 1986 and 1989. It was decisively defeated in 1993 in the wake of the WA Inc scandals. Richard Court’s coalition government was re-elected in 1996, but saw its comfortable majority wiped out in the 2001 election, denying Court the chance to match the term of Western Australia’s longest-serving Premier, David Brand.
Tasmania: The Liberal government under Robin Gray was first elected in 1982 and re-elected in 1986. It was defeated by a coalition of the ALP and the Greens in 1989, a marriage that imploded and led to the election of the Liberals under Ray Groom in 1992. Groom suffered a setback in the 1996 election, after which he was replaced by Tony Rundle who went on to lose the 1998 election. The Labor government of Jim Bacon faces the electorate for a second term in 2002.
Australian Capital Territory: Since self-government in 1989, the nation’s capital has seen several changes of government.
Northern Territory: Since self-government in 1974, the top end has never elected a Labor government.
Implications: Whereas it was commonplace for governments to survive for many years through the decades from the 1940s on, this began to break down during the 1980s. This decade represents the golden years for the ALP, when it governed in Canberra and a majority of the States. Whilst the 1990s was dominated more by the Liberals, two-term governments have become the norm.
This has occurred at a time when Australia has undergone significant economic change, particularly because of globalisation. The major parties have had difficulty retaining their traditional support bases. The ALP saw a steady decline in its working class base which contributed to the landslide victory by John Howard in 1996.
Similarly, the Liberal Party has had difficulty capturing the middle ground, notably in the 1993 Federal election. Howard lost the two-party-preferred vote at his first attempt at re-election in 1998.
Throughout this time, the National Party has gone into steady decline. Its leader, Charles Blunt, even lost his seat in the 1990 election. From dominating Queensland for 30 years, the Nationals are now facing a major defeat in the February 17 State election. The party was punished by rural and regional voters in Victoria in 1999. The ALP won the Benalla seat of the former State leader, Pat McNamara, in a by-election in 2000. One Nation has eaten into the base of the National Party in Queensland and Western Australia and is gearing up for this year’s Federal election.
John Howard’s coalition government achieved the second largest majority ever in the House of Representatives in the 1996 election. This was whittled away in the 1998 election, Kim Beazley’s ALP regaining 20 seats.
In the light of all this electoral volatility, Howard’s attempts to win a third term will guarantee an interesting year in Federal politics.