Australian opinion polls have had the Coalition in a winning position of varying sizes for about 18 months and whenever political attention has turned to the parties polling position, it has focused on the size of Labor’s defeat until last night. The 50-50 Newspoll combined with the Nielsen which returned a 53-47 LNP result has focused attention back to the 50-50 pivot between the parties where the federal electoral contest has usually been contested ( at least continuously since 1980)
Psephs should not be surprised, history has shown us that large polling leads have evaporated the closer we get to an election. In 2001, there were polls which were at 55% TPP or greater for both majors in that year prior to the election which the Coalition won a tight 51-49 victory. In 2007 a large Labor poll lead was whittled back to 52.7-47.3 at the election. Large Labor leads in the term prior to the 2010 election also evaporated. The 1984 and 1993 elections are other good examples.
Simply put the last party to win with a TPP over 54% was the Liberals in their twin post-Dismissal landslides of 1975 and 1977. When various people in the talk about “the narrowing”, they have the last 30 years of Australian political history in mind.
Of course a ”narrowing” is not fait accompli and even if there is one it is not necessarily a sign of victory for the ”underdog” party coming from behind in the polls. Also if one was to consider Labor’s chance of winning a parliamentary majority at the next election they need to consider not just an improvement in the polls but also the need for Labor to win seats off incumbent opposition MP’s. If Labor was to count Melbourne (likely) as a retake from the cross bench and Denison (unlikely), they would need to win 2 seats off the Coalition to win an overall parliamentary majority.
What are Labor’s chances to win Coalition held seats? Usually Governments win large majorities at their first election and defend these seats with the aid of incumbency at subsequent elections. Winning opposition held seats is by nature harder as Opposition MP’s have this incumbency advantage. The harder task will define the overall contest.
Today we are going to look at the battleground for determining who will form the next government which by necessity is the battleground between the parties in a 50-50 national contest.
We shall assess the battleground by looking at the history of Government wins of opposition held seats in the federal sphere and the historical precedents which these victories have set to give us some guidance of Labor’s chances of winning Coalition seats at the next election given a 50-50 national contest. By deduction we shall also look at the areas of Coalition targets in a 50-50 national contest.
Government Gains from sitting Opposition MPs
Below is a table of Government gains of seats contested by sitting Opposition MPs at every election since 1972.
The seats have been listed if they were contested by a sitting Opposition MP. However we have not included:
- Open seats due to retiring incumbent MPs that have retired
- Open seats due to new creation of the same (i.e Bonner 2004)
- Seats where the incumbent Opposition MPs won the seat of the government at a by-election in the Preceding term (i.e. Ryan 2001)
- Government wins off independents
- No wins by incumbent Government MPs of redistributed boundaries which are notional gains for the Opposition (i.e Parramatta 2001)
Here is the table. Please click to enlarge
All in all there are 31 seats with Opposition incumbent MPs that have been won by Government MP’s since 1972. There are a few take home points from the table
- Only 3 of the above seats have been won where the Federal governing party was the same as the governing party at the state level for that seat.
- 12 Sophomore Government MP’s are in the above table.
- Only in 2 seats was the state-wide TPP swing against the government.
- Only in 3 Where Federal governing party was the state governing party.
Based on these features, if Labor is to win seats off the Coalition they will have to get a swing to them in a state with a Coalition state government. Being a sophomore is no bar to being defeated but this does not negate the fact of a sophomore surge for recontesting first term incumbents.
So what lessons are there for a 50-50 battleground?
Coalition marginals – The Sophomore Wall
Below is a table of all Coalition seats with TPP margins of under 3%. If a row is shaded in blue, the state in which the seat is in has a current Coalition state government. If a row is in bold text, the incumbent MP won the seat for the first time in 2010 and will be a sophomore if they recontest the seat at the next election. While a row in bold italics indicates the sitting MP won the seat in 2010 as a challenger but was an MP prior to 2010 and either switched seat at the election, or were re-contesting after a period out of parliament.
As you can see the of the 15 seats with margins under 3%, only Boothby in South Australia is in a state that does not have a Coalition state government. On the other hand, 7 of the 15 seats have first term MPs and another 3 MPs are recontesting their seats after winning the seat in 2010 in special circumstances. The latter group of MPs are
- Ross Vasta won Bonner in 2010 after losing the seat in 2007.
- Teresa Gambaro won Brisbane after losing Petrie in 2007, she was the MP for Petrie since 1996.
- Louise Markus won Macquarie after switching from Greenway which she held since 2004. A redistribution inserted a large slice of Greenway (which had a heavy liberal vote) into Macquarie.
In these seats the sophomore surge may be attenuated.
We also need to take into account the relative federal positions of the states where there are coalition state governments. Where the Labor vote is already high it is unlikely that Labor will get a further swing, however in states where the Labor vote is low , in a 50-50 national contest, Labor should expect some improvement from last time.
We shall take each of the Coalition state government states in turn; and then have a look at the remainder of the nation.
Victoria posted the highest Labor TPP since World War II at the last election, despite Labor almost losing government nationally. Therefore one should be sceptical of further Labor gains despite the seats of Aston, Dunkley and Casey dangling at Liberal TPP margins of 2% or less. Only if the needle swings significantly into red territory nationally should these seats come into play.
In any event Labor has 3 seats with margins of less than 2% (Corangamite, Deakin & La Trobe), therefore defence is more important in this state for Labor and the Coalition should be seeking an improvement from a low base.
Western Australia has not posted a federal 50% + TPP for Labor since 1987. The Coalition’s 56.4% TPP at the last election was the largest polled since 1977. So it is no surprise that the pendulum is swinging back for Labor. Therefore in a 50-50 scenario, the three seats noted above; Hasluck , Canning and Swan are in play and should definitely be Labor targets for their road to 76 .
Of course the wildcard is that the Barnett government loses office next March which would change the dynamic. However on present polling this seems unlikely.
The TPP swing to the Coalition in Queensland at the last election of 5.5% passed into legend thanks to the proximity of the election to the Rudd Removal. However the Coalition TPP of 55.1% was the highest polled since 1949 when Labor has retained office. If Labor is to retain office again then a swing to it in Queensland must be on the cards.
There are 6 LNP seats with margins of 3%, (Brisbane, Forde, Longman, Herbert, Dawson, Bonner) but they all have first term MPs’ who (if they recontest) will be sophomores at the next election, although the caveats for Gambaro and Vasta as noted above still apply.
Once again as noted above, sophomores have the advantage of the sophomore surge, but that is no guarantee against defeat. Never the less given Labor’s low vote in Queensland last time there six marginals should be targets for the Labor road to 76.
New South Wales
This is the wildcard state. While there was a 4.8% TPP swing to the Coalition last time it was concentrated in Sydney (6.6%) compared to the rest of NSW (2.8%). If every state was broken down into its metropolitan and non-metro components, Sydney had the largest TPP swing against Labor in the nation. The question is whether the swing was just an exaggerated swing of the pendulum or whether there is a structural shift in voting patterns or is a function of the collapse of the state labor vote that may not come back in the short to medium term.
In any event there is only one seat with a margin of under 3%, Macquarie. Sitting MP Louise Markus is a first term MP for over half the electorate as noted above, so she has plenty of scope for a half sophomore surge although she did win an open seat . Also the swing to the Liberals last time was only 1.5%.
Compared to the other states there are less seats in play in NSW even if we include Macarthur and Bennelong with margins of 3 and 3.1% respectively, but they too have first term MPs.
NSW is more important for Labor in terms of defence. While Coalition has 1 seat with a margin of less than 3%, Labor has 5 (Greenway, Robertson, Lindsay, Banks & Reid). If the Coalition is looking to consolidate its local and state government gains at a federal level in Western Sydney it would be eyeing off these seats on the Coalition road to 76.
The Darwin based seat of Solomon is on a CLP margin of 1.8% and in the absence of seat specific polling should be considered in play in a 50-50 national contest.
SA, ACT and Tasmania
Finally we should have a look at remainder of the states and territories which have Labor governments. Given a Labor Government in South Australia and that the Labor TPP in that state at the last election was the highest for Labor since 1969, we should not expect any further Labor gains. The most marginal Labor seat in South Australian is Kingston with a TPP margin of 6.1%. Given a 50-50 national scenario, we would not expect any Labor SA seats to be in play.
As for Tasmania, we have mused about this previously. If there is a large swing to the Liberals in Tasmania, then in a 50-50 nation scenario it can still be in the mid-single digits. Therefore We can throw the Tasmanian seats of Bass and Braddon into the in play mix, with Labor defending and the Coalition on the offense. However Geoff Lyons, the MP for Bass will be a sophomore if he re-contest the next election.
As for the ACT, the seats of Canberra and Fraser are too safe for Labor to be lost in a 50-50 national scenario.
By putting all of the above together we get the following tentative battleground for a 50-50 national election.
In short Labor would be playing offence and the Coalition defence in Perth, Brisbane and North Queensland. While the Coalition would be playing offence and Labor defence in Western Sydney, Outer Eastern Melbourne, all roads west and south out of Geelong and Northern Tasmania.
Of course we are a long way from the election and individual contests can always take on a life of their own. Despite today’s Newspoll, overall we are not at a 50-50 scenario yet. However in terms of which party will form government after the next federal election the above seats are the battleground for now.