Cautionary tales

With the Gallop government reckoned by all to be in deep trouble, much is being said at the moment of the rarity of one-term governments in Australia. At the federal level, we need to go back to the onset of the depression to find a government that failed to win a second term, that being Jim Scullin’s Labor government of 1929-31. Ditto New South Wales; since Jack Lang’s eventful Labor administration of 1930-32, the Coalition government of Nick Greiner and John Fahey has been the shortest lived, lasting a fraction over seven years from its election on 25 March 1988. Victoria has been even more stable since Henry Bolte’s Liberals took office in the wake of the Labor split in 1955, experiencing only three changes of government since. While Tasmania’s system of proportional representation should theoretically be a recipe for unstable minority government, Michael Field’s Greens-dependent Labor administration of 1989-92 is the only example of one-term government in recent memory. Excepting Tasmania, there are only three clear cases of one-term government since the Labor split. There are many differences between them, but two common features stand out – the election of each came as a surprise, and they all coincided with a government of the same political stripe at federal level. Only the former applies in Gallop’s case.

Queensland: Rob Borbidge, National/Liberal (16/2/96-26/6/98): It had been expected that it would take more than two terms for the odour surrounding the Fitzgerald inquiry to lift from the National Party, especially since Labor premier Wayne Goss maintained the highest approval ratings in the land. But it all went awry for Labor at the election of 15 July 1995, at which Labor lost nine seats and suffered a swing of 7.15 per cent that reduced it to 46.73 per cent on two-party preferred. The government nevertheless held on by one seat, but this was lost at a re-election for the seat of Mundingburra after the Liberals made a successful legal challenge against the original result. The Borbidge government took office with the support of independent member Liz Cunningham on 19 February 1996 and immediately gave an impression of unpreparedness, whereas Peter Beattie smoothly assumed the leadership upon Goss’s departure and slowly got on top in the polls. But it was ultimately failure to manage the challenge of One Nation that sealed the government’s doom, rather the normal ebb-and-flow of two-party politics. The refusal by both Coalition parties to put the new party last on preferences at the election of 13 June 1998 had a devastating effect on support for the Liberals in Brisbane, where they lost six seats to Labor. But the real shock was One Nation’s success in winning 22.68 per cent of the vote and 11 seats, six from Labor and five from the Nationals. Labor were ultimately one seat short of a majority and took power with the support of two independents.

South Australia: David Tonkin, Liberal/National Country (15/9/79-10/11/82): Labor under Don Dunstan had been dominant in South Australia throughout the 1970s, at least partly due to serious divisions in the Liberal Party which had not fully resolved when Dunstan resigned due to ill health on 15 February 1979. Six months later the new premier, Des Corcoran, foolishly called an election 18 months before one was due. His own party was caught unprepared, and was duly surprised to find itself turfed from power by David Tonkin’s Liberals. Tonkin’s government soon found itself facing a global recession that hit South Australia particularly hard, manufacturing layoffs burdening it with the highest unemployment in the country. With the government’s fiscal position deterioriating, Labor’s election campaign warning that the Liberals’ promised tax cuts would create a "black hole" were proved correct. Labor also enjoyed an inadvertent stroke of good fortune when one of its members quit the party to allow legislation for uranium mining at Roxby Downs through the upper house, the blocking of which threatened to provide the Liberal Party with its greatest electoral weapon. Labor picked up a 5.4 per cent swing and four seats at the election of 6 November 1982, enough to give it an absolute majority of one in the 47-seat House of Assembly, with further breathing space provided by one independent Labor member.

Western Australia: John Tonkin, Labor (20/2/71-30/3/74): Not quite sure what it is about premiers called Tonkin that the Australian electorate finds so objectionable, but that mystery aside, this is the most useful example in terms of precedents for Geoff Gallop. The party had not been considered likely to win the 1971 election against Sir David Brand, who led a Liberal government that had been securely in power since 1959, but it nevertheless emerged with a one-seat majority. In many ways the circumstances were quite different to those facing Gallop – inflation was spiralling, unemployment emerged as a cause of great alarm after rising to an unheard-of 2.8 per cent, and the Labor government in Canberra was growing more unpopular by the day. One incident of the 1974 election campaign was sufficiently momentous that even eastern states folk might know of it. A rally at Forrest Place featuring Gough Whitlam, who could not be dissuaded from making a campaign visit to lend support to Tonkin, was gatecrashed by a horde of farmers enraged by the federal government’s cancellation of the superphosphate subsidy, who took the opportunity to pelt Whitlam with tomatoes and soft drink cans. The incident may well have elicited sympathy for Labor in the city, where the party’s vote actually increased, although it failed to win them any new seats. The rub for Gallop is that Tonkin’s government went under with the loss of three non-metropolitan seats, one of which was Albany. The others were Pilbara, which has a modern relative in the similarly vulnerable Central Kimberley Pilbara, and the long-lost electorate of Merredin-Yilgarn.

Author: William Bowe

William Bowe is a Perth-based election analyst and occasional teacher of political science. His blog, The Poll Bludger, has existed in one form or another since 2004, and is one of the most heavily trafficked websites on Australian politics.