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Implications of the 1998 Federal Election for the 1999 New South Wales Election

Implications of the 1998 Federal Election for the 1999 New South Wales Election

Advice on legislation or legal policy issues contained in this paper is provided for use in parliamentary debate and for related parliamentary purposes. This paper is not professional legal opinion.
Background Paper No. 06/1998 by Antony Green

Comparing Overall State and Federal Election Results.
While the popularity, and more particularly the unpopularity, of Federal governments and Prime Minister can influence New South Wales state elections, the evidence of the past three decades is that New South Wales elections are primarily decided by the popularity (or unpopularity) of the state government. While Federal issues may play a part, New South Wales governments have generally risen and fallen according to their own life cycles.

For instance, in December 1975, Malcolm Fraser led the Coalition to a smashing victory following the dismissal of the Whitlam Labor government. Yet six months later in May 1976, Neville Wran led his state Labor Party to office with a narrow seats but comfortable vote majority over the Coalition. (It can be argued that Labor would have won a more comfortable victory without the memory of the Whitlam government.) The Fraser government's second victory in December 1977 was just as emphatic, yet in October 1978, New South Wales saw the first 'Wranslide' election, the Labor Party polling 57.8% of the vote in New South Wales compared to 42.4% for the Federal Labor Party ten months earlier.

It is more than twenty years to the last unambiguous examples of state governments profiting from the unpopularity of Federal governments. In 1973 the Askin government achieved a swing to it after campaigning strongly against the Whitlam government. The Wran government in 1978 also profited from the unpopularity of the Fraser government.
At the 1981 and 1984 state elections, Labor's vote declined and the Coalition's improved, at the same time as Labor's support surged at the Federal level, the Hawke government succeeding the Fraser government in 1983. The 1987 Federal and 1988 State elections saw marked swings away from Labor in its undustrial 'heartland'. But the election of the Greiner government in 1988 was against the trend of politics throughout the rest of the country, punctuating a decade when Labor governments became the norm across the country. At the 1991 and 1995 elections, the swing was against the state Coalition government while a Federal Labor government was in office. However, the election of the Carr Labor government in 1995 took place with a substantially lower vote than Labor recorded at the 1993 Federal election. The 16.2% swing in the Federal Canberra by-election, conducted on the same day as the 1995 state election, suggests that the unpopularity of the Keating government may have dampened the state swing to Labor.

Since 1972, the same side of politics has been in government in Canberra and Macquarie Street for only six of the 26 years. This is substantially less than the record in all other states, Tasmania 9 years, Queensland 16, Victoria and South Australia 18 years, and Western Australia 22. But this does not seem to provide evidence that the voters of New South Wales are deliberately voting to maintain different parties in office. Only in 1973, 1976 and 1978 is it unambiguous that Federal politics was an issue in the state campaign.

Swings at New South Wales elections are better explained by accepting that once a government is elected to office, the normal trend is for it to begin to lose support. The swing at New South Wales elections has been against the state government at every election since 1971, with the exception of 1973 and 1978. This seems to provide a much better explanation of swing at state elections than any attempt to use Federal results. A similar trend has existed at most interstate elections for the past two decades, and at Federal elections, since 1966, the only Federal government to achieve a swing to it was the Keating government in 1993.

However, state governments do appear to have influenced Federal elections in New South Wales. Federal elections in 1987, 1990, 1993 and 1996 exhibited swings against unpopular state governments. October's Federal election is the first since 1983 in which the swing in New South Wales was towards the party in government in Macquarie Street.

However, examining trends in other states suggests this pattern of non-influence may be a matter of chance. If New South Wales had held an election in the unemployment peaks of 1982/83, the unpopularity of the Fraser government would have been an issue. The same applies to the 1992/93 recession and the Keating government. Both recessions coincided with changes of government in Tasmania, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia, though in each case, the state government involved may have already been in terminal decline.

Apart from the period of the Whitlam government, when Labor suffered reverses in elections in every state, the clearest example of a Federal issue dominating a state election campaign was the December 1989 South Australian election, when the Bannon government came close to defeat because of high interest rates.

With the Federal election campaign now over, and the Howard government's tax package on hold until its debate in the Senate, the issues that dominated the Federal election are unlikely to become prominent in the State election campaign next year. The prospects for the Carr government's re-election probably depend more on its own performance in office than any actions of the Howard government.