A world of difference balancing on a knife-edge

The looming federal election promises to be a watershed in Australian politics. While any poll has the potential to dramatically remake the national political landscape, the likely 2010 poll is shaping to leave legacies for both sides of politics that will last considerably longer than usual. Not surprisingly, Labor has the most to lose.

While it is far too early to write-off Labor’s chances of retaining power under Kevin Rudd’s leadership, the precipitous decline in the Prime Minister’s personal standing with the electorate has created an extraordinary situation. Much is made of the fact that it is decades since a first-term government in Australia was last swept from office. This would appear to offer Labor a great measure of comfort but the raw statistics indicate any such reassurance could be quite misplaced.

The fact is that first-term governments since the mid-1940s have suffered an average swing against them of 1.69%. Bob Hawke did well and received a setback of only 1.46%. John Howard, by contrast, failed to set the world on fire and was slapped around the head with a swing of 4.61% in 1998. He recovered to become one of the nation’s longest-serving PMs.

The cause for concern for Labor currently is that a swing of just 1.69% (the average rebuff at a second election) would see the ALP notionally secure 75 seats. The Coalition is predicted on such a vote to secure 72 seats with independents holding three. This could easily create a hung parliament with Labor to face all sorts of turmoil as it tried to govern while walking a tightrope of compromise on all manner of issues.

More pertinent, though, is that the current polls show Labor suffering a fall of between 4 and 6 per cent in support. If translated across the board this would see the party suffer a massive loss of seats that would take a likely two terms to recover. Worse are the predictions – even from some senior Labor identities – that the public would perceive Labor as having no entitlement at all to the mantle of natural party of government which it has successfully enjoyed for the past few years federally (and much longer in most states). It is said this could cost Labor power for a generation (three terms or longer).

If Labor were to suffer such a devastating decline in its fortunes, leadership tensions would create a raft of problems. Most pundits predict that Julia Gillard would sweep all before her and take the top job. But that is far from a certainty with many in Labor ranks cautious about her left-wing past and continuing ties to the left of the party. Of equal relevance is who would have the stomach to lead the party for a thankless two terms of Opposition. Gillard may not be willing to carry such a burden for so long though her self-belief suggests she would fancy her chances of wresting government back after another one-term experiment. The odds suggest two consecutive one-term governments is remarkably unlikely, however.

For the Coalition, a return to the government benches so quickly carries danger signs, too. Worst would be a breakout of hubris and a belief that Labor has been consigned to the dustbin of history. Such arrogance would alienate the electorate very rapidly and voters would be likely to exact very severe retribution. Abbott as PM would be generally unassailable barring some acts of stupidity or cupidity but leadership aspirants would be eager to demonstrate their wares. Joe Hockey would be prominent and Malcolm Turnbull has likely not put away his Field Marshal’s baton just yet.

A world of possibilities awaits voters in the next few weeks or months as the realisation starts to sink in that a world of difference in the way we are governed now rests on a knife-edge.

Acknowledgement: Jacob Saulwick, The Index. The Sydney Morning Herald, June 12-13, 2010.