Even before the election I started thinking about a post about why I thought the chances were pretty high that Abbott would lose the election in 2016. Various things got in the way of me writing it, and what at the time was a deeply contrarian view now isn’t particularly unusual.
Nevertheless, my reasons for thinking this could happen are note entirely the same as other commentators I have seen, so I think the first sitting day of parliament is an appropriate time to set them out.
Beforehand, I should acknowledge something. I have a very strong tendency to be optimistic about things that are a fair way off in time, and get more pessimistic as they get closer. So maybe that is skewing my judgement here – you decide.
First up, let me respond to the usual reason people give for assuming we’re going to be stuck with Abbott for at least 6 years. Yes it is true that it is more than 80 years since a first term federal government has not been re-elected. However, the sample size here is not all that large. Moreover, others have pointed out (sorry can’t remember who so can’t give credit) that the last two examples were also the closest. Arguably the trend is towards first term governments winning by every smaller margins, and if so eventually one will come a cropper. Very few people noticed, even at the time, that Howard not only won with less than 50% of the two party preferred vote, his win was quite literally a lottery. Howard won a lot of very close seats where the Liberal or National candidate was above the Labor candidate on the ballot paper, and a reasonable estimate of the Donkey vote suggests Labor would have won had the draw been reversed. OTOH, there was only one Labor seat where the draw could credibly have given them victory. When factors as random as that determine the outcome one can hardly use this as evidence that Australians always give governments a second shot.
Further to this point, every new government since the war has not gone their full term, with the Rudd/Gillard administration the longest at just under 2 years 9 months. These elections were not called early for fun, they occurred because the Prime Minister feared that their chances of losing were higher if they used their full three years. Unless Abbott is willing to go to a Double Dissolution, with all the problems involved, he has to let his term run at least 2 years and 11 months, a period which might well have done for Howard or Gillard.
It is true that state governments seem to have a very strong record at the first election under a new party, and something may be read into this, but it is not clear it applies federally, although this is a topic that justifies further exploration.
Now, some reasons why I think a loss is likely.
1) State administrations: One of the great unnoticed trends of Australian politics is for voters to backlash against a party that holds power at both state and federal level. I’ve got things wrong in the past by extrapolating too far from this, but if you just look at the core of the data over the last 40 years it is clear that when a party is in government at both levels, and has been for more than a year, there is a swing against them more than 90% of the time. Exceptions exist, but are few and far between. We know for certain that the Liberals will hold WA in 2016, and O’Farrell and Newman are almost unbackable favourites to still be in power by then. South Australia and Tasmania will probably be in Liberal hands too, and Northern Territory either still will be or will have only thrown out a CLP government a couple of months before. Even if Labor wins Victoria, Abbott is going to be facing a likely swing across most of the country. While his majority is large, a swing anything like Howard suffered (with only three states in Liberal hands) would be enough to see him out.
2) Decline in conservative talent: I’ve been banging on for a very long time about how the right-wing forces in Australia are collecting fewer and fewer talented (or even untalented) young recruits. This has led me to some foolish predictions about them running into trouble. However, I think these have been foolish only because of the timelines. In the long run, I think there has to be a price to pay for having so few people who can organise their way out of a paper bag or mount a credible argument coming through. The swings the Liberals suffered in Fowler and Greenway are evidence of this I think – if your candidates are bad enough the public will wake up, even when surrounding electorates are going strongly your way. It’s likely to be even worse for them when the tide is running in the other direction. The lack of talent is not just in marginal seats. It extends to the eager young things who will be staffing ministerial offices and determining whether the cabinet is properly briefed.
3) Overpromising: Howard got into trouble for talking of core and non-core promises, but he barely needed to. Hardly anyone remembers what those non-core promises were. If he’d used less inflammatory language no one would have noticed them being dropped. He got elected promising to make us “relaxed and comfortable” and to govern “for all of us”, language so vague it could never really be disproved. Abbott, on the other hand, actually has to stop the boats or people are going to notice, not to mention finding a way to scrap the carbon and mining taxes while not touching the places that revenue was going. Getting rid of 12,000 public servants sounds fine until you try to take 10% of them out of CSIRO, an institution that remains very popular to Australians. It’s possible that global economic conditions will give him scope to keep his economic promises without causing too much pain elsewhere, but I wouldn’t count on it.
4) Climate change: I see a large part of my role in life to make people more aware and concerned about Global Warming. Clearly I, and everyone in a similar position in the English speaking world, are doing a bad job of it. Nevertheless, it is hardly safe to assume that people will go on not caring. We’ve seen that hot summers tend to raise concern about Climate Change, and successive hot summers have a particularly large effect. There are three summers between now and the election. If two of them turn out to be seriously hot I think Abbott is going to get burned. Is that certain? No. Is it likely? Yes. Will this government be able to turn things around and make it look like they are doing something about the issue? I very much doubt it.
5) Renewable Energy: On top of this Liberals and Nationals everywhere have the problem that they now have an enemy they are not used to – a substantial business sector. So far the solar and wind industry have largely avoided taking a stand against the people who are trying to kill them, hoping that if they are nice enough they’ll be left alone. They’re about to discover how wrong they are. While for some conservative MPs cutting support for renewable energy is a matter of convenience, for others it is hard wired – this is the technology of their enemy and they will do whatever they have to in order to destroy it. Fortunately however, they’re probably too late. Wind and solar are now cheap enough that they will survive, albeit in a much reduced state, even if all government support is pulled from under them. Which will leave substantial, and popular, industries out to make trouble for the party of business.
6) Fighting on three fronts: Many Labor figures like to blame the Greens for their problems, arguing that they have to fight on two fronts. I think this is overstated, particularly because options for peace are open to them, but there is some truth in this. However, it is nothing to what the Coalition are in for. On the one hand they face a Labor Party that will benefit from the process they have gone through to select their leader, even if I think they made the wrong choice.
On the other they will have to cope with Clive Palmer and the money he may splash around to put them under pressure in a range of seats. Palmer may have only just won Fairfax, but a candidate from his party only narrowly lost Fisher to Mal Brough, once considered one of the LNP’s stars. Forced to make the unpopular decisions that go with being in government Abbott will have even more trouble fending off attacks of this sort. Even if Palmer gets bored of the whole thing and takes his dollars home there is a fair chance someone else will emerge promising magic pudding economics to teed off voters. The best defence against this sort of campaign is one that encourages rational thinking and for people to question whether what is being promised is even possible. Anyone think Abbott is the right man for that job?
Meanwhile a third front has opened up as a result of Indi. All over rural and regional Australia people will be looking to Cathy McGowan’s success and contemplating trying something similar. Labor doesn’t have a lot of seats that are vulnerable to this sort of thing, concentrated as they are in the big cities with no substantial local media a candidate can use to build his or her name, and far weaker social connection. Most such campaigns will flounder in Liberal and National seats as well. Few MPs are as polarising as Mirabella, and few electorates will offer an independent as appealing as McGowan. Even where both apply, Indi was probably a particularly good place for a campaign such as this, higher in social capital than most such seats. Nevertheless, anyone thinking of taking a tilt at a government MP has two advantages McGowan did not. The first is that there is now a playbook to work from, and a belief in what is possible. On top of this, it is an awful lot easier to take a crack at a representative of the party in power, particularly one that is likely to be letting coal seam gas drillers and other such vandals rip.
Even if no seats are lost to either thoughtful independents or blithering populists coalition MPs will spend most of the next three years looking over their shoulders. It’s not the best environment to focus on the big picture, something the Abbott cabinet is probably not well suited to anyway.
Meanwhile, by putting the Greens behind Labor, Abbott has ensured that senior ALP figures such as Albanese and Pilbersek have little to worry about, at least in 2016. If Bandt’s comfortable win means Labor doesn’t choose to invest heavily in Melbourne next time there will be no really expensive battlegrounds drawing Labor forces away from the fight. Yet reversing the decision would cause ructions and look embarrassing.
I haven’t put money on Labor winning the next election because I prefer not to bet on things that are in my financial interest anyway. I also seldom bet this far out, but those things aside the odds look pretty good to me.
To be fair, I’m not so sure Labor will have a majority in their own right. The number of cross bench MPs is more likely to rise than fall, so another hung parliament looks quite likely. If the Liberals have more MPs than Labor they may get to hold onto the titles of office. However, the sight of Abbott having to negotiate every bill through the lower house with the likes of Katter, Palmer and McGowan would be so sweet I’m not sure I’d mind if he got another three years under such circumstances.
Update: I forgot to mention one other factor that could prove Abbott’s undoing – The NBN. At the moment the decision to cancel large swathes of the country’s connection schedule to the NBN hasn’t done too much harm. I think this is because, while Labor’s option was always more of a vote-winner for them than the Liberal alternative, most people were not all that invested in the issue. However, if the problems with the Liberal plan become obvious, and uses of high speed broadband become widespread this could be a huge problem for them. Nothing swings votes more than the sense of having been denied something others are getting and you are entitled to. Labor has an easy job going to the areas that were scheduled to be connected soon, many of them in marginal seats, and pointing out their choice has been taken away. It is quite possible that demand for really high speed broadband will not be that widespread by 2016, making this a bit of a non-issue outside a small technophile minority. However, if we start seeing stories about how much use people are making of their NBN connections, how real estate prices are rising faster in NBN connected suburbs etc, then Abbott could lose on this alone.