Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Queensland Platonic puzzles

Betting markets strongly favour the re-election of the Beattie government. Some have concluded that given polls showing Labor and the Coalition level-pegging and the heavy by-election swings against Labor recently the Coalition's chances are much better than the markets suggest. It will be a test of the markets for they are factoring in the view of observers about how the campaign will go. What does history suggest? The infamous early election is that of South Australia in 1979 where new Labor premier Des Corcoran sitting on a substantial if not landslide margin from 1977 rushed to the polls, lost ground steadily through the campaign and fell on an unexpected 10% swing. In 1984 NSW Labor plagued by corruption allegations but sitting on a landslide margin from 1981 called an early election and lost about half its margin but was comfortably returned. The 1976-78-81 NSW cycle was an early example of the current narrow win-landslide-landslide cycle we saw in Queensland in 1998-2001-04 and NSW in 1995-99-2003 and which Bracks looks likely to repeat. The market assumption is I think that Beattie's margin is too big. But what is a margin? Queenslanders have voted strongly for the Coalition federally since 1993. It is true that having sitting Labor MPs is an asset to the campaign but if the swing is on they will be swept aside. Several are also retiring and Mt Isa for example is by no means secure. Some analysts after 2001 and 2004 talked of a Labor 'hegemony' but this is a meaningless word. The idea of hegemony was brought to Australia by Neal Blewett in 1971 in "A classification of Australian elections". It was based on the American idea of partisan identification: that voters had a basic predisposition to support one party, sometimes voters might deviate in their voting behaviour from this identification due to short-term circumstances, such as Democrats voting for Eisenhower in the 1950s, but in 'normal' elections they followed their identification. Occasionally there were 'realigning' elections where the partisan identification of a group of voters fundamentally shifted due to a major crisis such as war or depression. These realigning elections saw a transition from one hegemonic party to another. The post-1896 Republican hegemony was only interrupted by Wilson in 1912-20 due to a split in the Republican party, but Roosevelt effected a major partisan realignment in 1932-36 and established the Democrats as the hegemonic party, Eisenhower's victories like Wilson’s, were an aberration against the trend. In the Australian context 'hegemony' is an example of what Galvano della Volpe in his excellent Logic as a Positive Science called hypostatisation, a Platonic elevation of a description into an Idea seperate from what it is describes. With the very partial exception of Tasmania none of the recent ALP state landslides have shown any sign of such realignment. Rather an increasingly volatile electorate has been more prone to translate approval of a government into actually voting for it. Labor's Queensland primary vote has oscillated from 30.8% (1998 federal) to 50.3% (1989 state) over the last 20 years. They could just as quickly shift the other way. Commentators have misunderstood the 2004 Queensland election rather than showing that landslides are somehow set in stone it rather illustrated the likelihood that if voters are wildly enthusiastic about a government at one time it is unlikely that the performance of a government is unlikely to decline so quickly that support for it will fall dramatically over only three years. It is possible and in Canada extraordinary seat turnovers have occurred


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