Home > Economics - General > The mystery of early elections

The mystery of early elections

October 17th, 2017

The TV news hear in Brisbane has been running rumours about an early state election for most of the year. Even though a string of predictions have already proved false, the rumours keep coming. I heard another one yesterday, but today’s news suggests not, though with the odd phrasing

ANNASTACIA Palaszczuk has fuelled speculation she may wait until next year to call the election

which seems to suggest there is something odd about holding the election on time.

I have a couple of thoughts about this. First, I assume that somebody in the government or the ALP machine must be a source for these rumours. But thanks to the conventions of journalism, we never find out who[1]. At the very least, couldn’t political journalists stop repeating claims made by people who have been wrong over and over.

More importantly, why would any government, anywhere, voluntarily shorten its term in this way? The idea, of course, is that the party hardheads know when to seize the ideal moment to capitalize on the government’s popularity. That doesn’t apply in the current case, where the polls have been neck-and-neck. More importantly, this kind of advantage regularly dissipates in the course of an election campaign. Spectacular recent examples include Campbell Newman and Theresa May. But from my casual observation, it’s the norm rather than the exception for governments that go early to underperform expectations. That was true for the federal elections in 1984 and 1998 for example. Hawke expected a huge win in 1984 but ended up with a swing against him. Howard actually lost the two-party vote in 1998, and only squeaked in by good luck.

The issue ceases to be relevant after this election since we will move to four year fixed terms. I support fixed terms, but think three years is long enough for governments to keep themselves safe from voters.

fn1. An even more egregious case of this is the confident assertion the Kevin Rudd undermined the Gillard government, even though he said nothing in public that could be regarded as disloyal (unlike another recently deposed PM). We are supposed to take this assertion as true, even though those who make it refuse to go on record, even in the broadest terms, about what Rudd is supposed to have said and to whom.

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  1. Smith
    October 17th, 2017 at 09:45 | #1

    Three year terms are too short because governments stop doing anything remotely courageous (in the Yes, Minister sense) about one year out from the end of their term.

    “why would any government, anywhere, voluntarily shorten its term in this way?” They might not, but by feeding speculation about an election date, it (i) focuses attention on the theatre of the election and away from the shortcomings of the government (obviously this doesn’t apply when the government is totally on the nose), (2) it forces the opposition to focus on the mechanics of the upcoming campaign rather than finding fault with the government and (3), perhaps most important, it disciplines unruly government backbenchers whose careers may soon be on the line. This is especially important for a government with a small or no majority and trouble making backbenchers, which applies in spades to Palaszczuk.

  2. David
    October 17th, 2017 at 10:30 | #2

    I think an election should be held immediately after each annual budget is submitted.

    I want the opportunity to vote as often as possible — most people don’t and it’s a huge mistake IMO.

  3. Travis
    October 17th, 2017 at 11:46 | #3

    The last 10 or so Queensland State Elections have been called between 2 years and 7 months into a term and 3 years in. We’re now at 2 years and 9 months. Going by this convention, calling an election now would not actually be an “early election” per se, and to wait until March would in fact be much later than most.

  4. bjb
    October 17th, 2017 at 11:49 | #4

    How do fixed 4 year terms work ? If we go to an election in, say, this November, does that mean every 4 years after the election is always in November ?

    I’m wondering if the ALP number crunchers have done any calculation as to if the time of year an election is held increases/decreases their chances, thus the current ducking and weaving as to when an election may be held.

  5. Smith
    October 17th, 2017 at 11:53 | #5

    @bjb

    There used to be a belief that winter elections were bad for governments, because voters are grumpier in winter.

  6. Disenfranchised
    October 17th, 2017 at 12:09 | #6

    It must be remembered when talking parliamentary terms in Queensland that there is no upper house. If a party wins a majority in the Legislative Assembly it is a winner take all scenario, which too often in Queensland has delivered arrogant authoritarian style governments. I agree with JQ particularly in a Queensland context, three years should be long enough.
    I remind JQ of what Barry Cassidy wrote re Rudd/Gillard ABC Drum 28.6.2013 “For Julia Gillard,the temptation must be to ponder, what if ? What if she’d been given a clear run in the 2010 election campaign ? The day Laurie Oaks rose at the National Press Club and threw a hand grenade changed Gillard’s political fortunes forever. And whoever leaked the material would have known that. Had that not happened Gillard would have led a majority government. Her credibility and authenticity would not have been questioned in the same way.” Here is an example of someone who went on the record regarding Rudd. It began with leaking against the leader and by extension, his own party during an election campaign. It continued with the on again off again leadership challenges during Gillard’s next of term of government. And was motivated by ego and revenge. Abbott no doubt is also motivated by revenge and ego but with a good dose ideology thrown in. The fact that Rudd did not make public pronouncements in the same way as Abbott is irrelevant. Rudd’s undermining was just as real and changed the course of history, not for the better.

  7. Svante
    October 17th, 2017 at 14:44 | #7

    @Disenfranchised

    Yes, without a house of review there’s no fair nor accessible way for the punters to hold the Government to account for four long years. The utterly biased Qld referendum process last year was the absolute pits so compromised by the duopoly of winner take all and the slavering lust for power and perks!

  8. J-D
    October 17th, 2017 at 14:52 | #8

    David :
    I think an election should be held immediately after each annual budget is submitted.
    I want the opportunity to vote as often as possible — most people don’t and it’s a huge mistake IMO.

    Hear hear.

    The nineteenth-century democratic Chartist movement had six aims in the People’s Charter that gave the movement its name:
    Manhood suffrage (Wikipedia cites a source for the claim that the first draft included adult suffrage, but this was dropped ‘under middle-class pressure’)
    Secret ballot
    Abolition of property qualifications for MPs
    Payment of MPs (to open the way to a parliamentary career for workers)
    Abolition of electoral malapportionment
    Annual elections

    The first five have been achieved; the sixth has been forgotten.

  9. Svante
    October 17th, 2017 at 14:52 | #9

    @bjb

    After the coming election subsequent elections are to be held at fixed four year intervals in the month of October. Following a vote of no confidence in the government and another in the process of trying to put together a governing majority the Queensland Governor must call for a fresh election – time limits of weeks and months apply here.

  10. J-D
    October 17th, 2017 at 14:55 | #10

    Smith :
    Three year terms are too short because governments stop doing anything remotely courageous (in the Yes, Minister sense) about one year out from the end of their term.

    In Yes, Minister, when civil servants tell politicians that a proposal is ‘courageous’, they mean that it will lose an election. The only way a proposal can lose an election is if the voters are overwhelmingly opposed to it, so in this context ‘courageous’ decisions are the ones that voters are overwhelmingly opposed to. Politicians shouldn’t be making decisions that voters are overwhelmingly opposed to, and stopping them from doing so is good.

  11. J-D
    October 17th, 2017 at 15:07 | #11

    But from my casual observation, it’s the norm rather than the exception for governments that go early to underperform expectations.

    I haven’t attempted a systematic analysis, but for what it’s worth, here are a few examples of early elections that turned out well for the governments that called them:
    United Kingdom, 1983
    Canada, 2008
    New Zealand, 1951
    Australia (Commonwealth), 1963
    Queensland, 1974
    New South Wales, 1978

  12. Smith
    October 17th, 2017 at 16:30 | #12

    @J-D

    I respectfully disagree. There are objectively good decisions that governments can make that are initially unsupported by the electorate, but given enough time, governments can persuade the electorate to support them. But governments won’t make these decisions close (within a year) of an election, because there is not enough time for them to make the case.

  13. Smith
    October 17th, 2017 at 16:32 | #13

    @Svante

    October is interesting month to choose. If the Brisbane Broncos or Townsville Cowboys win the rugby league grand final a few weeks earlier there will be a feel-good factor that will help the government of the day.

  14. John Quiggin
    October 17th, 2017 at 16:38 | #14

    @Disenfranchised

    This is precisely not an “example of someone who went on the record regarding Rudd”. Oakes refers to “whoever leaked the material”, sticking to the journalistic convention of not naming the source. Lots of people have claimed, based on purely speculative evidence, that it was Rudd, but neither Oakes nor Hartcher (who also published the leak) have said so. Nor has anyone (AFAICT) claimed to have even indirect knowledge of the source, for example, becuase Oakes or Hartcher told them privately.

  15. Diosenfranchised
    October 17th, 2017 at 17:17 | #15

    I repeat what I said earlier JQ. Although Rudd did not make public pronouncements in the same way as Abbott, his undermining of Prime Minister Gillard and a Labor Government was unrelenting and effective. So effective the arsonist was eventually brought back to save the furniture. As for the leaking against Gillard in the 2010 election, it is hard to imagine who else would have had the motive and bitterness. Rudd was privy to the relevant cabinet deliberations of the time. Whether it was Rudd personally or someone acting on his behalf who leaked to Oakes matters little, we are still living with the legacy of that act of bastardry.

  16. John Quiggin
    October 17th, 2017 at 19:36 | #16

    @Diosenfranchised

    This is all irrelevant to the point I was making. If Rudd was the source, Oakes and Hartcher should say so. If not, they should say that. As it is, we are stuck with speculation, like yours, because of a silly journalistic taboo.

  17. J-D
    October 17th, 2017 at 20:00 | #17

    Smith :
    @J-D
    I respectfully disagree. There are objectively good decisions that governments can make that are initially unsupported by the electorate, but given enough time, governments can persuade the electorate to support them. …

    I can’t think of any, so I don’t know what you can be referring to.

  18. Smith
    October 17th, 2017 at 21:28 | #18

    @John Quiggin

    Journalists don’t reveal their sources for the obvious reason that if they did they soon would no longer have sources. But maybe now that Oakes is retired he could persuaded to give up a few, such as who leaked him the entire 1980 Budget.

  19. Greg Pius
    October 18th, 2017 at 06:19 | #19

    Henry Lawson wrote his opinion of politicians over one hundred years ago. His quip:
    “All politicians are mugs!” rings down the ages since Federation.

    This may seem out-of-date today but think about it for a moment.
    Who were the politicians of Henry Lawson’s day?

    Surely they were the same ones who wrote our federal constitution. That’s right these are the ones who put in that xenophobic clause about no one with “foreign influences” serving in federal parliament.

    Now I have been laughing as much as anyone about highlypaid (perhaps overpaid) politicians being caught out by their:
    Mother;
    Father:
    Own stupidity;
    Own blind carelessness: and
    an outdated principle.

    But just maybe Henry Lawson’s criticism is not as outdated as it may seem at first glance.

    After all these people are deciding our future, contributing to decisions about the future of our planet and (most scary of all) sending our young people into war zones.

    The old Australian slang term “mug lair” was meant to show contempt. Our parliamentarians are risking the contempt of voters by going early to an election. As Smith wrote, three years is already too short a term of government. Anything shorter is risking losing the confidence of voters.
    In finance you “sell short” for speculative gain. When you engage in “naked short selling” you don’t even tell the owner of the shares you are selling.
    Politicians should not display their “naked ambition” to voters. These voters may get “jack” of the lot of them and vote independent. Worse still they may do what the voters in Austria have just done. Adolf Hitler has not died, he lives on in the hearts of every overambitious pollie.
    Or as Shakespeare had Mark Anthony say sarcastically:
    “So are they are all honorable men?’

  20. I am and will always be Not Trampis
    October 18th, 2017 at 07:03 | #20

    @John Quiggin
    Another person blaming Rudd who forgets one of the first things in the election was to show up Rudd re Gillard on security. And those geniuses from the NSW Right were surprised when the Rudd forces returned fire.
    That Gillard accepted their advice showed yet again her poor political judgement.

  21. J-D
    October 18th, 2017 at 07:07 | #21

    Greg Pius :
    The old Australian slang term “mug lair” was meant to show contempt. Our parliamentarians are risking the contempt of voters by going early to an election. As Smith wrote, three years is already too short a term of government. Anything shorter is risking losing the confidence of voters.

    As time passes, the probability of the government losing the confidence of voters does not decrease, it increases. Therefore, the longer the period between elections, the greater the probability that the government will lose the confidence of voters before the next election.
    On the other hand, a government that has lost the confidence of voters should be removed from office as soon as possible. Therefore, a shorter period between elections is better.

  22. Irrregular
    October 18th, 2017 at 12:03 | #22

    @Smith

    I might believe this for Sydney, Canberra or Melbourne… but for Queensland? Winter here is generally dry and warm.

  23. Greg Pius
    October 18th, 2017 at 13:53 | #23

    J-D, you are thinking too logically. Your inference is premised on non-Canberra thinking modes. Politicians who have no reason to make policy in the national interest will only make policies that benefit their own supporters. Then we get policies like the one that just turned up in Canberra, cleverly (according to the LNP government) disguised as a “cheaper energy policy”. The only way we will ever get brave political policies, that do try to improve social welfare, is if the Canberra politicians have no excuses to wimp out. I know it is a big leap of faith to hope they will not always wimp out, but at least they will have no justification for refusing to try progressive welfare policies. After four years in power, no government can get away with blaming the previous government.

  24. J-D
    October 18th, 2017 at 16:07 | #24

    @Greg Pius

    … Politicians who have no reason to make policy in the national interest will only make policies that benefit their own supporters. …

    I don’t know what it is you imagine would give politicians an incentive to make policy in the national interest, if it’s not the possibility for being turned out of office by the voters at an election; and if the possibility of being turned out of office by the voters at an election is an incentive to make policy in the national interest, then making the elections more frequent strengthens the incentive. I can’t figure how you would imagine making elections less frequent would increase the incentive to make policy in the national interest.

  25. paul walter
    October 18th, 2017 at 23:01 | #25

    She’ll be hanging on until she thinks she’s got her way with Adani.

  26. Svante
    October 19th, 2017 at 09:26 | #26

    @J-D
    @Greg Pius

    Either way the duopoly parties (and others) mostly do the bidding of the large donors they have in common, not those who take a punt on them at election time, not the broader national interest, and too many pollies have an eye on personal post politics rewards they may gain for themselves by doing the ‘right’ thing where they can during their political career. Without a thorough reform of the system it is disheartening. Without at least a credible separate house of review it is all but hopeless.

  27. Clive Newton
    October 21st, 2017 at 09:40 | #27

    @John Quiggin
    I agree totally. The Oakes question with its clear intent of creating, without actually saying so, the idea that Rudd leaked is a prime example of how a nasty journalistic slur is lazily amplified and repeated. I recall, and may be wrong, that the Oakes question related to Julia Gillard’s views in a cabinet meeting. How many ministers knew of this? Staffers? Agree totally that journalists “protecting sources” is often code for snitches with an agenda and journalists with an agenda. Why oakes got an award (!!!!!) for that behaviour sums up the general laziness of our jornalists.

  28. Ikonoclast
    October 21st, 2017 at 10:26 | #28

    @Svante

    That is correct. The major duopoly parties do the bidding of their corporate and capitalist donors wherever and whenever they can. This is true in relation to economic and business policy. There may be more room for them in social policy like same sex marriage, unless social conservatives and reactionaries in the party room stymie policy like that.

    There are economic policy cases where voter power could be effective. In such cases, the duopoly parties will lie, maneuver and obfuscate in an an effort to hoodwink voters and still put in policies that suit corporations and capitalists. When all of this fails and they face loss of office they will try to throw just enough bones (electoral bribes) to the voters. They will usually structure the budget so that the other party’s rusted on voters pay for the electoral bribes to get the swinging voters. They have got this almost down to a science now.

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