An odd state of affairs

I’ve been reflecting today on the statistical oddities of recent Australian election results. As former Liberal Party director Michael Kroger pointed out on Saturday night:

  • Labor has won 20 out of 20 of the last state and territory elections
  • Labor has lost 4 out of 4 of the last federal elections

If elections were a random draw (which they’re not), the odds of one party winning 20 straight state and territory elections, and losing 4 straight federal elections, would be (2^20*2^4)*0.5=1 in 8 million. This exaggerates the odds, but it is nonetheless highly unlikely that this situation arose by chance.

Yet despite this, I know of virtually no scholarship looking at why Labor (the Coalition) has done so poorly (brilliantly) at a federal level, and so brilliantly (poorly) at the state level. I’ve heard people talk about competence, but it’s not clear to me that the federal Labor caucus is any less qualified to govern than its various state counterparts.

The best systematic explanation I’m aware of is Andrew Norton’s 2004 metaphor of the mummy party and the daddy party:

At a fairly general level, I think there is something to these metaphors, and I think they help explain why both the US Republicans and Australian Liberal Party do better at the federal than the state level. ‘Father’ characteristics seem more needed there, particularly in running the economy and dealing with foreign threats. The ‘mother’ characteristics seem appropriate to state-level service delivery, looking after the people at a more personal level where sympathy and empathy are needed.

Do others have a better theory?

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26 Responses to An odd state of affairs

  1. Sinclair Davidson says:

    I don’t have a better theory. Better being defined as ‘testable’.

    In an economic / political sense, however, are the state and federal parties the ‘same’ party? The bundles of attributes each offers are quite different and the resourcing each has access to is quite different too. So rather than looking at the joint probability, maybe you rather look at a ‘runs test’ for each state and then federally. How unusual is it for an incumbant government to win x elections in state y (or federally)? I don’t suspect we’re in an unusual run.

  2. slim says:

    Economic good times make it easier for Republicans and the Coalition to get away with mediocre to incompetent economic management and still take credit for the good times.

    It’s usually mother who cleans up the mess after the party’s over.

  3. I don’t have a theory either and the mummy and daddy one doesn’t seem to explain why there was a long period from the fifties to the seventies when the Libs ran the states.

    I don’t remember the details but I have seen figures showing that if you can survive in power for a fair stretch (14 years?) you are almost guaranteed to win again.

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  5. Kevin Cox says:

    Perhaps it is a sensible policy with respect to risk on behalf of consumers and it shows the market in action.

    Think of votes as being a form of currency but we only have a few votes to “spend”. Postulate that the low risk strategy is to spend our votes to increase our likelihood of good government. The biggest risk of bad government is to have people in power too long so that they forget about their customers and abuse their power. I suggest that the electorate know this and so want to have some form of control over the political party in power and they do not have many ways of doing this.

    I would suggest that it is almost impossible for a labour government to lose a State election until it looks as though the Federal Government will lose either the Senate or the House of Reps. This may be a testable hypothesis?

  6. If you look at the Newspoll series of questions on which party is better for various areas of policy, Labor consistently does better in health and education, two of the big state issues. However, the Coalition does much better than Labor on economic management and defence, issues which are primarily and exclusively respectively federal issues.

    Mike – It remains the case that Labor has been far more successful at state than federal level:

    NSW 1941-65, 76-88, 95-now
    Vic 45-47,52-55, 82-92, 99-now
    Qld 32-57, 89-96, 98-now
    SA 65-68, 70-79, 82-93, 02 to now
    WA 33-47, 53-59, 83-93, 01- now
    Tas 34-69, 72-82, 89-92, 98 – now

    Labor’s success has been particularly strong since the early 1980s.

    As can be seen from the above statistics, short-run governments are relatively rare. Incumbency has seemingly been a strong force throughout the post-war period. Arguably it is greater now because governments don’t just get the capacity to deliver electoral bribes instead of promises, they also now spend vast sums on thinly disguised political advertising and electorate allowances that sitting members use to maintain a high local profile.

    Labor can be considered the natural party of government at the state level. Even quite bad Labor governments, such as those in Qld or NSW, can win elections. A Galaxy poll in the Daily Telegraph last week found that Labor was in front despite 57% of those polled, including a third of Labor supporters, saying that Labor did not deserve to win the election – but the Coalition was even less well regarded.

  7. Corin says:

    I have long thought that the Liberal party must do a ‘Cameron’ at State level, and some how find a narrative that places them more in a Rawls liberal tradition than a classical Liberal tradition: much to the derision I expect of most of the Liberal faithful. There are a series of contradictions – but the main message is that a Liberal administration would be more efficient, and superior (see those PPP’s), and would devote the savings to better services and poverty relief. In many ways I think the Liberal state message is easier to fix than the Federal Labor one.

    As far as Labor is concerned I agree with Joshua Gans – talent counts: if you moved 3 of the State premiers into the shadow cabinet to campaign – you would have a much better message delivery /conversation /policy discussion with the public. Labor at a federal level also faces some contradictions and I think Labor needs a two term strategy – where it doesn’t run to win in 07: and that strategy has to be to set out the principles and core objectives. For instance Medicare Gold was the perfect example of ‘trying to win’ and destroying long term credibility. In health as an example – Labor needs to discuss more offset co-payments (in-spite of the short term cost). In education it needs to consider a ‘discussion’ on school funding reform including differntial voucher funding (even if this has some short term problems).

    Labor lastly needs to know what 21st century nation-building can deliver: at this point it is a term that is bandied about with no relevance to peoples lives. I mean there is a sense that more ‘Snowy-rivers’ might be worth considering. The message is skills and costed-transport-ports investment.

    Lastly Labor has a huge contradiction – at State level the factional machine works very very well – but at a Federal level it is in decline. The increasing percentage of former staffers and union leaders indicates a narrowing base that requires substantial reform – either in the manner undertaken by Blair or by even more radical ‘participatory’ means.

    Labor is still very 1984, when centralisation of power has reached a high tide. The next method of community integration, participation, and discussion with a nation is to devolve power. In my view it takes enormous courage and to blow out the cob-webs on both sides.

  8. One word (Incumbency), is better than two (Mummy & Daddy).

    William of Ockham

  9. Verdurous says:

    I heard it said somewhere that Australians are social conservatives but economic progressives. This dichotomy may explain the differing state vs federal situations.

  10. Patrick says:

    Except that it would seem to be contradicted by it, unless you are using the word progressive in the highly unusual and almost extinct sense of ‘desiring progress’ and conservative in no sense at all.

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  12. Leo says:

    We’re in the middle of a sustained economic boom, and for a variety of reasons (corruption in NSW/SA, One Nation splitting the Conservative vote in Qld/WA, Jeff Kennett in Victoria etc) Labor Premiers stumbled (more by luck than judgement) into office in time to enjoy its peak period since 2001.

    I really think it is that simple. Most of them had to depend on independents/Greens to form government initially.

  13. Verdurous says:


    Re: “Except that it would seem to be contradicted by it, unless you are using the word progressive in the highly unusual and almost extinct sense of ‘desiring progress’ and conservative in no sense at all”

    Socially conservative as in border protection, against cloning stem cells, family values, national identity (federal domains?). Otherwise egalitarian – as in health care access, education access (state domains).

  14. Sacha says:

    On Liam’s point, it’d be interesting to consider what would have happened in Qld if Goss hadn’t lost the 1995-96 Qld state election. There’s every chance the coalition would have won the ’98 election, even if with one nation support, and after ON disappeared (in this notionally different history), they would now be continuing in state govt, albeit with a competitive labor opposition.

  15. derrida derider says:

    It’s simple incumbency more than anything. Australians have become very small-c conservative and risk averse, and it takes something fairly special to get them to move from the devil they know to those they don’t.

  16. Matt Cowgill says:

    “I don’t have a theory either and the mummy and daddy one doesn’t seem to explain why there was a long period from the fifties to the seventies when the Libs ran the states.”

    In WA that period could be partly explained by the gerrymander that skewed the state’s electoral boundaries.

  17. Don Arthur says:

    “…the mummy and daddy one doesn’t seem to explain why there was a long period from the fifties to the seventies when the Libs ran the states.”

    On some versions of the mummy/daddy theory the family metaphor replaces an earlier understanding of Labor/Coalition that was based on the old left/right division.

    Labor used to be identified as a socialist party that stood for workers and wanted to nationalise the means of production. The Liberals opposed this and were pro-capitalism and pro-employer.

    During the 1980s this way of understanding the Labor/Coalition divide finally collapsed when Federal Labor not only failed to nationalise the means of production but started to privatise them. Combined with their strategy of holding down wages this made the idea that Labor stood for moderate Leninism seem ridiculous.

    In a post left/right world the electorate needed a new mental model for understanding the difference between the major parties. The mummy/daddy theorists think they’ve found it.

    Their claim is connected to the idea that Australian politics is becoming Americanized. Labor is becoming less of a workers’ party and more like the Democrats.

  18. Andrew Leigh says:

    NG, DD – I don’t buy the incumbency story. It might explain the last 3 federal elections, but not the fact that Labor has steadily accumulated all the state and territory governments, ousting Liberal incumbents in the process.

    Lots of other fascinating comments – keep em coming.

  19. Corin says:

    Don Arthur, I read your stuff and I like what have to say.

    I’d suggest the narrative is longer (I’d say pre-hawke/post hawke) but is changing even more rapidly than the Democrat comparison/assessment suggests.

    Labor at a Federal level in the 1980’s was seen as the party of economic competence in a way it hardly inspires now. But I don’t think the ALP has really changed any of its positions since about 1993 because it sees what it was not what it could become. i.e. it is driving via the rear-vision mirror.

    I mean the same debates and policy outcomes are going on in the Federal ALP as 1994 – indeed IR and the GST indicates to me at least – that the ‘public’ grudgingly want governments to govern – even if they don’t always appreciate it. Does the same logic apply to Oppositions: In the old days probably not – but actually I think it does now – and consistency of position is the key: call it ‘trust’ and call ‘Big C change’. people know that things change constantly now and they elect someone not on policy itself but on capacity to respond to change and problems. They also elect based on a ‘vision’ they trust but not the minutiae.

    In many ways the pace of change is increasing and parties have to respond to it.

    People now trust change – they know it works in the long run – which is why I think the incumbency issue is overplayed. What governments have on their side though is resources and a greater capacity to respond to change and create positions of trust in times of change.

    Can I add one more thing – I really think that post-Howard will be as big a movement in political sentiment as post-Fraser was, even though the path seems so certain now. In 2020 – Australia will such an interesting place – I’m just not buying pessimism. But will the Federal ALP look like the current version – almost certainly not if it starts driving with the forward gears.

  20. Christine says:

    There’s a paper on whether the state and federal parties in various federations are the same in Public Choice somewhere. Happy to dig it up later, if anyone wants. The conclusion was that they were in most federations with party structure except Canada. Which is definitely weird, I can tell you now. Trying to figure it out without the historical knowledge is very difficult.

    I don’t think anyone’s mentioned that there’s a desire to split government in some cases – as with some of the rumblings in the US of the need to have a Dem house/senate as a counter to Rep administration, regardless of whether you like Dems – and that that’s easier to do when the elections aren’t held simultaneously (state elections in Australia at different times than federal). This would be another reflection of risk aversion, perhaps?

    Sacha: please don’t say such things, you’ll giving me nightmares.

  21. Geoff R says:

    This is partially a tale of path-dependence, a party’s chances of re-election are well above those of election in the first place, given economic stability and the advantages of incumbency (once governments gerrymanded now they advertise). The 1990s recession swept Labor from office, the errors of Liberal governments swept Labor back and then they stabilised. Cultural conservatism is not the winner that Howard devotees imagine it to be either. Their have been simialr (although not to same extent) epochs of Labor state domiance and conservative federal dominance; much of the interwar period.

  22. ChrisPer says:

    Mummy-Daddy parties is WAY too simplistic for most people – its just a metaphor.

    The votes on the day are the result of a complex and partly rational decision tree. Incumbency in office is not as important as incumbency in the voter’s mind – so many voters are rusted-on.

    Then a whole bunch of criteria compete for attention.

    The idea that people compare the probability of good management in Government is laughable, but a media image of mismanagement is very negative.

    A large number of voters vote from reactance – toss out a Government for perceived wrongs even if no opposition can credibly be a better manager. The change to all Labour in State governments after Howard took office was helped by the reaction against the cosmopolitan class contempt at One Notion and gun owners, combined with urban classes responding to the perceived arrogance and incompetence of the Libs who had had ‘their turn’.

    Liking and name recognition are effective – I will not vote for someone I have not heard of, or have a negative association for.

    Policies are important – not because there is a lot if difference but because a single policy may offend my values far more than ones which equitably but non-ideologically transfer benefits from me to others.

    To me it is a bitter pill to live in a safe Liberal seat, not because I dislike Libs but because the POSSIBILITY that my vote could help change is denied me.

  23. Jono says:

    Theres definately more to it then the policies that each party runs on. There must be an enormous perception gap, or a loyalty gap, that causes people to prefer one party strongly over another.

    Why do I say this ?

    Because really, the parties are both nearly identical in their policies. Both parties support large amounts of government spending and regulation within a social democratic framework.

    Despite the hysteria, there is very little difference between the two major parties at either state or federal level.

  24. Jeff says:

    I thought this was rather obvious.. take NSW for example, up till now the state Liberal party has been largely run by the left with policies that just doesn’t resonate with the average voter, while the federal party led by John Howard is much more palatable to the average Australian.

    But take Bob Carr’s state government who was arguably more right-wing than John Brogden, it was no secret why he lost the 2003 election, he simply didn’t have hte appeal to the mass of his support base, and the swinging voters were comfortable enough with Bob Carr and his policies as he kept Labor left in check.

    On the other hand, with Rudd and Gillard taking power, it is likely that the Green voters are going to swing back to Labor, but it only serves to push the balance further to Howards side as those Aussie battlers who were comfortable with Beazley would choose Howard as the lesser of two evils. Pretty much the same reason why Latham was smashed last time.

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