Geography is destiny: states of red and blue

Victoria remains core Labor territory. New South Wales, once Labor's heartland, has shifted its tectonic plate towards the Coalition. Queensland and Western Australia are the Coalition's solid loyalists while most Tasmanians voted for Labor to govern Australia, even though it won just one of their five seats.
By · 7 Dec 2013
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7 Dec 2013
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Victoria remains core Labor territory. New South Wales, once Labor's heartland, has shifted its tectonic plate towards the Coalition. Queensland and Western Australia are the Coalition's solid loyalists while most Tasmanians voted for Labor to govern Australia, even though it won just one of their five seats.

The final results of the 2013 election, just released by the Australian Electoral Commission, show a clear pattern of state loyalties. The two resources states, Queensland and WA, almost always vote for the Coalition. The two states in the south-east corner, Victoria and Tasmania, almost always vote for Labor. And the two states in between, NSW and SA, are the swing states - but NSW is starting to settle in on the Coalition side.

And if Victoria remains good for Labor, that is partly because it is good for the Greens. In the rest of Australia, for the Greens, the 2013 election was a disaster. Yet in Victoria, they retained Melbourne even without Liberal preferences, gained an extra Senate seat and forced the Liberals into third place in Batman and Wills.

Overall, Australia gave the Coalition an emphatic win. The final two-party vote was 53.5 per cent for the Coalition, 46.5 per cent for Labor. There was a swing of 3.6 per cent, Tony Abbott's winning margin almost equalled that of John Howard in 1996 and the Coalition won a bigger vote than any Labor government has had since the 1940s.

Yet it has inherited a divided country. And, by and large, it divided in 2013 exactly as it did in 1996, when Howard downed Paul Keating to end Labor's 13-year rule.

In 1996, the Coalition won most of the votes after preferences in NSW, Queensland, WA, South Australia and the Northern Territory, while Labor cleaned up in Victoria, Tasmania and the ACT. In 2013, the states lined up exactly the same way, and in some cases - Victoria, Tasmania and the NT - with virtually identical votes.

But there were some differences, perhaps significant ones. In 1996, Howard's team won 52.6 per cent of the two-party vote in NSW. On September 7, Abbott's team won 54.4 per cent, the Coalition's best vote in NSW since 1966.

That could be the legacy of the corruption scandals of Eddie Obeid and Labor's NSW Right but it confirms that Labor's prize state has drifted away from it.

Under Whitlam, Hawke and Keating, Labor's electoral success was largely due to its success in NSW. Between 1949 and 1998, its two-party vote there exceeded its national vote at 20 elections out of 21. In 1972, 1990 and 1993, indeed, Labor lost most of the seats outside NSW, but still won a majority because of its grip on Australia's biggest state.

Not any more. NSW has dragged down Labor's vote in three of the past five elections. In 2013 it won just 18 seats there - its lowest share in NSW at any election since 1934.

Some of the reasons are obvious. Apart from its record in office, it faces an aggressively pro-Liberal media owned by Rupert Murdoch and John Singleton. Yet interestingly, the weakest swing to the Coalition in NSW was in western Sydney, where the blatant media bias and the Liberals' decision to hide their candidates backfired, with Labor easily holding a host of seats that polls had told us would fall.

And while the collapse of the Greens vote costs Labor elsewhere, it suggests that inner Sydney is safe for Labor as long as the NSW Greens are run by the old Left. After preferences, the Greens' vote slumped by 6.5 per cent in Sydney and 3.5 per cent in Grayndler as its former supporters voted for Tanya Plibersek or Anthony Albanese.

But a new redistribution in 2015 will cost NSW another seat as its share of the nation's population keeps shrinking. The seat to go could well be one of the four Labor seats in the slow-growing Hunter - or a blue-ribbon Liberal seat from the upper North Shore.

Victoria changed sides politically in 1980 and, apart from a long fling with Jeff Kennett in the '90s and perhaps a short one with his successors now, it has remained broadly loyal to Labor since.

After preferences Labor has won most of the votes in Victoria at 12 of the past 13 elections (the exception was 1990, as the state headed into recession).

There is always a gap between its vote in Victoria and its vote elsewhere but in recent elections it has grown very wide. In 2010 Labor won a record 55.3 per cent of the two-party vote in Victoria but just 48.3 per cent in the rest of Australia.

This time the Liberals were out for revenge. Corangamite, Deakin and La Trobe seemed certain to fall so they poured resources into long shots - Bendigo, Bruce, McEwen - only to end up with narrow losses.

They underestimated the unpopularity of Sophie Mirabella, which cost them Indi, and their bid to unseat Greens deputy leader Adam Bandt in Melbourne failed when their own supporters gave him their preferences.

Let's face it: if you're a Liberal voter in inner Melbourne, you are clearly an individual; you're not going to do just what head office tells you.

The election results show 37 per cent of Melbourne's Liberals defied the party ticket and gave their preferences to the Greens. And Labor voters in the inner city go for underdogs, so Bandt already had a 7 per cent swing from Labor before Liberal rebels got him home.

The Greens had a terrible election elsewhere, losing half their votes in their birthplace, Tasmania. But now they have a new stronghold: inner Melbourne.

In Batman and Wills they won swings of 5 per cent at the three-party stage to outpoll the Liberals. They gained almost 4 per cent in Gellibrand, 5 per cent in Lalor and improved their vote in 14 of Victoria's 37 seats. And note this fact: had Liberal preferences flowed as they did in 2010 the Greens would also have won Batman from Labor and lost only narrowly in Wills.

The Greens' deal this week with Treasurer Joe Hockey to abolish the debt ceiling is good economic policy but it might also be good politics. They need to persuade the Liberals that it is in their interest to help the Greens take more seats from Labor. Watch this space.

Victoria was the only state in which Labor won a majority of seats: 19 of the 37, with the Coalition taking just 16 and Bandt and Indi independent Cathy McGowan proving that Victorians like rebels.

But oddly, the state where Labor polled best was Tasmania. Labor won 51.2 per cent of Tassie's votes after preferences - yet won only one of the state's five seats. It lost Bass, Braddon and Lyons to the Coalition in swings of more than 10 per cent and suffered an even bigger swing as independent Andrew Wilkie cemented his hold on Denison.

Yet if Wilkie were not there, the Electoral Commission count found, Labor would have won Denison easily. Melbourne would be a Labor seat if not for the Greens, while Indi, Fairfax and Kennedy would all be safe Liberal seats if only McGowan, Clive Palmer and Bob Katter would get out of the way.

Unfortunately for the big parties, they won't. And how the government gets on with the smaller parties in the Senate will play a huge part in politics over the next three years.
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