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Politics in the 21st century: Labor first, Liberals last

By Peter Tucker - posted Thursday, 20 March 2008

Australia now has a Labor government in every state and territory, so there is no doubt that the conservatives are struggling to maintain relevance in modern day Australia.

The graph below shows just how things have changed over the past 30 years. It charts the percentage of combined seats held by the parties in all state, territory and federal executive chambers.

Percentage Lower House Seats - Federal/States/Territories 1987-2007

The parties were about neck-and-neck through to the end of the 80s, then in the 90s the conservatives started to move ahead as they dominated governments around Australia. 1996 was the conservatives’ high moment when they held 60 per cent of all seats in the country. But look what follows: it's all down hill from 1996 to 2007, by which time the position is reversed - 60 per cent of the seats in Australia are now Labor.

Tasmania presents a perfect illustration of the Australian centre-left triumph. The following table shows the Tasmanian primary and two-party preferred votes at the four federal elections held in the past ten years.

Election 1998 2001 2004 2007
Labor 48.9 47.2 44.6 42.8
Liberal 38.2 37.1 42 38.2
Greens 5.6 7.8 9.9 13.5
Other 7.3 7.9 3.5 5.5
Labor 2pp 57.3 57.3 54.2 56.2
Liberal 2pp 42.7 42.7 45.8 43.8

Tasmanian House of Representative (Federal) Vote Percentages

Except for 2004 when Labor’s Mark Latham was hardly Mr Popular in Tasmania, the Liberal vote has not gone past 38 per cent. Granted, the Labor primary vote declined, from 48.9 percent in 1998 to 42.8 percent at the last election, but the telling statistic is the two-party preferred vote. This has held steady for Labor in the mid to high 50s, while the Liberals languish in the low 40s.

Australian federal elections are won on preference distributions, not primary votes, and in Tasmania Labor has maintained about a 13 percentage point differential over the Liberals, helped by Green voters preferencing Labor.


The only possible conclusion to draw is that the 2007 federal election was a triumph for the ALP: it won back Bass and Braddon to return all five seats to Labor; it increased its two-party vote by more than two percentage points from the 2004 result; it recorded (bar the ACT) the highest Labor vote of all states and territories in the country - how much more could it do?

If anything, the state elections over the same time period are even better for Labor. The following table shows the primary votes at the three elections held since 1998.

Election 1998 2002 2006
Labor 44.8 51.9 49.3
Liberal 38.1 27.4 31.8
Greens 10.2 18.1 16.6
Other 6.9 2.6 2.3
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About the Author

Peter Tucker has worked in Tasmania as an advisor for the Liberals in opposition and in ministerial offices for both Labor and Liberal governments. He is author of the Tasmanian Politics website, and is a researcher at the University of Tasmania’s School of Government.

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