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Early elections: worms eat the early birds

By John Cherry - posted Thursday, 25 September 2008

Alan Carpenter must be rueing the day he decided to break with 103 years of tradition and call and a state election five months early in Western Australia. He joins a small band of early bird state premiers who called early elections only to end up worm food in the political graveyard. Voters clearly aren’t big fans of early elections, as former New South Wales Premier Eric Willis, South Australian Premier Des Corcoran, Tasmanian Premier Robin Gray, NSW Premier Nick Greiner and Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett can all attest.

Willis was the first of the crew. A new leader who followed the long premiership of Robert Askin, he called an election in May 1976 to take advantage of continuing dislike of Federal Labor under Whitlam six months early only to lose (by one seat) to Labor’s Neville Wran.

Three years later, SA Labor Premier Des Corcoran (who succeeded long term Premier Don Dunstan) called an election a full year early to get a personal “mandate” and, to universal surprise, was defeated. South Australians, facing their sixth early election in 12 years, were entitled to be jack of the process. During the slumbering Playford decades from 1944 to 1968, South Australian elections were as predictable as clockwork on the first Saturday every third March. So, too, were the results, courtesy of an appalling gerrymander. South Australia, incidentally, has not had an early election since the 1979 debacle, and now enjoys fixed terms.


Tasmanian Liberal Premier Robin Gray called the 1989 election eight months early, to lose narrowly when the Greens won the balance of power and sided with Labor. Since 1972, only two of the nine Tasmanian parliaments have made it to full term.

Nick Greiner was rather unlucky when he called the 1991 election ten months early. A first term government, he hoped to emulate Neville Wran whose first (early) re-election was a landslide. Instead, hubris cost Greiner his majority, clinging to office with the support of independents, who forced his resignation the following year.

Jeff Kennett won a landslide re-election in the 1996 election which he called a year early He lost the 2002 election called eleven months early, with (like Carpenter) a truncated election campaign dominated by sporting events, resulting (also like Carpenter) in a hung parliament.

New state governments (except Greiner) have been treated kindly by the voters when they call their first election early, including Don Dunstan (1973), Neville Wran (1978), Jeff Kennett (1996), Peter Beattie (2001) and Steve Bracks (2002). But few established governments have done well at opportunistic early elections, with Peter Beattie’s 2006 emphatic re-election an exception. New leaders seeking a personal “mandate” at an early election have, almost to a person, done badly (Tasmania’s Paul Lennon is the rare exception).

Even at a federal level, the early election tends to bring mixed blessings. Of the six new governments since 1945, all five prime ministers had early elections after their initial election. While all five were re-elected, all saw reductions in their majorities (notably John Howard in 1998). With this history, the sixth in this line, Kevin Rudd, would be well advised to be cautious about going early, particularly given the current mood of voters.

There has been a trend towards fixed terms at the state level, starting in New South Wales with the 1991 agreement struck between the cross-bench Independents and Nick Greiner following his ill-advised early election. The same condition was replicated in the agreement between cross-bench Independents and Steve Bracks in Victoria in 1999, and between cross-bench Independents and Mike Rann in South Australia in 2002. Last month, Tasmanian Liberal Leader Michael Hodgman introduced a Private Members bill to establish fixed term, and the issue has been raised in the Western Australian Parliament.


Hung parliaments with Independents in the box seat have a surprisingly good record of going full term - Queensland 1995-8, New South Wales 1991-5, South Australia 1989-93, 1997-2006, but a rather bad record with the Greens in the balance of power (Tasmania 1989-92, 1996-8).

Given the mixed records of early elections, the Western Australian and Tasmanian premiers would be well advised to give the issue of fixed terms very serious consideration. At least they would be saved the temptation of going early. The next premier to face the people, Queensland’s Anna Bligh, after the Western Australia and the Northern Territory results, would be well advised to think carefully about going early. What premier wants to be the next member of the early birds club who ends up as worm food in the political graveyard?

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About the Author

John Cherry is a former Senator for Queensland (2001-5), economist and journalist. He is currently the Advocacy Manager for Goodstart Early Learning, Australia’s largest not for profits provider of early learning and care. This article reflects his personal views and not necessarily the views of Goodstart Early Learning.

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