The election to be held on May 18 is remarkable in being the fourth in succession to have been preceded in the previous term by a leadership coup against the victor of the previous election, events which had hitherto been a great rarity in Australian politics. The demise of Malcolm Turnbull's prime minister last August 24 was an event that had it roots in the result of the previous election, at which the Coalition barely retained the majority it had gained in its sweeping victory in 2013. The close call struck a Coalition that was not historically accustomed to short periods in government, having lasted eight terms through the Menzies, Holt, Gorton and McMahon era, from 1949 to 1972; three through the Fraser years, from 1975 to 1983; and four through the Howard goverment of 1996 to 2007.
Another feature of conservative governments, at least since the foundation of the modern Liberal Party in 1944, has been their coming to power in landslide victories, winning 74 seats to Labor's 47 with the defeat of the Chifley Labor government in 1949, 91 seats to Labor's 36 at the end of the Whitlam era in 1975, and 90 seats to 55 when the present government came to power in 2013. However, the two most recent Coalition governments both faced near-death experiences when they first faced re-election. The Howard government was in fact solidly defeated on the national two-party preferred vote at the 1998 election, but its support proved to be highly efficient in its distribution, converting from 49.0% and 80 seats to Labor's 51.0% and 67 seats. Malcolm Turnbull's performance in 2016 compared favourably to the extent that the Coalition won 50.4% of the two-party vote and suffered a swing of 3.1%, compared with a 4.6% swing against the Howard government. But the Coalition only won a bare majority of 76 seats out of 150, and Turnbull was not able to decisively claim victory on the night.
Redistributions, by-elections and seat arithmetic
The Coalition goes into the election as a minority government, having lost two seats out of its bare majority of 76 seats out of 150 in quick succession in October and November last year. The first was a result of the by-election held in the traditionally blue-ribbon Sydney seat of Wentworth on October 20, following Malcolm Turnbull's resignation as its member. This was narrowly won by independent candidate Kerryn Phelps, reducing the Coalition to a majority of 74 out of 149 on the floor of the House of Representatives, with the seventy-fifth Coalition vote being the casting vote of the Speaker. Any ambiguity surrounding the government's minority status was removed on November 27 when Julia Banks, who had been the only Liberal candidate to gain a Labor-held seat in 2016, resigned as member for the Melbourne seat of Chisholm to sit as an independent.
The combined effect of redistributions of electoral boundaries have tipped the balance still further away from the Coalition. The new House of Representatives will have 151 seats compared with the present chamber's 150, owing to the vagaries of rounding in determining the six states' and two territories' seat entitlements, of which five were rounded up and three down. The changes mean Labor will go into the election with post-redistribution margins favouring them in 72 seats, rather than the 69 they actually hold. This is equal to the Coalition's notional seat total, if the two seats lost to them mid-term are taken to remain lost. However, as Chisholm is not being recontested by Julia Banks, who will instead run against Greg Hunt in Flinders, the seat might still be regarded as notionally Liberal.
Labor also benefited from the creation of an additional seat in Victoria to accommodate strong population growth in the state, where it has has won the statewide two-party vote at eight of the last nine elections. The new seat of Fraser covers some of the party's strongest territory in western Melbourne, and the Victorian redistribution has further made notionally Labor seats out of Liberal-held Dunkley and (just barely) Corangamite. Also to the advantage of Labor is the creation of a third seat in the Australian Capital Territory, where it can be guaranteed a clean sweep in any but the most unusual circumstances. The only bad news for Labor is the abolition of a seat in its strong state of South Australia, with the axe falling on the Labor stronghold of Port Adelaide. Redistributions have also been conducted in Queensland and the Northern Territory, with only minor effect. Only in New South Wales and Western Australia will the boundaries remain as they were in 2016.
Owing largely to the Section 44 eligibility crisis, the last term has produced a bumper crop of by-elections, but the result in Wentworth was the only one that disturbed the status quo. The first Section 44 elections were held in December 2017 following the disqualifications of then Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce and Liberal member John Alexander in Bennelong, both of whom were comfortably re-elected, the latter in the face of a strong challenge from Kristina Keneally, former a state Premier and now a Senator. Labor's first casualty of the unfolding crisis, David Feeney, gave rise to the Batman by-election the following March, which was unique among the Section 44 by-elections in that the disqualified member did not seek to defend the seat. This seemed a particularly encouraging development for the Greens, who had won a by-election for the corresponding state seat of Northcote the previous November. However, the wisdom of Labor's move to supplant Feeney in favour of former ACTU president Ged Kearney was illustrated when Kearney added 3.4% to the precarious margin Feeney had held on by after a disastrous campaign at the 2016 election.
Then came the five by-elections of “Super Saturday” last July, this time affecting mostly Labor-held seats, all but one of which arose from Section 44. After talking up their chances in the Queensland seat of Longman and the Tasmanian seat of Braddon, Coalition candidates failed to win either from Labor, suffering a particularly disappointing result in Longman, where the Liberal National Party vote sank nearly 10% as One Nation surged to 15.9%. This proved particularly momentous in sparking the Queensland-driven party revolt against Malcolm Turnbull that resulted in his demise as Prime Minister, without achieving its direct aim of replacing him with local favourite Peter Dutton, member for the neighbouring seat of Dickson.
Polling and the electoral terrain
As illustrated on the BludgerTrack opinion poll aggregate, Labor has had a clear ascendancy in the polls since shortly after the 2016 election, peaking with a dramatic blowout following the coup against Malcolm Turnbull last August. However, Labor's lead has been steadily deflating since, to the extent that post-budget polling raised, at a minimum, the potential for a hung parliament if the trend to the Coalition was maintained through the campaign. As always, however, the picture is uneven across the country, with the Liberal brand being more tarnished in some states than others, and regional variation to be expected within the large states especially.
Queensland has been the crucible of federal elections in recent times, and remains so on paper on this occasion, with the Coalition facing the loss of eight seats in the event of a uniform 4% swing. However, the consensus view seems to be that the Coalition stands a good chance of holding its own in the state, albeit that this has not been borne out by published opinion polling. The Coalition is particularly hopeful that the controversy over the Adani coal mine will return to it the Townsville-based seat of Herbert, which was narrowly gained by Labor off the local economic downturn in 2016. However, the Adani issue is a two-edged sword that may harm the Coalition in its many marginal seats in the state's south-east, and indeed further afield.
The Coalition also goes into the election hot on the heels of a morale-boosting win for the state Coalition government in New South Wales, which has been followed by reports that internal polling has the Liberals optimistic of at least breaking even in the state. Labor is particularly worried about the seat of Lindsay in Sydney's outer west, which was among its gains in 2016, and the Liberals are feeling more confident about the urban hinterland marginal seats of Gilmore and Robertson. As in Queensland, voters in such areas are seen to have responded more favourably to Scott Morrison than they did to Malcolm Turnbull. Conversely, the demise of Turnbull may prove a millstone around the Liberals' neck in the cosmoplitan inner Sydney seats of Reid and Banks, where the Liberals pulled off historically unusual victories in both 2013 and 2016.
The real danger zone for the Coalition is Victoria, where it suffered a devastating defeat in the November state election that reduced the Liberals to a rump in Melbourne. This was interpreted as a repudiation by an increasingly liberal state not just of the coup against Turnbull, but also of the rightward turn in the party's orientation that it represented. A view may have taken hold that Victoria's paucity of marginal seats, particularly compared with Queensland, meant its electoral sensitivities could be discounted. However, a number of the Victorian Liberals who defied sentiment in their home state to back the leadership claim of Peter Dutton were in seats that now look threatened, at least to the extent that the state election results were a guide. The Liberals have, as noted, already lost the seats of Corangamite and Dunkley in notional terms, and have modest margins to defend in the Melbourne seats of Chisholm and La Trobe, albeit that these have been boosted in both cases by the redistribution.
The Liberals are also under pressure in Western Australia, where their long era of dominance emerged largely intact from the 2016 election, but not from the state election the following year, in which Labor came to power in the biggest landslide in the state's history. Polling has consistently pointed to a substantial swing against the federal Coalition in the state, and while this is off a high base, it puts them under pressure in at least two seats they can ill afford to lose. The status quo is less likely to be seriously disturbed in South Australia, where the Liberals have one or at most two loseable seats, or in Tasmania, where Labor reasserted its federal dominance in 2016 after a poor result in 2013.
Prospects for the cross bench
The Coalition's chances of emerging from the election with a parliamentary majority are further complicated by an independent insurgency in blue-ribbon city seats that has already cost them Wentworth, and was underscored by the Liberals' poor showing in affluent areas of Melbourne at the state election there in Victoria, highlighted by the party's unexpected loss in the seat of Hawthorn. The example of Kerryn Phelps in Wentworth has inspired a number of high-profile independents to take on safe Liberal seats in Sydney and Melbourne, most notably local solicitor Zali Steggall, who is rated by all observers an extremely strong chance of deposing Tony Abbott in his Manly area seat of Warringah.
The Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, faces two notable non-Labor challengers in his seat of Kooyong, which was once held for the Liberals by Robert Menzies. One is independent Oliver Yates, chief executive of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, and until recently a member of the Liberal Party; the other, human rights lawyer Julian Burnside, who is running for the Greens. In the Perth seat of Curtin, local discontent over the Liberal Party's treatment of retiring member Julie Bishop, together with the party's endorsement of arch social conservative Celia Hammond in a notably liberal electorate, could potentially be harnessed by independent candidate Louise Stewart, with Labor seeking to stir the pot by running a high profile candidate in Melissa Parke, who held the seat of Fremantle from 2007 to 2013.
Conversely, the Coalition has good reason to hope that the regional Victorian seat of Indi, which has been held by independent Cathy McGowan since 2013, will revert to type with her retirement, whether to the advantage of the Liberals or the Nationals. The Liberals are also optimistic that Kerryn Phelps' win in Wentworth will prove to have been a one-off, with voters proving to have vented their displeasure with the removal of Malcolm Turnbull at the by-election, and prioritising instead their generally favourable response to defeated Liberal candidate Dave Sharma, who is running again. Julia Banks has also set herself a difficult task in taking on Greg Hunt in the saet of Flinders, rather than contest her existing seat of Chisholm, which instead looms as a conventional contest between Liberal and Labor.
There was some talk that Labor might make a determined effort to unseat Greens member Adam Bandt in Melbourne, which he has held since 2010, but the resilience of Greens sitting members were demonstrated at the state election in New South Wales. The Greens do not appear in line to add to their single lower house seat, having failed in their bid to win the Melbourne seat of Batman (now renamed Cooper) at the by-election there last March, and with popular Labor incumbents looking entrenched in the Greens' strongest areas in inner Sydney. The one potential Greens gain would appear to be the Melbourne seat of Wills, where the dramatic trend in the party's favour was illustrated by their win in the corresponding state seat of Brunswick amidst a generally disappointing result for the party in November.
The other incumbents on the cross-bench are generally expected to be returned. Nick Xenophon's political operation may have been eclipsed after the failure of his attempt to gate-crash South Australian state politics at the election there last March, but it appears to have left an enduring legacy with the election of Rebekha Sharkie in the traditionally Liberal seat of Mayo. Sharkie was among the victims of Section 44 who were obliged to recontest their seats in July, this time under the rebranded banner of the Centre Alliance. She had little difficulty in accounting for Liberal candidate Georgina Downer, daughter of the veteran former MP, Alexander Downer. Georgina Downer is running again this time, but there is no immediately obvious reason why voters would have turned on Sharkie in the interim.
Bob Katter has held the northern Queensland seat of Kennedy since 2001, first with the Nationals, then as an independent and more recently with his own outfit, Katter's Australian Party. After an unexpectedly narrow victory in 2013, he bounced back in 2016, and despite the potential for voters to conclude that the 73-year-old Katter's time has passed, there appears to be little expectation that he will not be returned. There seems even less cause for concern for Andrew Wilkie, who has held the Hobart-based seat of Denison by progressively increasing margins since 2010. The name of the electorate will be changed at the election to Clark, but there does not appear any substantive reason to expect a different result from 2013 or 2016.