The Coalition's bid for a fourth term will, if successful, place the present government among the fourth longest serving since federation: equal with the four-term government of John Howard of 1996 to 2007, but remaining short of the five-term Hawke-Keating Labor government of 1983 to 1996 and the eight-term Coalition government of 1949 to 1972. Such an achievement would be all the more remarkable for the instability the government experienced earlier in its life, with leadership coups against Tony Abbott in its first term and Malcolm Turnbull in its second. Taken together with Labor's similar record through its time in office from 2007 to 2013, Scott Morrison goes into the election as the first Prime Minister since John Howard to have completed a full term.
Despite its record of leadership instability, the electoral record of the present government has been remarkably similar to that of John Howard. It came to power in 2013 in a landslide win, as had previous Coalition governments in 1996, 1975 and 1949. However, this was followed by a close scrape when it sought a second term, with a net 15 seats lost to Labor in 2016 compared with 17 under John Howard in 1998. After appearing in considerable political difficulty during their second terms, both governments were able to slightly increase their majorities, with net gains of two seats under Howard in 2001 and one under Morrison in 2019.
Redistributions, by-elections and seat arithmetic
The Coalition's 51.5% share of the two-party preferred vote in 2019 converted into a narrow but effective majority of 77 seats out of 151, with the remainder consisting of 68 seats for Labor and a cross bench of six seats. However, the effect of redistributions has been to abolish a seat held by the Liberals while creating a safe new seat for Labor. It will thus take a net loss of only one seat to reduce the Coalition to majority government, assuming the Liberals succeed in recovering the seat of Hughes, where sitting member Craig Kelly quit the party mid-term.
The redistributions have arisen from the population-based determination of the state and territory's seat entitlements conducted after each election, which have required a thirty-ninth seat for Victoria while reducing Western Australia from 16 to 15. This is Victoria's second gain in successive terms, and returns the state to the representation it enjoyed before 1987, after which it entered a period of relative decline. Western Australia's sixteenth seat, which it gained in 2016, has proved to be an artefact of transient population growth from a mining boom that peaked a decade ago. The Northern Territory would have lost its second seat based on the original determination, but the parliament legislated to change the calculation method in a manner that retained it.
Reflecting the overall balance of party support in the two states, the effect of the redistribution is to create what appears to be a safe seat for Labor in Victoria while abolishing a Liberal seat in Western Australia. The new seat of Hawke encompasses Sunbury and Melton on Melbourne's north-western and western fringes, and has a notional Labor margin of 10.2%. The abolished seat in Perth is Stirling, a traditionally marginal seat in which the Liberals have lately established an ascendancy, retaining it by a margin of 5.6% in 2019. The redistributions have otherwise not changed margins in existing seats to the extent of changing their existing party complexion.
The only change in the party composition of the House of Representatives over the past term came in February 2021 with the resignation from the Liberal Party of Craig Kelly, member for the southern Sydney seat of Hughes. Kelly at first sat as an independent, before joining Clive Palmer's United Australia Party. The two by-elections held during the current term were both won by the incumbent parties, the more interesting being Labor's narrow win in the south-eastern New South Wales seat of Eden-Monaro in July 2020. Mike Kelly held the seat in 2019 by 0.8%, a margin that reduced to 0.4% when Kristy McBain retained it after Kelly's retirement. The other was in the seat of Groom, centred around Toowoomba in Queensland, which Garth Hamilton easily retained for the Liberal National Party in November 2020 following the retirement of John McVeigh.
Polling and the electoral terrain
The prestige of Australian opinion polling suffered a major blow at the 2019 election, the result of which reversed a consensus among pollsters that Labor would win around 51.5% of the two-party preferred vote. While not a major error by global standards, it marked a jarring departure from a long record of strong performance by election eve polls in Australia, and the unnatural uniformity of the results suggested the various pollsters had “herded” towards a consensus view for fear of standing exposed. The industry has undergone considerable changes since that time, with different companies now conducting the two largest newspaper polls, and changes to methodologies and reporting methods by all concerned. Most notably, The Australian's Newspoll is now conducted by global market research giant YouGov, which has performed creditably at two recent state elections.
As illustrated on the BludgerTrack opinion poll aggregate, polling over the past term suggested the parties to be finely poised on two-party preferred until early in 2021, when a pronounced trend to Labor became evident. The Coalition's post-election lead vanished amid the bushfires crisis of 2019/20, which was accompanied by a slump in Scott Morrison's performance ratings. The latter was dramatically reversed with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic around April 2020, though this converted into only a modest lead for the Coalition on voting intention. The turn to Labor that appeared to begin near the end of the year, and was widely attributed at the time to failures in the vaccination rollout program.
However, as election and polling analyst Kevin Bonham observes, the polls offer Labor only limited grounds for encouragement. Whereas Labor's best polls have shown them on 54% two-party preferred, each of the last five changes of government came after the opposition peaked at over 56.5% on Bonham's poll trend measures. Governments have typically outperformed their mid-term polling nadir by around 5% over the past two decades, with the conspicuous exception of the late-term shift to the Coalition in 2010. Such considerations have been reflected in betting markets, which have been offering even money. Furthermore, Anthony Albanese has recorded unspectacular personal ratings since taking over from Bill Shorten after the 2019 election. The BludgerTrack trend credits him with slight net positive ratings through to early 2021, when he began a descent into negative territory.
State by state
The most striking feature of state-level polling over the past term has been a seismic shift to Labor in Western Australia, where the party has not recorded a majority of the two-party vote at a federal election since 1987. This seems intuitively satisfying given the historical scale of the McGowan government's win at the state election in March, winning 53 of 59 seats in the state's lower house with a record-shattering two-party vote of 69.7%. At a bare minimum, Labor would seem a very strong chance of gaining the seat of Swan, which has a retiring Liberal member on a post-redistribution margin of 3.2%. Labor should also be at least competitive in Hasluck, with a Liberal margin of 5.9%, and Pearce, where the redistribution has cut the beleaguered Christian Porter's margin from 7.5% to 5.2%.
In Victoria, the Coalition performed relatively well during the state's first COVID-19 crisis in mid-2020, but declined sharply as a new outbreak took hold in New South Wales and spread across the border in mid-2021, as Labor appeared to gain traction with its claim that Scott Morrison had acted as the “Prime Minister of New South Wales”. However, the only highly marginal Liberal seat in Victoria is Chisholm in Melbourne's inner east, a seat notable for its Chinese population. Other possibilities for Labor include neighbouring Higgins (margin 3.7%), an historically blue-ribbon seat with an increasingly green-left complexion; Casey on Melbourne's eastern fringe (4.6%), where Labor will be boosted with the retirement of Liberal incumbent Tony Smith; and the eastern suburbs seat of Deakin (4.7%), an historically tough nut for Labor.
Conversely, the damage to the Coalition from the mid-2021 outbreak appeared relatively mild in New South Wales itself, to the extent that the Coalition is hopeful of gain to redress any losses elsewhere. One such calculation is that Labor owed its wins in Eden-Monaro in 2016 and 2019 to the now-departed Mike Kelly, and its threadbare winning margin in July 2020 to the difficulty governments typically face at by-elections. Another is that its loss of neighbouring Gilmore in 2019 reflected a problematic preselection process, and that it will now return to the fold. With the retirement of Labor's Joel Fitzgibbon, the Nationals could enjoy a further boost in Hunter (margin 3.0%), whose coal-mining communities savaged Labor in 2019. Labor also has tight margins in Macquarie on Sydney's western fringe (0.2%), the Central Coast seat of Dobell (1.5%) and the western Sydney seat of Greenway (2.8%), whereas the Coalition's most marginal seat is Reid in Sydney's inner west on a margin of 3.2%.
Queensland has been the crucible of Australian federal elections over the past two decades, but the state's remarkable result in 2019 left the Coalition with imposing margins in most of the state's traditional marginal seats without quite shaking Labor loose in its strongholds. Labor's polling in the state surged in the wake of the re-election of Annastacia Palszczuk's state government in October 2020, though it subsequently moved back in line with the national trend. Labor's highest hopes are reportedly for the far north Queensland seat of Leichhardt, held by veteran Liberal National Party member Warren Entsch on a margin of 4.2%, which resisted the surge to the Coalition across regional Queensland in 2019. The most marginal LNP seat is Longman on Brisbane's northern fringe, at 3.3%. Peter Dutton's northern Brisbane seat of Dickson is the third most marginal at 4.6%.
The sole battlefield in South Australia is likely to be Boothby, a southern Adelaide seat in which long-held Labor hopes have never quite been realised. It will be vacated with the retirement of two-term Liberal member Nicolle Flint, who retained it in 2019 by 1.4%. Greater attention is likely to focus on Tasmania, where the three seats of the state's centre and north have see-sawed over recent decades. Labor will naturally hope to gain Bass, with its Liberal margin of 0.4% and record of changing hands at eight of the last ten elections, and to a lesser extent neighbouring Braddon, which the Liberals gained in 2019 with a 3.1% margin. However, the Liberals hope to succeed in Lyons where they failed in 2019 after disendorsing their candidate mid-campaign. Labor seems likely to maintain its lock on the five territory seats, although the retirement of veteran Warren Snowdon suggests the Northern Territory seat of Lingiari is less secure than its 5.5% margin suggests.