Pollster predicts Labor win in Oz

March 1, 1996

Two of the longest-serving left-of-centre governments go to the polls this weekend. Spain's voters look set to reject Felipe Gonzalez and his Socialist party after 13 and a half years in office, but the Australian Labor party has high hopes of its sixth consecutive victory since 1983.

Spanish polls last week showed the centre-right Partido Popular, led by Jose Mar!a Aznar, extending the lead they held at the start of the campaign. But in Australia the trend is returning to Paul Keating's government, and research of past trends indicates that his Labor party could well win again.

Nick Economou, Monash lecturer in politics and economics at London University's Robert Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, notes the similarities with the 1993 election, when Labor held power against predictions. "Analysts then looked at the polls rather than the trend, which showed Labor making ground consistently," he said.

Speaking at a Menzies seminar last month, Dr Economou said: "At the moment it looks like the Liberal-National Coalition will win, but look carefully at the polls. If Labor start to revive, they have every chance."

That revival now looks to have started. He said last week: "The polls still show the Coalition ahead, but their advantage is down to 2 to 3 per cent. That's a very winnable position for Labor - you can win with a minority vote, provided that you do well in the marginals, where Labor are normally very well organised."

History may also be on Labor's side. Brian Matthews, professor of Australian studies and director of the Menzies centre, told the seminar: "Opposition parties who have won elections in Australia have always made progress at the previous election." Instead of making ground in 1993, the Coalition lost four seats.

A further defeat would be shattering for the Coalition, led by John Howard: "They were up to a ten-point lead at one point, which is an absolutely massive lead in Australian terms. If it happened in an election, the losers would hardly have enough members for a cricket team," says Dr Economou.

Analysts always considered quite so lopsided a finding rather dubious. David Butler, the veteran Oxford elections expert who has been studying the Australian system since the late 1960s, says: "The Australian electorate behaves with a uniformity that is unparalleled in any other comparable country."

It is also safe to predict that there will be an extremely high turnout - Australia shares compulsory voting with Belgium, and normally secures compliance from between 90 and 95 per cent of those eligible.

But if this election is shaping up to repeat 1993 in its outcome, it is looking very different in style. Then the Coalition, led by John Hewson, pursued a fiercely ideological free-market programme.

This time Mr Howard's approach has been rather more conciliatory. Dr Economou notes a green tinge to his programme, possibly borne of recognition that under the transferable vote system Labor was picking up the bulk of second preferences from Green voters.

So would a Coalition victory make any real difference in Australia? At the seminar Dr Economou suggested that there would be considerable continuity.

The main difference would be in industrial relations, where accords with the unions have been a mainstay of Labor domestic policy.

"The Coalition are itching to get rid of the accords and have been strongly influenced by public choice theory which advocates reducing the influence of interest groups. The unions would be the big losers, " said Dr Economou.

Anastasia Palacy, a masters student at the Menzies centre, argued that the Keating government had run out of ideas and was increasingly being run by bureaucrats rather than by a political agenda. But Tom Griffiths, lecturer in history at the centre, said the Keating government had developed distinctive and imaginative policies in three areas - aboriginal rights, republicanism and arts policy.

"In 1993, you saw an Australian prime minister actually leading public opinion on land rights. It may not show up so easily in the polls, but issues like this do make a difference to the way many people vote. They're bored with economics, but they care about issues like this."

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