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Are voters set to stop giving first-term leaders a second chance?

Some unhappy state Liberals are pointing to an unpopular federal government and its budget as the source of their electoral woes. AAP/Joe Castro

In today’s politics, few governments are ever safe. Even freshly minted administrations now age at an incredible speed. The most casual observer will know how much trouble the Abbott government finds itself in. Its slide in popularity began before Christmas – remarkable, given that it was elected only in September – and became entrenched soon after the details of the first Hockey budget started leaking in early May.

Far from Canberra, first-term state governments in Victoria and Queensland are also in strife. Both come up for re-election soon: Victoria’s Liberal-National coalition government headed by Denis Napthine in November, and Queensland’s Campbell Newman-helmed LNP administration by next June but probably earlier than that.

How many of the truisms that sustained domestic political analysis during the decades after World War Two must we throw overboard? There’s the one about opinion polls a long way out from an election being junk, providing little information about how voters really intend to cast their votes. There’s another about byelections more often than not being an unreliable guide to general election outcomes, a byelection being mostly an opportunity for voters to let off steam and frighten a government they’re still going to back when it counts.

And there’s the convention that the electorate can almost always distinguish between state and federal governments at election times. On this one, there’s contemporary evidence that it can still hold up, at least in some instances.

At the federal election last September, a majority of Tasmanian voters backed the ALP after preferences and gave it almost 35% of the primary vote. At the state election six months later, Labor’s primary vote fell to a catastrophic 27%.

It should be noted, however, that the Tasmanian state election result, which gave the Liberals 51% of the primary vote, rendered judgement on a 16-year-old Labor minority government. It had not just worn out its welcome but was close to being hit with a restraining order by voters. What we do know is that when the tide goes out in a big way, it tends to stay out.

But why has the tide retreated on the Napthine and Newman governments so soon? The Napthine government’s majority has been so tenuous on the floor of the Legislative Assembly, relying on Liberal-turned-independent MP Geoff Shaw to retain office, it has not endured byelection humiliation. But Newman, commanding the greatest majority in Queensland history, certainly has.

Queensland premier Campbell Newman has promised to listen more intently to voters. AAP/Dave Hunt

In the space of five months, Newman’s Liberal National Party has seen two seats it won in the mother of all landslides back in 2012 swing back violently the other way. In February, the seat of Redcliffe on Brisbane’s northern outskirts went to Labor with a 17% swing. And last Saturday, Stafford, in the inner north, went the same way. Voters cut the LNP vote by more than 18% to hand the seat back to Labor.

Newman’s resolute, jut-jawed style is being blamed by some. His first response to the Stafford defeat on the weekend was to suggest that the public didn’t seem to get the difficulty of the task facing his government.

A day or so later, Newman pledged to listen to voters unhappy with his blustering approach. He announced a series of mostly cosmetic windbacks of previous decisions on bikie laws, parliamentary scrutiny and Queensland’s corruption watchdog. After the Redcliffe result in February, he also promised to listen more intently to voters.

Labor still has a veritable Matterhorn to climb to be in contention next year, although the addition of one extra member, boosting its parliamentary numbers from eight to nine, does mean that it will no longer be able to hold caucus meetings in a Tarago and would have to trade up to a minibus. And recent opinion polls put it in front of the Newman government.

The same goes for the Napthine government. The Coalition has trailed the Labor opposition pretty much consistently since 2012, before Napthine replaced Ted Baillieu as premier in March 2013. But it’s this year that the polling numbers really started to drop away.

Voters often do not like seeing incumbent leaders removed, nor do they find minority governments appealing. This explains some of what is ailing the state government in Victoria.

But is there another explanation? Some unhappy state Liberals think so. They point to Canberra, and an unpopular federal government now well into its third month of trying to sell and implement an unpopular budget, as a source of their woes.

Federal treasurer Joe Hockey has struggled to sell an unpopular budget. AAP/Joe Castro

They report privately that some hitherto sympathetic voters, many of them anxious about federal treasurer Joe Hockey’s war on entitlement, are less willing to acknowledge the constitutional and conventional political firebreaks between federal Liberal and state Liberal governments.

These voters calculate that if the Liberal Party federally stands for, for example, a Medicare co-payment, deregulated university fees and the denial for six months of unemployment benefits for under-30s, then state Liberals follow the same value system, if not the same policies.

If that’s true – that is, if those assessments are sustained all the way to the upcoming Victorian and Queensland elections – then electoral politics really will become more of a free-for-all than it already is.

There’s one other state election due soon, too, and that’s in New South Wales, set for March 28 next year. New South Wales is different because the corruption scandals that tainted the ALP government that ruled from 1995 to 2011, and saw it lose in a landslide, are still being played out before the Independent Commission Against Corruption.

Although the ICAC proceedings have spilled over to the Liberal side, most spectacularly forcing Barry O’Farrell to resign as NSW premier last April, Labor’s scandals are enduring a vivid and highly public afterlife.

Even so, last October, the state seat of Miranda went from Liberal to Labor at a byelection with an incredible two-party preferred swing of 26%. The polls suggest that NSW Labor’s vote is recovering steadily but at nowhere near the rate enjoyed by the ALP in Victoria and Queensland.

What’s going on? It’s too early to say for sure, but it does seem that if newly created oppositions show some discipline, don’t go chopping and changing leaders, don’t take too many risks with policy and offer a relentless critique, they could be in with a shot with voters who show much less patience with governments – and the fine divisions between federal and state politics – than in previous years.

It’s not so much voters at election time signing a contract to support one side as signing an execution order for the other.

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