Sunday, February 11, 2018

Is It Hard For Opposition Leaders To Win At Their Second Election?

Especially after a benign opening offering from Newspoll, there's been a lot of speculation that Opposition Leader Bill Shorten is set for a nasty year.  Shorten's net personal Newspoll ratings have been in the negative double digits for almost three years now - that's longer than any other Opposition Leader or PM in Newspoll history. While Labor's two-party-preferred polling has remained strong, a lot of left-wing voters see Shorten as too safe and uninspiring, while right-wing voters distrust his union background.

Also, in pundit circles there is a lot of focus on Better Prime Minister scores, which Paul Kelly has called all-important in the Australian's usual ignorance of the historic evidence otherwise. There Shorten's failure to close the gap as much as Labor's 2PP leads suggest he should remains a focus of discussion.  And it's not just wishfully thinking right-wing commentators saying Bill Shorten has problems. One betting market is saying it too, with Shorten $1.80 to be challenged for the Labor leadership before the next election (the "Rudd rules" notwithstanding), to $1.90 not.

With Shorten's early reliance on Labor's vetting procedures having backfired badly in the Section 44 saga, the idea that Shorten is in for a rough time is still getting a good run in the commentary pages, even despite the competition from the Barnaby Joyce scandal.  A lot of the stuff being churned out on the subject is only one bad Newspoll for the Coalition away from looking silly, but an interesting article by Catherine McGregor made a specific comment on second-term Opposition Leaders that I thought would be worth looking at.

"Very few opposition leaders have come to office at their second election. Gough Whitlam, John Howard and Abbott are notable recent exceptions. Shorten is a less compelling figure than any of these men, and is about to face a much more adverse political climate."

It occurred to me that over the last 50 years, only two Opposition Leaders (Peacock and Beazley) had faced a second election as Opposition Leader and lost.  Hawke and Rudd had only needed one go, Fraser was already caretaker PM before his first election, and all of Snedden, Hayden, Hewson and Latham had only been given one shot.

So I thought I'd have a look at the statistics since Federation.  The 1901 election had no defined Leader of the Opposition, although George Reid became such soon after the election.  The 1975 election is also a strange case because Malcolm Fraser who had been Leader of the Opposition was commissioned as caretaker Prime Minister following the Dismissal.

Exempting these two, the following is the record of federal Opposition Leaders:

* First election as party leader: 5 wins, 17 losses.

(Wins: Fisher, Cook, Lyons, Hawke, Rudd)
(Losses: Tudor, Charlton, Scullin, Curtin, Fadden, Evatt, Calwell. Whitlam, Snedden, Hayden, Peacock, Howard, Hewson, Beazley, Mark Latham, Abbott, Shorten)

A case can be made for counting Fraser as a winner in this category

* Second election as party leader: 4 wins, 2 mitigated losses, 7 outright losses

(A mitigated loss is where the leader does not immediately form government but forms it partway through the term on the floor of the House.)

(Wins: Scullin, Whitlam, Howard, Abbott
(Mitigated losses: Reid, Curtin)
(Outright losses: Tudor, Charlton, Menzies*, Evatt, Calwell, Peacock, Beazley)

* Menzies had previously contested an election as Prime Minister.

* Third or later election as party leader: 2 wins, 6 losses

(Wins: Fisher*, Menzies*)
(Losses: Reid, Scullin*, Chifley*, Evatt, Calwell, Whitlam*)

Those marked * had previously contested one or more elections as Prime Minister or as recently dismissed Prime Minister, while Reid had served as Prime Minister but not contested in that role.

Second-Time Leaders Are Actually Better?

From the stats above, it would seem that second-time leaders have a better record as Opposition Leader at elections rather than a worse one.  Especially if we count the mitigated losses as draws (and Curtin's performance in 1940 deserves that at least) their percentage success rate is a bit higher than those leading their side for the first time or the third or later.  However, a few points against reading anything into that:

1. Because of the small number of elections, it's not statistically significant.  The data show that second-election Opposition Leaders haven't had a harder time of it than others, but don't say they have had a significantly better time.

2. Correlation does not necessarily equal causation.  Opposition Leaders facing their second election as leader have historically faced substantially older governments.  On average, first-time leaders have faced governments that have been in office for 2.5 terms (here I'm counting governments formed mid-term as full terms), second-time leaders have faced governments in for 3.7 terms, and third-time leaders have faced governments in for 2.4 terms.  That's quite a big difference.

Opposition Leader success increases slightly by the number of terms a government has been in for: 3/14 (21%) wins against first-term governments (all of these a very long time ago), 2/8 (25%) against second-term, 2/7 (28%) against third-term and 4/12 (33%) against fourth-term or later.  What is especially notable here is that there are nine cases of a first-time leader facing a first-term government (the hardest to defeat), and five cases of a third-or-more-time leader facing a first-term government, but there is only one case of a second-time party leader doing so (Reid 1903).

3. Even if second-election Opposition Leaders did have a better strike rate, it wouldn't necessarily be because they had become better leaders through experience.  It could also be that those who were not good leaders in the first place tended not to get a second term.  Of the five first-time losers who never got another chance (Fadden, Snedden, Hayden, Hewson, Mark Latham) all bar Hayden would have been very likely to lose a second election.  It might be equally said that those who were especially good would have won the first time they were Opposition Leader and hence also excluded themselves from the mix, but that doesn't really stack up.  Of the five to do so, only two were long-term PMs (Lyons and Hawke) while the others (Fisher, Cook and Rudd) all lost the first time they contested as PM.  (In Rudd's case, there was just a little bit of disruption involved ...)

What Does This Mean For Shorten?

What the historic record shows is simply that Opposition Leaders usually lose, fullstop.  However that record is not relevant at the moment because the Turnbull government has polled badly through its term, which is associated with a higher (about 50%, though the number of examples is small) chance of defeat.  There isn't anything about being a second-time leader specifically that makes Shorten's chances worse.  There isn't anything convincing that makes them better either.

There's a view that Shorten is suppressing Labor's vote and that without him the party would be polling better.  However, Opposition Leader personal ratings have little or no correlation with 2PP voting intentions, which have far more to do with the PM's personal ratings.  It might be that some different leader could get very high two-party preferred leads in the short term, but this would not necessarily last.  I also think that Labor has so much invested in the way Shorten has run the party that reconstructing itself around an Albanese leadership before the next election would be difficult.

Personally, I am not that sold on Shorten either, though for a slightly different reason to the reservations of the left.  He can give excellent speeches and is now and then actually funny, but after over four years of him as leader I still have little sense of personality and none of a distinctive philosophy; I see him as too much of a purely political product.  But I'm hardly the most typical voter out there, so my opinion's hardly relevant.  I might like to report that there was objective data evidence that Labor would be better off with someone else, but at this stage it is not easy to find.

It used to be the case that unpopular Opposition Leaders never won elections, but Tony Abbott showed us that if governments are bad enough, they can.  At the moment this government continues to be bad enough, the question is will it remain so.


  1. I always think, with these kind of sweeping statements, that the data is just too limited to support them. It reminds me of the ironclad rule that first-term governments are always re-elected, which was based on, what, five or six post-WWII examples?

    Great analysis overall, but I'm pretty sure that John Latham never contested any elections as party leader, let alone two.

    1. Fixed that gremlin; ta. The last nine first-term governments have been re-elected including seven post-war but yes, it is another example of small sample size that is just waiting for another counter-example. There is some science in it because a government that wins from opposition should do well in marginal seats at the next election because of personal vote advantages.


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