Sunday, June 7, 2020

Unpopular State Premiers Still Have Dire Historic Fates

It's been over a month since I posted a new article on this page, though updates to previous articles have continued, especially Eden-Monaro.  I have some vague idea where that time went (a number of distractions from psephology lately) but there hasn't been a huge amount going on lately and I tend not to write just for the sake of having something up.  There will always be something new here eventually!

This article is another piece where I update a previously published article from some time ago and see whether the pattern described in it is still holding up.  Today's target for an update is Unpopular State Premiers Have Dire Historic Fates, from 2013.  This article was inspired by a bad Newspoll for then Western Australian Premier Colin Barnett.  Barnett had been re-elected with a 57.3% 2PP nine months earlier so it probably seemed adventurous to see a single Newspoll still showing his government in a narrow lead as the first of the circling vultures.  But it was - Barnett survived a leadership challenge in 2016 but was dumped by the voters in 2017 with an enormous 12.8% swing.

He wasn't alone.  Since I released the original article, Campbell Newman was dumped by voters with a massive swing, as was Lara Giddings. Jay Weatherill also lost (albeit with a 2PP swing to him) and Mike Baird, who had been very popular in his first term, became somewhat unpopular in his second and resigned.  The four election defeats for unpopular Premiers helped beef up the evidence that it is the voters, and not just the parties, who tend to show them the door.  In the same time, Premiers who had not polled such bad ratings in their terms were re-elected twice in NSW and once each in Queensland, SA, Victoria and Tasmania, with Victoria's Dennis Napthine (worst netsat -4) the sole casualty to not poll a bad rating.  The chart below (click for larger clearer version) shows the fates of every state Premier who has polled a netsat worse than -10 in Newspoll history (which starts in 1985).  Premiers are sorted by the worst netsat they polled during the term.

* Worst rating for Palaszczuk is YouGov, not Newspoll-branded. 
In all, of 33 previous State Premiers to have polled such ratings, just four have won the next election and continued (though in Bartlett's case, not for very long), four have been rolled, nine have resigned (some of whom would have been rolled or in one case brought down by parliament otherwise), and fifteen have been sent packing by the voters.  Ray Groom's government retained office in minority at the election but Groom himself resigned immediately following it, having promised not to govern in minority.

Barnett's downfall adds another example of the signs of doom appearing first in bad personal ratings while their parties were not behind - there are other such examples involving Iemma and Brumby.  It also supports the idea that once Premiers trail as Better Premier (an indicator that is skewed to incumbents) they are usually toast, but that idea had a counter-example in Tasmania where Will Hodgman won easily in 2018 despite trailing Rebecca White in EMRS better Premier polling for a lot of the term.

It may seem a strange time to be updating this analysis given that there are no unpopular State Premiers at the moment, the COVID-19 crisis having recently boosted the net ratings of the five mainland Premiers by between 31 and 78 points.  But firstly the relationship in the article concerns a Premier's worst term rating (even if they may later recover) and secondly, the limited Australian evidence so far (federal Newspolls and one Queensland YouGov) does not show that COVID-19 approval bounces in Australia come with major voting intention gains.  This is surprising. because Australia has been one of the most successful countries at containing COVID-19 so far.

The Premier in the danger zone - with several qualifiers - is Queensland's Annastacia Palaszczuk, who faces a state election at the end of October.  Palaszczuk polled a net rating of -15 early this year,  following a -11 in August.  Since then, her rating has been boosted by COVID-19, but modestly compared to state and federal counterparts, suggesting (albeit on limited evidence from a single pollster) that at least a third of voters have made up their minds against her no matter what.  Her worst rating is at the lower end of the danger zone and I have had to resort to using a rating from YouGov because no state Newspolls of voting intention have occurred since the last state election in the mainland states (and since the election before last for Tasmania).

Palaszczuk could yet be re-elected, maybe even well.  Although her government has been affected by scandals surrounding former deputy Jackie Trad, it would still be unusual for a state government that is just under six years old to lose while the other party is in power federally (that's another piece I'm hoping to update soon).  The YouGov poll does not show her government that far behind, and unless there is a major swing the Queensland election could be another seat-by-seat skirmish like the last one (where Labor went from minority to majority although there was only a tiny 2PP swing and very few seats changed hands).   Furthermore, Deb Frecklington has not inspired voters so far, with a feeble 26% approval rating in YouGov (that said, only 29% disapproval as well) and Frecklington continues to trail Palaszczuk as "better Premier" by more than is seemly (44-23) even though her party is in front.  YouGov's online polling is untested at an election in its current format and might be just plain wrong, or COVID-19 might deliver a benefit at an election campaign not obvious from the numbers at the moment.

The case against Palaszczuk winning again is not difficult to make.  Her party is behind in one poll at the moment, and state governments do not as often recover from bad polls as federal governments do.  Her 2017 win was underwhelming.  Her party has experienced a significant scandal.  The COVID-19 boost may dissipate or disappear, and in any case is not assisting with voting intention at the moment.  The previous Premiers to recover from bad personal ratings in the table above all did so in their first term in office.

Federal pattern is different

It's interesting to compare the fate of Prime Ministers in the Newspoll era based on their own term-worst netsats.  Here's the same list at federal level:

In spite of the recent trend of removing sitting PMs (at least one of them, Rudd, in a winnable position) PMs who poll bad ratings have a much better track record of getting re-elected.  In fact more of them have done so so far than in all the states combined (though that's a less uneven comparison than it sounds since state polling is patchier, especially now).  Howard (twice) and Hawke (once) recovered from relatively fleeting bouts of severe unpopularity, Turnbull was not all that unpopular in his first term, and Keating won a famous victory because the election wasn't really about him but was a rejection of an Opposition platform.  Four PMs have survived worse ratings than any Premier has survived.

The paucity of state polling

The main difficulty I should mention with any analysis of state polling is that there is so little of it nowadays, a problem that is getting worse and worse after something of a golden age of the stuff 5-6 years ago.  Queensland and Tasmania often have quarterly polls, although Tasmania's (by local pollster EMRS) do not routinely include approval ratings and are often not released at the time they were taken.  The other states now have only irregular state polls, although Essential sometimes releases large backlogs of state-based data. Victoria especially has had no voting intention polls I know of in over a year and a half since its 2018 election.  It's not so long ago (2014 even) that the old Newspoll used to poll every two months in NSW and Victoria and every three months in Queensland, SA and WA.  State polling doesn't need to be super-accurate to tell a useful story about the popularity of leaders and governments over time (especially given that state elections are frequently not close) so it is unfortunate that, with media margins so tight, there is so little interest in commissioning it.

(I hesitate to even make this point lest it unleash another bewilderingly messy Morgan poll release met with a universal cry from the poll-watching community of "not you".)

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