No truth stands alone.

Is Queensland Labor a model for the centre-left?

At first glance, the performance of the Queensland (QLD) branch of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) sounds pretty impressive. Ever since the end of a system of gerrymandering which favoured the then-incumbent National Party state government, Labor has won 6 of 9 state elections, tied 2 (1995 and 2015) and only outright lost just one state election (2012, albeit in a landslide). On the popular vote front, Queensland Labor has won 7 of the 9 state elections held since the implementation of one-vote-one-value reforms, a fairly impressive electoral record especially when one considers that Queensland has historically leaned to the conservative Coalition/LNP at federal elections:

A graph of Queensland's 2pp lean at federal elections since 1949.
2pp lean calculated by (Queensland Coalition 2pp – federal Coalition 2pp). Data from the Australian Electoral Commission.

However, this sterling electoral record does not necessarily imply Queensland Labor has found a campaign recipe for success which should be exported to the federal Labor party writ large. For example, Queensland Labor’s success could be due to any one of following factors outside of its control:

  1. The Queensland Coalition/LNP were simply terrible campaigners, handing their Labor opponents wins which they would not have secured in other states.
  2. (Only applies for elections held prior to 2009) Optional preferential voting weakened preference flows between conservative parties (especially the Liberals and the Nationals), making it harder for them to win while it was in place.
  3. Queenslanders tend to be reluctant to change state governments, and of the 9 contests held since 1992, Labor has contested 7 as the governing incumbents (and in 1998, they were elected with a majority at the last election but narrowly lost it in a by-election).
  4. The background factors which influence how an election is likely to go (e.g. state economy, crime rate), also known as the fundamentals, tended to favour Labor throughout this period.

Of the four factors mentioned above, I’d like to discuss the fourth, as it’s realistically the only one we can gain some insight on (if someone would like to set up a new conservative major party and conduct controlled trials on the effectiveness of the LNP as campaigners, I’m all game). In particular, as Antony Green and Dr Kevin Bonham have noted, having one’s party in power federally can tend to drag down the vote of their state counterpart, especially if the federal government is unpopular.

(quick caveat: all of the analysis below is performed on small samples, some of them being just a single-digit number of elections. Take the conclusions here (and any other analyses claiming some conclusion from a state party’s success/failure) with the appropriate dose of uncertainty.)

In other words, a simple model for the performance of state parties might include just a single discrete factor: whether or not their party was also in power federally. I’m using 2pp (2 party-preferred: all votes boiled down to the top two parties) to measure party performance across the state, which is less affected by the vagaries of election maps (as seat count would be) or minor parties (as primary vote would be). We can examine the effect of ‘federal drag’ on the popularity of state parties by calculating the average and median 2pp for state governments under same and opposing federal governments for the same period:

State governments tend to do worse when their party is also in power federally

 AllSame as federalDifferent from federal
Negative values mean the average/median state govt lost the 2pp vote, while positive values mean the state govt won the 2pp vote.
Figures calculated from state elections held in NSW, QLD, VIC, SA, WA from 1990 to 2020; TAS was excluded as they use a proportional-representation system instead of the single-winner, ranked-choice system used by the other states.

Now, we can compare Queensland Labor’s performance in elections held 1990 to 2020 to see if they outperform this (very) simple model. As Queensland Labor has only been in opposition for one of the nine state elections held during this time (two if you count 1998), the figures below only show their performance while in state government:

Queensland Labor has done about as well as expected under federal drag

 AllHurt by federal dragBoosted by federal drag

With the exception of the median 2pp for all Queensland Labor governments, all other figures look indistinguishable from the average figures of all state governments in similar circumstances. In other words, Queensland Labor governments do not outperform their counterparts in other states once we take into account whether Labor is also in power federally.

(and for good measure: the only state election which Labor went into as the clear opposition which we have a 2pp estimate for [2015], Labor won 51.1% of the 2pp, slightly underperforming the average and median for all state oppositions)

However, as I note above, Queensland is a conservative-leaning state at federal elections. Hence, might it be the case that Queensland Labor’s performing at the average for all state governments should be considered extraordinary considering how conservative the state is at a federal level?

To examine this, we can compare Queensland Labor’s performance to that of another state Labor party’s in a similar conservative state, Western Australia (WA). A mining state like Queensland, WA has also leaned to the Coalition in federal elections: Side note: I’m actually not convinced that the calculation I use here for 2pp lean [i.e. WA Coalition 2pp – Nationwide Coalition 2pp] fully reflects WA’s conservative lean.

This is because Western Australia is actually a slightly inelastic state, i.e. if there’s a change of x% in the nationwide 2pp, WA’s 2pp would change by less than x%. For example, at the 2019 federal election, there was a nationwide 2pp swing to the Coalition of 1.2%, but a shift to the Coalition of just 0.9% in WA. Similarly, at the 2013 federal election, a nationwide swing of 3.6% to the Coalition produced just 1.8% of swing in WA.

(There are counterexamples, of course, but the pattern is fairly clear in recent elections)

This can make WA seem less conservative-leaning during periods where the Coalition wins the nationwide 2pp. For example, let’s say that, in a 50-50 scenario, WA would lean about 5% to the Coalition. However, in a situation where the Coalition wins 51% nationally, WA might only shift 0.8% to the Coalition, producing a slightly smaller lean under the calculation (4.8% vs 5%) despite the ‘true’ lean of the state remaining constant.

In contrast, Queensland is a highly elastic state, being more likely than not to see bigger state swings than the nationwide 2pp swing. Hence, the figures quoted probably slightly overestimate how conservative Queensland is, especially when considering that the Coalition has won most federal elections.

All that being said, the calculation I use here has the advantage of simplicity (how you quantify elasticity can make a significant difference), and does a pretty good job of illustrating the relative 2pp leans of each state.

A graph of WA's 2pp lean at federal elections since 1949.
2pp lean calculated by (Western Australia Coalition 2pp – federal Coalition 2pp). Data from the Australian Electoral Commission.

So how does WA Labor’s electoral performance compare to Queensland Labor? Unlike Queensland Labor, WA Labor has only won 3 of 7 state elections, meaning it doesn’t exactly have the same track record of electoral success as its Queensland counterpart. It also means we can’t simply use the data from WA Labor state governments (as we did above). Combining the data for federal drag, which always boosts Labor when the federal Coalition is in power, and hurts state Labor when federal Labor is in power:

Similar to Queensland, the WA branch of the Labor Party has done better when Labor is out of power federally

 AllHurt by federal dragBoosted by federal drag

While WA Labor doesn’t perform as well as Queensland Labor in state elections, they still perform fairly well. If we redo the analysis of all state governments to examine how Labor specifically performs when it’s boosted or hurt by federal drag, we can see that WA Labor has pulled as much of the vote as the average state Labor party under similar circumstances:

 AllHurt by federal dragBoosted by federal drag
Standard deviation5.45.23.9

(There isn’t much point in recalculating Queensland Labor’s 2pp averages using the same method, as they have only been in opposition once/twice [depending on how you count 1998] – it would just pull down the 2pp figures for Labor when hurt by federal drag somewhat)

Hence, by comparing the Queensland and Western Australia state Labor parties, we can see that Queensland Labor’s performance is nothing to write home about. From the data, Queensland Labor’s fabled ability to ‘talk to both sides of the river’ is worth at the absolute most about 1% in 2pp terms, hardly enough to swing an election on its own. A uniform swing of 1% would have just deprived the Coalition of two seats at the last federal election, narrowly depriving it of its majority (though it would almost certainly have formed government anyway). Realistically, a combination of Queenslander reluctance to change state governments and federal drag is probably sufficient to explain Queensland Labor’s supposed overperformance; it’s worth noting, for example, that it lost by a similar margin to the other state Labor government who went to the polls during the 2011 ~ 2013 period, against the backdrop of an unpopular Labor federal government. In other words: there are no easy fixes for the drop-off in centre-left parties’ vote, and fundamentals still generally hold more sway over electoral outcomes than an individual or party’s campaign strategies. I don’t disagree that in each election, contingent factors can override or significantly shift the fundamentals (Australian examples include going into an unpopular coalition with a minor party [Tasmanian Greens], massive scandals [Bjelke-Petersen in Queensland] or intra-govt instability [Holgate in Tasmania]). However, research generally shows that campaigns don’t have a massive effect on voter choice (certainly not an effect large enough, on their own, to shift an LNP +7 state to a Labor +3 result [dear reader: if you’re American, British, Canadian or Kiwi, please double those figures in your head], as happened in 2020). Fundamentals (in particular the fact that voters consider state and federal governments very differently) such as federal drag and other factors are what produce such massive shifts in voting intention. As they always have.

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