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Common(wealth) Knowledge #80: Albanese not the first PM to suffer in polls after a failed referendum

Labor has lost support following the Voice referendum defeat.

As Parliament begins to wrap up for 2023, new opinion polls have Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s popularity dipping after the Indigenous Voice to Parliament referendum. But this isn’t surprising. History tells us that almost all failed mid-term referendums see the government lose support at the next election.

The latest Newspoll figures have recorded a net drop of 10% for the Prime Minister, with his approval rating down 4 points to 42%, and disapproval rating up 6 points to 52%.

There’s only slightly better news from the latest Essential poll, which has a net drop of 8%, with an approval rating of 42%, down 4 points, and an approval rating of 47%, down 4 points.

However, the Prime Minister has maintained his lead over Opposition leader Peter Dutton.

But this is a trend that all previous Prime Ministers have followed, either losing government entirely or the government losing seats in Parliament. While that may not entirely be the result of failed referendums, it has certainly had an effect on the result.

Before considering the past referendums, it is worth noting that the failed 1973 referendum, which sought to give the government legislative power over incomes and the costs of goods and services, cannot be counted.

The 1974 election saw Labor lose one seat in the House of Representatives, while both Labor and the Liberal/Country coalition gain 3 seats each in the Senate, following the defeat of the Democratic Labor Party. However, due to the scandals and controversy surrounding the decline of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s Labor government, the role of the referendum is unclear.

The same rule applies to the role that the failed 1974 referendum had in the 1975 election, which determined the fate of the recently-ousted Whitlam government.

1911 saw Australia’s first referendum not held at the same time as the election, and the two failed amendments at that election saw a resounding defeat for Andrew Fisher’s government in 1913, which was toppled after losing 5 seats in the House of Representatives, although Labor extended its lead in the Senate. Labor also gained the seat of Fremantle in Western Australia, the only state the referendum succeeded in.

It wasn’t until 1926 that another government tried a mid-term referendum, and lost once again. Although Stanley Bruce retained power in 1928, his Nationalist-Country coalition lost 8 seats in the House of Representatives. But, just like Labor in 1913, it extended its Senate majority.

The 1937 referendum included a question that would give Parliament power regulatory power over aircraft. Although the Australian Constitution included powers over railroads and ships, planes didn’t exist at the time. Both questions failed, although the aircraft question was the first to receive a majority vote from Australians nation-wide, and it would take decades of High Court rulings to finally resolve the aircraft question.

Although the United Australia Party-Country Party coalition gained a single seat in the 1937 election, it suffered a 1% drop nationwide, Labor reincorporated the Lang Labor splinter faction’s 9 seats, and won 2 more, plus gained in the Senate.

The failed 1944 referendum saw Labor’s post-World War II government lose 6 seats and suffer a 0.22% swing against them. Ben Chifley’s 1948 failed referendum sealed the deal for Labor, with Robert Menzies’ Liberal-Country coalition forming government.

However, the Menzies government would itself lose 5 seats in 1954, after the High Court struck down legislation banning the Australian Communist Party in the ingeniously-named Communist Party Case (1951). The following referendum on the subject also failed later that year, but after the 1951 federal election.

Even the successful Aboriginal referendum of 1967 was not enough to save the Liberals in 1969. The other 1969 question, on expanding seats in Parliament, failed. The Liberal-Country coalition lost 16 seats, although the referendums likely had little to do with that drop.

Despite winning 3 of the 4 1977 referendums, Malcolm Fraser’s new Liberal-National Country coalition lost 5 seats later that year.

The only exceptions to the rule are Bob Hawke’s Labor government in 1987, after the 1984 referendum, and John Howard’s Liberal-National coalition in 2001, after the republic referendum. However, even Hawke wasn’t immune, losing 8 seats in 1990, after the failed amendments of 1988.

John Howard is therefore the only Prime Minister never to suffer a blow at an election after a failed mid-term referendum, gaining 4 House of Representatives seats, a 3.41% swing nationwide, and not losing any Senate seats.

So it is no surprise that Anthony Albanese will probably lose seats or popularity at the next referendum, meaning the only question is about how much he will lose.

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