There’s an old football adage that you have to lose a grand final in order to learn how to win one.
Victoria’s opposition leader, Matthew Guy, will be hoping that applies to politics, as he faces his second successive election against the state’s premier, Daniel Andrews, on Saturday.
In earlier eras of Australian history, it was typical for leaders to be given a lengthy stint in the job, even if they weren’t in power. For example, there were only three federal Labor leaders from 1952 to 1978 – a period of 26 years, most of which was spent in opposition.
In modern times, opposition leaders typically don’t get a second shot, if they even get a first shot. From the 1980s onwards, regular chopping and changing has become the norm. An obsessive focus on polling and the personalisation of politics has led parties to often conclude that their problems would be resolved by putting a new person in charge.
Guy doesn’t fit the model of many other back-to-back challengers in recent decades.
Opposition leaders are often given another shot straight away when they lead a party to an improved position without winning power. Thirteen out of 20 cases at state, federal and territory level since 1980 involved a politician in that position. (We haven’t included people who left the job and came back after intervening elections, such as John Howard.) This makes sense – sometimes a party is so far away from victory that you can’t expect them to gain back that ground all in one term.
Examples of this include Bill Shorten and Kim Beazley, who came close to winning federally after their party had been defeated in a landslide at the previous election, only to go on and lose a second time. It also includes people like Tony Abbott, Bob Carr (NSW), Ted Baillieu (Victoria), Colin Barnett (WA), Nick Greiner (NSW) and Mike Rann (SA), who went on to win on their second attempt.
Guy did not improve his party’s standing in Victoria in 2018. In fact, the Coalition lost 11 seats and suffered a 5.3% two-party-preferred swing. Rather than continuing in the job after an encouraging result, he came back to it after the perceived failure of his successor, Michael O’Brien.
Only three other leaders since 1980 have left the job after losing only to return in the same term. Lawrence Springborg (Queensland) and Jeff Kennett (Victoria) both resigned the leadership after two elections, and then returned for a third (Kennett won, but Springborg lost again). Barnett improved the Liberal position at the 2005 Western Australian election, stepped down but came back shortly before winning in 2008.
While it may seem counterintuitive to give a leader who’s lost another go, the tactic has actually been successful more often than not – with 12 wins compared to eight losses since 1980. Not a single woman is among those who have been given the chance to recontest.
Some opposition leaders who lost at their first attempt have gone on to remarkable success – particular mention goes to Mark McGowan (WA), who held on to his job despite Labor going backwards in 2013, before winning in a landslide in 2017 and an even larger landslide in 2021.
And of course Kennett, who stepped down from the Liberal leadership after his party went backwards in 1988, but returned in 1991 and became premier in 1992. Unlike Guy, however, Kennett was dominating in the polls in the lead-up to that election.
The limited polls right now suggest that Guy is not on track to win power on Saturday, but Kennett is probably the closest model for what he is trying to achieve. If the polls are to be believed, however, Guy’s trajectory looks more likely to be that experienced by Shorten, Springborg and Beazley: another defeat.