- The Duran Quick Take: Episode 176.
The Duran’s Alex Christoforou and Editor-in-Chief Alexander Mercouris discuss the conservative Liberal–National Coalition’s surprise victory on Saturday, Australia’s federal election.
The election was widely considered to be an “unlosable” one for the Australian Labor Party. Australian voters however delivered a victory to the Coalition prime minister, Scott Morrison. The results follow a trend seen in the US election of 2016, the Brexit vote in the UK, and the Yellow Vest unrest in France, where working class voters are vocally rejecting neoliberal policies championed by center left politicians.
According to National Review the ALP entered the campaign having enjoyed a healthy lead over the Coalition in more than 60 successive polls since the 2016 election. Even an allegedly infallible exit poll promised Labor a total of 82 seats in the 151-member Parliament. In fact, Labor looks like it will end up with 69 seats against the Coalition’s 77. With five seats still being counted, the Coalition has won 75, and though Morrison has been promised the support of independents, he probably won’t need them. These statistical swings add up to what he called “a miracle” of unexpectedness.
How the Coalition won is not so unexpected. It won blue-collar workers, outer-city and suburban seats, and regional constituencies, especially in Queensland. Australia’s cultural equivalent to the U.S. South delivered only five of its 30 seats to the ALP despite the party’s high hopes of gains there. On the other hand, inner-city seats in Sydney, Melbourne, and other metropolitan areas, inhabited by well-paid professionals, continued to drift leftward, dividing their votes between Labor and the Greens. Again and again, however, that drift stopped short of toppling the seats held by Coalition cabinet ministers that Labor had targeted. But it’s a tide that will still be coming in at the time of the next election.
Australia likes to think that its electoral system is immune to the sort of shock outcomes seen elsewhere in recent years.
Voting is compulsory, so there’s never a surprise driven by turnout. A system that requires voters to nominate multiple candidates means that insurgent third-party campaigns have little purchase, because people can have their protest vote and still choose a mainstream candidate too.
While nearly a quarter of the electorate placed a minor party first on their ballot on Saturday, nearly 90 percent put either the governing Coalition of Prime Minister Scott Morrison or the opposition Labor Party first or second. As a result, the Coalition and Labor will account for all but six or seven seats in the 151-member House of Representatives. The government looks certain to lack a controlling majority of the House, but the deals it will have to cut will be with a handful of centrist independents and single-seat minor parties, rather than a powerful populist fringe.
At the same time, Saturday’s election result is a political shock scarcely less expected than the victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, or the triumph of the anti-European vote in the U.K.’s Brexit referendum earlier that year.
It’s been almost 18 months since any opinion poll showed Morrison’s Liberal-National Coalition with a shot at victory. Newspoll – the most closely followed survey, whose poor showings were used as justification for the internal party coups that removed Morrison’s predecessors Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull in recent years – has put the Coalition behind in 56 consecutive polls since 2016. An exit poll by Nine Entertainment Co. news Saturday night had Labor ahead 52% to 48%.
Even the parties’ own polling (which should generally be treated with a health warning) doesn’t appear to have been immune to error. Leaked Liberal polls had indicated heavy losses of as many as 11 seats in the southeastern state of Victoria; in the event, the only two that are likely to switch sides were more or less handed to Labor thanks to redrawn electoral boundaries.
Yet while the result is a surprise, it’s hardly a revolution. The Coalition gained seats and drastically outperformed expectations, but owing to by-elections and redistricting it actually ended up with fewer constituencies than it did after the last election in 2016. Governing from a minority will present formidable challenges, too.
That’s particularly the case around the politics of climate, which has claimed the careers of three Australian prime ministers in the past decade. The Coalition seems certain to be dependent on at least three of six minor-party and independent candidates to command a majority. Five of that group have campaigned hard on stepped-up climate action that will alienate much of the government’s heartland vote. Bridging the gap won’t be easy.
That’s no reason for Labor to be feeling comforted. Some of the biggest swings away from it were in coal-mining areas in northern Queensland and north of Sydney which will lose jobs as domestic generators close and exports decline over the coming terms of parliament. That risks creating a soot belt of disillusioned working-class electorates serving a similar role to the U.S. midwest in the 2016 election.
Indeed, one way in which the result reflects what’s been happening in the U.S. was the growing gulf between increasingly liberal and affluent big cities and more conservative and hard-bitten regional areas.
Despite some claims that the Coalition won on the basis of wealthy and older voters turned off by Labor’s promise to increase taxes on shares and investment property, some of the biggest swings to the Coalition were in lower middle-class suburbs and exurbs that have some of the youngest demographic profiles in the country.
In particular, a swath of seats in western Sydney and the greater Brisbane region moved heavily to the government’s side, helping it retain power. In his victory speech overnight, Morrison called out apprenticeship – training for mostly low- and medium-skilled jobs – as a key part of an Australian’s path through life. Such programs account for a larger share of post-school education than university in non-urban areas, in a reversal of the pattern elsewhere.
By contrast, in Sydney’s wealthy northern beaches, the deep-dyed conservative former prime minister Abbott suffered the biggest loss of the night with a 19 percent swing to centrist independent Zali Steggall. In Melbourne’s affluent inner east, the seat of Kooyong that’s been the Liberals’ safest for more than a century suffered a 5.4 percent swing towards Julian Burnside, a campaigning refugee lawyer on the Greens party ticket, leaving it just a whisker above marginal status.
The traditional urban-rural maps on which Australia’s major parties have built their majorities are being scrambled. Just as in Texas and west London, right-of-center slices of its cities are growing more liberal; just as in Ohio and northeast England, left-of-center regional areas are becoming more conservative. Which side is better able to capitalize on those trends will decide the direction of politics for the coming decade, not just in Australia but across the world.