The unexpected result highlights profound ideological divisionsAsiaMay 18th 2019 | SYDNEYPrint edition | Special report
A CHANGE OF government had seemed almost guaranteed. The right-leaning Liberal Party, and their smaller coalition partners, the Nationals, had been in power for six tumultuous years. Ever since the previous election, three years ago, they had trailed the Labor Party in the opinion polls. The opposition’s private tallies had left it almost certain of victory. But the results of the election on May 18th have surprised everyone: the conservatives have been returned for a third term in office.
Votes are still being counted, and some constituencies remain too close to call, but the national broadcaster estimates that the coalition has picked up 74 of 151 seats in the House of Representatives, compared with Labor’s 66. It would need two more seats to form a majority, and will otherwise govern in a hung parliament (as it did before this election). “I have always believed in miracles,” sang the prime minister, Scott Morrison (pictured), who is an evangelical Christian.
A miracle it may be. Liberal MPs had ejected two sitting prime ministers during their six years in power. The removal nine months ago of Malcolm Turnbull, a relative moderate, had seemed to jeopardise the Liberals’ already wobbly standing with voters, who punished the party for its continual in-fighting in a recent state election and in several by-elections. But Australians’ anger has apparently abated.
The government has veered hard to the right under Mr Morrison. He promised little beyond more jobs, lower income taxes and a continuation of Australia’s 28 years of economic growth. Perhaps more importantly, he whipped up fear about the economic consequences of Labor’s plans to cut greenhouse-gas emissions and to close tax loopholes for the rich.
This seems to have won the coalition favour in Queensland, a state with a population scarcely bigger than that of Sydney or Melbourne, but with disproportionate influence on politics as Australia’s main swing state. It is home to most of Australia’s coal mines, which leaves many locals wary of environmental regulation. Labor had hoped to win some marginal seats in the state. Instead, voters turned out in even greater force for the Liberals than they had at the previous federal election.
The Liberals won several marginal seats in Queensland from Labor, helped by votes funnelled from smaller nativist parties under Australia’s system of preferential voting. The hardline immigration minister, Peter Dutton, who initiated the coup against Mr Turnbull last year, had feared being ejected from parliament. In the end he retained his seat with a bigger margin.
It may have helped that the conservatives supported a controversial plans for a big new coal mine owned by an Indian conglomerate, Adani. Labor had hummed and hawed about its future, and pledged to generate more of Australia’s electricity from renewable sources. The party had hoped such green stances would help it win seats in Victoria, a far more progressive state. It had won a state election there last year in a landslide. But in this election, Victorians only swung two percentage points in Labor’s direction. In the end, no seats in that state seem to have changed hands.
It did not help that Labor’s leader, Bill Shorten, was unpopular. He immediately stood down, tearfully conceding that he was “hurting”. Mr Morrison polls better. He had portrayed himself as a bumbling soccer dad, throwing out Australianisms at every turn. That made some urbanites cringe. But his studied everyman persona may have helped clinch blue-collar votes in Queensland.
The Liberals suffered only one major upset: in Sydney’s wealthy northern beaches, Tony Abbott, a former Liberal prime minister and the leader of the party’s right wing, was ejected from parliament after 25 years. He once called climate change “crap” and pushed for Australia to quit the Paris Agreement, which aims to reduce global emissions. That left him out of step with his more environmentally minded constituents, who voted in an independent candidate, Zali Steggall, with a monumental swing of more than 12%.
A change is taking place in Australian politics, Mr Abbott surmised, that will seem familiar to Americans. The Liberals increasingly represent the working classes, while wealthier, city-dwelling conservatives are turning to more progressive politicians. Politics also seem to hinge more on atavistic distinctions than on policies. There has also been one other change that works in Mr Morrison’s favour. The Liberal party has modified its rules to make it harder to turf out sitting prime ministers. So unlike his predecessors, he should have three uninterrupted years to convince voters that they made the right decision when picking him.