Until the conservative Liberal–National Coalition won a surprise victory on Saturday, Australia’s federal election was universally held to be an “unlosable” one for the Australian Labor party. Ever since the voters handed a narrow but clear victory to the Coalition prime minister, Scott Morrison, it’s looked like the confirmation of wider political trends in the English-speaking world, including America, that favor the Right but that will also push it to change.
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. As James Allan points out in a piece written for the Australian Spectator, this mimics the class realignment of parties elsewhere:
Over time, as in Canada, Britain and the US, the inner city seats will mostly be lost to any right of centre political party as the political spectrum around the Anglosphere reorganises itself into a new spectrum where more wealth does not correlate to ‘more likely to vote right’. Remember, Hillary Clinton won the hundred wealthiest counties in the US and virtually all the richest parts of the UK voted ‘Remain’. This willingness to virtue-signal on a big pay package is coming to Australia.
But policies inspired by virtue-signaling produce economic victims in other social classes. That had an impact on two important groups of voters this time. First, Labor sought to raise revenue through policies, meant to curb global warming, that would raise the energy bills of hard-pressed blue-collar “battlers” and also shrink their job opportunities in the country’s important energy industries. That probably cost Labor its hoped-for gains in Queensland, where the Left has fought a long campaign to prevent the opening of a new coal mine. As former Liberal prime minister Tony Abbott observed: When climate change is solely a moral issue, Labor wins; when it’s an economic one too, the Coalition wins. The scales tip farther rightward when the voters are informed that Australia’s contribution to carbon emissions is nugatory and that the Greens don’t seem interested in asking China or India to cut their much greater carbon emissions. The Left in politics and the media advertised this as “the climate change election.” And they lost.
Labor also promised to raise taxes — on everyone, of course, by imposing higher capital-gains and income taxes, but on older voters in particular by eliminating legitimate tax refunds for millions of self-funded retirees. The party should have noticed that the Baby Boomers have greatly expanded the ranks of retirees on fixed or modest incomes in the electorate. Morrison did notice and ran a quietly effective campaign on both issues, warning the voters that Labor would cost them a great deal more money without improving their lives measurably. It was a quietly successful campaign aimed at “quiet Australians” rather like himself rather than treating the voters as ciphers locked into identity groups on the Left’s model.
Morrison has thus earned the right to shape a political strategy in his own image. Until now he has been hemmed in by Malcolm Turnbull to his left and by Tony Abbott to his right. Turnbull fell from power largely because his quixotic policy of driving conservatives out of the main conservative party was leaving the party becalmed. As law professor James Allan noted, most of Morrison’s close allies then opted to leave politics, because they were convinced that Labor would easily defeat a post-Turnbull Liberal party. Their happy absence frees Morrison on the left — and in particular allows him to shape conservative policies on energy, taxation, immigration, and much else without having to appease the cultural gods of the media and the progressive middle class. He was given elbow room on the right because the entire Australian Left organized a massive campaign to oust Tony Abbott, an early patron of Morrison’s when he was prime minister, from an affluent middle-class constituency that had been moving leftward for some years. It succeeded and Abbott lost. But he will have gained admirers by the grace and generosity with which he accepted his inevitable fate. For the moment, he will not have direct access to government power.
If Morrison is now his own man, however, he has his work cut out. Labor’s defeat was narrow last week. The Left’s determination to press ahead — in particular with its global-warming extremism — will be undeterred by such a temporary setback. (In that respect it has a “cultish” character, as Peter Smith argues in Quadrant Online.) And Morrison’s victory this week was rooted in a kind of commonsense caution rather than any deeper analysis of why Labor’s and the wider Left’s solutions are dangerously mistaken. If Morrison is to continue to win victories and to navigate the new politics of class realignment, he will need advice, help, and support.
Two political leaders of recent years have been able to win election landslides by putting together new class coalitions and in particular by converting blue-collar workers to conservative causes. They are John Howard and Tony Abbott. Both exemplify “Loughnane’s Law” that the Coalition wins elections when its prime minister is the leader of both the Liberal party and the conservative movement. In deepening the argument for his own blend of conservatism and liberalism, Morrison could do a great deal worse than summoning them frequently for advice on how to make his victory this week a permanent one — even if he has to pay for costly calls to Abbott in the Australian embassy in Washington.