By historical standards, Saturday night was a dismal night for the major parties. Combined they posted the lowest primary vote in 85 years and the Coalition its second worst primary since the Liberal party was founded. Even with the benefit of preferences, the government looks to have only just flopped over the line—the seat haul from the two-party preferred these days seems to be falling as the primary vote worsens. It was not just the raw numbers. The Coalition spent much of the campaign forced to defend its safest seats in Melbourne and Sydney, losing Warringah for the first time ever, while struggling to win back seats like Wentworth, Indi and Mayo that it never should have lost.
Yet the result was hailed by the Liberals and the media as a famous victory. Commentators were claiming that Morrison now has a free hand to do as he likes, even if, like Turnbull in 2016, he barely has a majority and could lose that over a term.
What they really mean is that Morrison has a free hand within the party. This is sort of true. Both the election and the run up to what was expected to be a wipe out have removed key rivals from both sides of the party. But the last decade of feuding in the Liberals was about a party trying to work out where to go, and this has now fizzled out unresolved.
The government did not ask for a mandate and has not got one. It surely will not repeat the mistake of 2014 and carry on regardless, so will likely be left with no more options than before. Defying media narratives and opinion polls does not form the basis of a mandate. The Coalition’s ‘sweeping victory’ is ‘sweeping’ only within the terms of the media’s own expectations and the political imagination that did not see it coming.
The reaction of excited media commentators on the right has been even more over the top, with jubilant claims that Morrison has ‘recaptured the base’. On what possible grounds is Warringah, a seat that until Saturday voted Liberal since the year dot, not the base? Culture warriors point to Queensland, which does lean LNP at the federal level—if not at the state. Yet what is distinguishing Queensland right now is it not being especially fixed to either side with big swings back and forth almost every election, and minority parties all over the place. If this constitutes a base, it is one built on sand.
The hoopla about the ‘base’ is part of a destabilising antagonism of right-wing culture warriors in the media and Liberal party to their traditional core support in socially liberal, wealthier, metropolitan seats. It indicates a right that no longer knows or even likes what it represents. It reached its crescendo in the last term with a leader that typified the traditional Liberal supporter more than they would like to admit, Malcolm Turnbull, and the attempt to isolate the loss of his ultra-blue seat of Wentworth as a one-off. Turnbull’s ousting and that of his rival Tony Abbott, in another classic true blue seat, may have eased that destructive tendency within the party for a while. But the confusion over the party’s brand it represented, means it will inevitably return in some form.
But that is for the future. Labor looks to be in a strange place right now. The party had a terrible night. Its vote was bumping around a third of the primary vote, almost as bad as 2013—but at least in 2013 everyone saw a disaster coming. Saturday night was supposed to be a stunning victory.
We will have to wait for the data to find out why Labor did so poorly and worse than the polls expected. But with such a confusion of expectations, the post-mortem is likely to be confused as well. As noted before, Labor ran an odd campaign—more like a vanity project than a quest for power. It was almost as though Labor was using the opportunity of an assured victory to rehabilitate the trauma of the last decade for its own benefit.
It made a big deal of unity but often in a way that made little sense to anyone else. The display of reconciliation between Rudd and Gillard at the launch may have pleased the party—those who believed it—but would have meant little to the voting public.
In the last week, whatever the internal polling was telling it, the party seemed to be turning even more internal. Labor MPs were re-tweeting ‘It’s Time’ memes, clearly targeting the over-65-Whitlam-nostalgic-Liberal-voting demographic, and reached maudlin levels when Penny Wong called on voters to honour Hawke’s legacy after his death by voting Labor—and some commentators seriously thought people might.
But within days of pundits claiming that Hawke’s winning genius was due to his reforming vision, Labor’s loss was being put down to having too much of the same thing. The more sophisticated version of this is the view that Shorten had made the same mistake that Hewson did in 1993 and gone into the election with a too-ambitious program. But this confuses what has changed since 1993 and the peculiar conditions we are now in.
As was warned in polling reported by the ABC before the campaign, the public’s belief that political parties can do much with the economy has collapsed since 1993, as has the interest in the campaigns and the debates. This is understandable. The political parties have nothing like the relations with institutions in society that say Hawke did with unions and business when he came to power. The concern that Hewson’s program might be implemented was real. The concern over Shorten’s program was probably very much less so.
This basic rule of how policy and government work, that mere edicts and paper programs are not enough, has been forgotten, almost wilfully, by those commenting on policy today. The mistaken conclusions coming from this was apparent on Saturday night. Penny Wong voiced a bravado that was ringing through Labor in the final week, and espoused by Albanese that night in what was a rather crass pitch for the leadership, that at least Labor had had a go and put forward a vision in a ‘battle of ideas’.
But Australian politics has never been about the battle of ideas. If it was, it would have been dominated by think tanks not the rather dull major parties of the 20th century that, let’s face it, have not exactly been the brains trusts of policy. Politics is, or at least has been, about representation. Labor and the non-Labor parties dominated Australian politics not because of the power of ideas but because they represented real institutions with social weight in society, institutions that were often critical in making policy happen.
Wong rattled off past Labor reforming governments to emphasise the point and tellingly skipped the one that she was supposed to have had major reforming role in as Minister for Climate Change and Water. This is a shame because the experience of the Rudd government should be instructive. It was the first Labor government when the unions were no longer a significant social force. It was largely a technocrat government that could generate lots of policy, whether through the kitchen Cabinet of Rudd, Gillard and Tanner, or through the Great and Good at the 2020 Summit. But what hampered the Rudd (and Gillard) government was the absence of those in society with enough weight to cover the government’s back, as was clearly needed is in the roll out of pink batts and the mining tax.
This lack of relations with sections of society with the clout to make things happen makes it difficult for Labor to cobble together a genuine reform program and a case for governance today—and is a good part of why we have seen only one majority Labor government in 23 years. The attempt to overcome this by simply making one up, probably never convinced the electorate, and is perhaps why it could not generate the excitement that would offset any scare campaign.
For reform to happen, it requires either capturing changes that are already happenning or securing backing from powerful interests in society. In 2019, Shorten’s Labor had neither.
It is difficult for any political party to comprehend that a program deficit cannot be overcome simply by a will to power and this clearly will be difficult for Labor as well. Already the blame is gradually drifting towards the public, often not directly, but through its supposed gullibility to the power of the media or Clive Palmer’s annoying ad campaign.
Blaming the public is not a recipe for success. While the pretence by the Liberals and their media boosters that this was a landslide endorsement of the right is unlikely to be sustainable for very long, they may have more success making hay with an introspective and resentful left. Already there have been taunts that Labor is betraying its working-class base through such policies as climate change. It is true that initial data coming from the major cities, for example, shows that despite the faux class-rhetoric of Labor about the top end of town (or perhaps because of it), it was the wealthier traditional Liberal areas that swung to Labor compared to more working class areas that swung to the Liberals.
This may be no more than what we are seeing elsewhere in the US and Europe—that the class divisions of traditional politics are melting away. Climate change, an issue that over-rides sectional interests, is one issue that does exactly that. This election gives plenty of evidence that such a fading of class ties and voter loyalty will cause as many problems for the Coalition as it will for Labor. But for the moment, the spoils, and the taunting, will go to the victor.