The omens for political parties following a third consecutive defeat are not good.
In 1954, the ALP came close to defeating Menzies, but split over communism within a year and spent another eighteen years in opposition.
In 1987, a civil war raged within the Coalition, with Joh Bjelke-Petersen running amok. Following the election defeat, the Liberals eventually dumped John Howard, returned to Andrew Peacock and then lost a fourth election.
In 2001, the Beazley-led ALP lost its third election on the back of 9-11, the Tampa and a concerted campaign by John Howard to rid himself of electoral barnacles. The defeat led to Mark Latham and a fourth drubbing in 2004.
Only in 1980 did it work out differently. Defeated for a third time in the aftermath of The Whitlam Dismissal, the ALP eventually despatched Bill Hayden and turned to Bob Hawke. A golden period of government followed.
Today the ALP confronts a dangerous moment again. Six years of stability and rebuilding has been shredded. The electorate has rejected an ambitious policy program. The party’s identity crisis is back. Leadership jostling and factional rivalry is reborn. The choice is to rebuild and rejuvenate, or to stagnate further until defeat turns to despair.
For the government, it is a delicious moment. Opportunity beckons. The end is no longer nigh. Political careers can continue to flourish. Who wouldn’t believe in miracles?
Few can seriously claim they saw this moment coming:
‘The Liberal campaign is running on empty.’ Mea culpa.
‘The arithmetic looks too hard for the government.’ Mea culpa.
‘Clairvoyance is a dying art.’ Should have followed that one through.
Now the electoral data is in. Just as most people lose interest in the detailed results, the opportunity exists to decipher what really happened.
For now, forget about the losers. In Robert Menzies’ words from 1940, let them ‘lie down and bleed awhile’.
Focus on what Morrison has done. The Liberals have found their new messiah and vested in him enormous authority and power to shape the government. It is rightly described as a comeback greater than Keating’s 1993 victory.
Morrison has just got over the line. His majority is small. But the numbers never tell you everything. It is a massive victory that turns upside down the prevailing view of politics.
Under the party rules he introduced, Morrison can’t be challenged this term. Prime ministerial churn is at an end, for now. More significantly, in winning after two terms of leadership dysfunction and policy disputation, he overturned the conventional wisdom that the voters would wreak a terrible revenge.
Major policy issues are now redefined. Climate change is the big loser. Tax policy is Liberal territory again. Morrison has grabbed the mantle of jobs protector. An old mantra has been given new life: ‘You can’t trust Labor with money.’
It is a moment of great opportunity for the Coalition to cement itself in power. The good old days may well be here again. For the ALP, the election is an outcome they will rue for years.
The psychology of the moment is important. For Liberals, Malcolm Turnbull can be vilified with impunity. Worse, his contribution can be praised and dismissed. Tony Abbott is out of parliament, gifting Morrison more room to move. Leadership aspirant Peter Dutton’s seat is 2.39% safer—who does he owe that to?
The moderates are routed. The likes of Bishop, Pyne, O’Dwyer and Laundy opted to cut and run when the going got tough. Glory goes to those in the arena. The Liberals look likely to take Chisholm, completing the demolition of Julia Banks. Rats should expect no reward.
Rewriting the history of May 18 is already underway. The ALP wasn’t defeated everywhere, but it did suffer primary vote swings in 94 of the 151 seats (62%). It went backwards on the two-party-preferred vote in 83 seats (55%). But it won the two-party vote in Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania and the two territories. Its traditional working-class seats all stayed loyal, albeit with smaller majorities.
And the national swing to the government is currently just 0.71%. The Coalition sits on 51.07% of the two-party vote. Just eleven seats have changed members, compared to nineteen in 2016 and twenty-three in 2013. Two of the eleven—Dunkley and Corangamite—were notionally changed because of redistribution. Aside from them, the ALP’s only gain was Gilmore in NSW.
In a sense, not a lot changed. Until you look at individual seats. In Hunter, Joel Fitzgibbon suffered a 10% swing and came close to losing. Mining. Coal. Jobs. Hunter epitomises the ALP’s exquisite dilemma, the clash between climate change, a low emissions future and the imperative of winning.
Queensland is the epicentre of the defeat. In Capricornia, the ALP went down to a 12% swing. In Herbert, it was 7.7%. The ALP holds no seats north of Brisbane. Palmer and One Nation funneled preferences to the Coalition. Palmer’s dummy party is a new business model for shifting votes. It’s a story for another day when all the numbers are in.
Nothing changed in Western Australia, South Australia or the two territories. Swings in either direction couldn’t change outcomes. The perennial swingers —Bass and Braddon—switched sides in Tasmania. Labor did better in Victoria, garnering a 2% swing in Chisholm and in Michael Sukkar’s Deakin, both insufficient to win. Nearby Liberal members like Alan Tudge in Aston and Jason Wood in La Trobe got swings towards them.
The overall result was close, but the voters weren’t ready to switch. There was no mood for change. Chifley was right: the hip pocket nerve is the most sensitive. Wran was right: if they wanted fulfilment and spiritual uplift, they’d ‘vote for the fucking Hare Krishna’.
Abusing the electorate won’t help. Nor will gnashing of teeth about Queensland. The federation is here to stay. Invited to ridicule Morrison for his happy clapper bogan act, the voters showed they’ll take it. They can cope with the baseball cap, the barbecue king, the ad-man platitudes and the greeting card homilies. Behind it all, he comprehensively out campaigned his opponent. The ‘big end of town’ rhetoric should be sent back to the 1930s where it belongs.
Aside from Kerryn Phelps, a seven-month historical footnote, the independents consolidated their positions. Adam Bandt and Andrew Wilkie now hold two of the safest seats in the country. In Indi, Helen Haines pulled off the first-ever succession of an independent by another independent. In Mayo, Rebekha Sharkie increased her majority, as did Bob Katter in Kennedy. These successes warrant study.
Bob Hawke’s death served as a reminder of what good cabinet government can be like but forget the romantic nonsense of last week. His death didn’t smother the Morrison campaign or act as a balm on Shorten’s. Like the media’s pre-occupation with Kooyong and Higgins, to say nothing of the Liberal Party’s problem with women, so much of what passes for political coverage washes over the electorate.
The electorate showed itself to be pragmatic and unsentimental. It will forgive much if it feels threatened. It now seems clear that people were wary of a Shorten government. Cancer treatment, elderly dental care and myriad promises to restore the cuts counted for nought against a creeping sense of victimisation.
Morrison found his pathway to victory. His opponents must start searching anew.