As the old saying asserts, ‘If you’re going through hell, keep going.’ And so, the ALP turned to Anthony Albanese this week. Politics will not wait. The next election starts now.
Not everyone thinks Albanese is the one. But he’s the last man standing. The competition slunk away, driven down by factional force. Albo says he’s a bit rough around the edges, but a straight shooter. Tick. He’s the man who can talk to the workers and those miners and farmers in the regions. Tick. He’s a rugby man, like Morrison . He likes a beer, the Albo Corn Ale Beer is even named after him. He’s experienced, skilled in the House. He fights Tories. Tick, tick, tick.
Albanese may be the answer. But what if he’s the answer to the wrong question?
The Morrison government is in a similar position. Rejoicing in unexpected victory, it must be wary of misinterpreting the opportunity it confronts. Like Howard and Keating before him, Morrison can’t afford to over-reach, or betray. Already the taxes and spending hymn echoes. We were right on climate change. The quiet Australians put us here. ScoMo was right all along. He can read the electorate.
Remember the unlosable election of 1993. Remember the re-elected Keating’s L-A-W tax cuts, legislated and ready to go, until they weren’t. And the opposition floundering, so that even Bronwyn Bishop could be considered for leadership. The next generation ‘dream team’ of Downer and Costello riding to the rescue before Lazarus saddled up for the 1996 re-call. A decade later, even Howard fell victim to electoral giddiness, delivered WorkChoices, and began to slide.
Sweetest victories so easily turn to dust.
As the new Morrison ministry was sworn in this morning, they might well have pondered Keating’s words at Neville Wran’s funeral five years ago. The former premier of New South Wales, Keating said, ‘could hear the ants change step’.
Less than a fortnight ago, few could hear the ants. Ministers thought they were on the way out. Labor didn’t see defeat coming. The noise of Getup! was mistaken for power.
How quickly the caravan moved on. Accolades and excuses have been flying thick and fast.
For some, it was franking credits. Negative gearing. The tax grab. Fear of Labor’s hand in the pocket. The well-to-do turning to small-l liberalism whilst the poor and the middle class clung to aspiration, embracing their families and their bibles. For others, it was Palmer. Murdoch. Or simply the empty-headed selfishness of Australians frightened of change.
They’re comforting mantras. But the voting evidence isn’t so clear.
An analysis from Swan, south of the Perth CBD, showed that swings to Labor in well-heeled areas in the west of the electorate were matched by Liberal swings in the eastern end where poorer voters and immigrants live in the shadow of Perth airport. They cancelled each other out and the Liberals retained the seat against a small swing. The analysis is intriguing, but also merely a reversal of the previous election. This, after all, is a classic marginal seat, switching sides six times in the past fifty years. How to interpret the outcome?
In aggregate, both Labor and Coalition suffered national swings. Labor fell 1.34% on the primary vote, to 33.39%. The Coalition fell 0.31% to 41.74%. The one clear lesson: you don’t win elections when only one in three people are prepared to put the number one against your candidates. In Queensland, for Labor, it was one in four.
With the NSW seat of Macquarie now the last to be decided, it appears the government has gone from 76 seats in a 150-seat house, to 77 in a 151-seat house. Labor fell from 69 to 68. Status quo. Discount the grandiose claims of the cheerleaders.
But it’s clear that the ALP is the party with a problem. By the time of the next poll, it will have won just three elections in three decades.
However, amid claims of blue-collar workers deserting the ALP, Shaun Ratcliff of the University of Sydney argues otherwise. His analysis shows the ALP is still the party of lower-income workers, the disabled and low-income parents, the Coalition disproportionately the choice of high-income business owners.
What, if anything has substantially changed? The clutch of Labor seats in the western suburbs of Melbourne and Sydney swung but did not shift. Kooyong, non-Labor since 1901, remains so. Dave Sharma took Wentworth back home. Six crossbenchers bucked traditional voting habits, but only two of them in Labor seats.
Kosmos Samaras, a former official of the Victorian ALP, views it somewhat differently. He sees a wave of job losses eating into Labor’s vote right across the country, from northern Queensland coal mining communities, through the Hunter Valley, to manufacturing areas in Sydney and Melbourne’s west and timber working communities in northern Tasmania.
These people are not ‘aspirational’ or ‘quiet’, argues Samaras. They are ‘ignored, silent and out of sight’. Their ‘once proud identity’ is now labelled ‘uneducated, racist, ignorant and backward’.
The votes of these people did not go directly to the Coalition. They wended their way there through Palmer’s United Australia Party and Pauline Hanson’s One Nation. Only when the full preference flows are published will we know how disciplined this transfer was.
George Megalogenis sees it differently again. The nation is split along tribal lines, he says. It’s Victoria versus Queensland, old versus young. They cannot reconcile. The nation is polarised and Labor ‘thought it could get to power without Queensland’. Morrison, however, learned from his early mistakes and campaigned as an opposition leader. The elections of 2010, 2016 and 2019 are essentially identical. Australia fractured before Trump and Brexit.
Another question: has identity politics taken hold? Is the talk of politically correct urban elites more than just a convenient sideswipe from the right? The place of leadership in all this is problematic, although the Liberals certainly believe their anti-Shorten campaign bore fruit.
The question of policy direction won’t go away. Slogans for and against neo-liberalism don’t cut it.
Morrison may be right: good, steady government might prevail.
A perennial consideration for voters seems to be: will they keep us safe and secure? In the Second World War, they galloped into the arms of John Curtin. After the war, despite hiccups, they stuck to Menzies. More recently, the very different competencies of Hawke and Howard saw the electorate deliver them four terms each, whilst the reformism of Whitlam and Keating quickly alienated them. Where is the tipping point?
Economic turmoil threatens every government. Today, the great unresolved question of climate change is a potent additional factor.
Eleven days after the election, there’s little discussion of any of this. The temptation to believe everything has changed is strong, but rarely correct. For victors and vanquished, the desire to avoid the questions and return to a hallowed past is comforting, but dangerous.
One sure thing: the certainty of those who now see the answers is not to be trusted.