Courtesy and gratitude bounced around social media last Sunday as the Albanese shadow ministers thanked their leader for his allocation of portfolios.
Returned to opposition, they all expressed their ‘honour’ to serve and their ‘excitement’ for having been chosen. Most were ‘delighted’ and ‘grateful’. Some were ‘thrilled’ and others, of course, were ‘passionate’ about their responsibilities. One welcomed the ‘opportunity to enhance our economy’. Another was just ‘really happy’.
Are any of these people angry? Is defeat so palatable?
By Monday, having settled the vital question of who is to be Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, Albanese was in Tasmania on a ‘listening tour’. He went to Queensland and listened there too. Four lost seats spoke loudly.
The rituals never change. Even after a disastrous defeat, continuous activity prevails. Necessity demands it—politics and government do not stop.
But activity also disguises failure. It interferes with reflection and analysis, especially in this non-stop age.
The results in the House are now nearly finalised. The government currently sits on 51.58% of the two-party vote, a swing of 1.22%. The ALP primary vote is 33.34%, lower than in the Rudd defeat of 2013. Six lost years ago.
The ALP holds 45% of the seats in the House. There are twenty other federal elections where they did even worse, and another eight where they did better but still lost. Perspective: recovery is within reach.
But the smell of the past hangs over this defeat. Exclude the first ten years of Federation, when the two-party system was not yet established, and begin with 1910. In the thirty years till 1940, when Menzies clung on in a hung parliament before John Curtin took office, the ALP won just three of thirteen elections (1910, 1914 and 1929) and twice split.
In the thirty years from 1940 until 1970, the ALP won just two of eleven elections (1943 and 1946) and split again. The Curtin government is revered but the Chifley government overreached and perished.
The golden era for Labor was the third period of thirty years, between 1970 and 2000, when it won seven of twelve elections (1972, 1974, 1983, 1984, 1987, 1990 and 1993), delivering the Whitlam, Hawke and Keating governments. Whitlam rebuilt the party with a modern program, whilst Hawke showed how to implement it.
But in the last twenty years, the ALP has won only two of seven elections (2007 and 2010). By the time of the 2022 election, it will have won just three elections in three decades. People with longer memories will recognise the malaise of permanent opposition, when Labor not only didn’t win, but didn’t expect to win.
A question for consideration is why the ALP has historically been so much more successful at the state level. In the past thirty years, it has dominated government in the states and territories. Even Queensland has elected Labor governments for twenty-five of the years since 1989. The bread and butter of local politics, infrastructure, public transport, education, health, and law and order seems to be the party’s metier. The national economy, less so. Not unless you have a Hawke or a Keating.
The Labor mythology is to see itself as the party of innovation and reform, where the political world reacts to its initiative. The idea is comforting but delusional. The Coalition has always had a superior grasp of the electorate’s innate caution.
Medicare stands as the exemplar, the issue that was litigated election after election until finally—maybe—the Liberals caved. In the end, the longevity of Hawke and Keating entrenched Medicare. Victories count. Elections do, indeed, have consequences.
But throughout the last century, the non-Labor parties have governed for two-thirds of the time. It is their dynamic that most frequently shapes the federal political psyche. And it is the dynamic of the Morrison government which should now hold our attention. Let the opposition lick its wounds and think awhile.
Some say the government won’t win again. It might not, but that hardly matters for now. The specious argument that the 2019 election was a good one to lose should also be dismissed out of hand by any self-respecting party of government.
The government is criticised by its opponents for having no agenda, but this misses the point. The nature of its victory gives it an agenda, economic and social.
Consider recent events. The Minister for Resources and Northern Australia, Senator Matt Canavan, last week called on business to drop its support for a market price on carbon. The government’s cheerleaders now argue the people have voted against the idea. The climate change debate has become more fraught.
The tax package announced by Treasurer Frydenberg in April will likely soon be law. Contretemps over when the measures pass Parliament are mere distractions. Only if the Senate plays hard-to-get does the package look in doubt. The rhetoric about tax scales that don’t come into effect until years into the future will likely soon look thin.
Old issues that appeared to have no legs will soon be galloping. Religious freedom legislation is on the way. Contentious and politically expedient, it will fuel the debate on how to define free speech. It will delight the proponents of cultural war. It elevates political correctness as a cudgel to be wielded against progressives.
There will continue to be a difficult debate about indigenous recognition in the Constitution. The wages system is a perennial issue. Morrison has made Christian Porter both Attorney-General and Industrial Relations minister: expect an ongoing campaign against unions such as the CFMMEU. Funding of the ABC will remain in the news. Adani isn’t dead. The NDIS isn’t yet bedded down. And on it goes.
Morrison snatched victory by reshaping the political debate, bludgeoning his opposite number, exploiting the apprehensions of the electorate and offering reassurance. Re-election offers new possibilities.
Much of government is about reacting to events, domestic and international. John Howard built his reputation, in part, around his response to the Port Arthur murders, the events of 9/11 and international terror. Kevin Rudd had to respond to the global financial crisis.
Today’s external events are closing in. Trump’s trade war is slowly escalating. Some tip recession. Yesterday’s Reserve Bank cash rate decision signals concern about a weakening domestic economy. These events can challenge and defeat a government. They can also rescue them by providing a way forward.
These are jubilant times for Coalition supporters and hard times for Labor. The latter need some hard-nosed introspection, but so do the former. Both sides have shown they know how to muck it all up.
Malcolm Farnsworth is the publisher of australianpolitics.com