One of the dullest campaigns in living memory ended up with one of the most interesting results. The two are not unrelated. Both major parties have the sand moving under their feet and approached the election paralyzed lest they put a foot wrong. Both adopted what has kindly been called a small target ‘strategy’; which is a splendid approach—providing no other parties are running. Which they were.
Saturday night was a disaster for the Liberals. Partly it was a result of the loss of authority of the federal government during Covid that meant the usual Coalition buttons on national security and economy did not work when pushed. But the problems that emerged went far beyond that. It was not just that the Liberals recorded their worst primary since the party was founded, but losing some of its safest seats revealed a bigger problem than a falling primary, focused on the issue of climate change.
The Coalition’s current position on climate change stems from the one period of real internal stability in the Coalition during the last 30 years, the War on Terror following 9/11. The Bush Administration preferred to assert global leadership as the solution to global terrorism through military action against Iraq rather than climate change where, being the world’s largest economy, the US could be seen as part of the problem. As usual, the Howard Liberal government of the day got into line with the US.
The problem is that the Liberal’s position on climate change put it at odds with its core supporters. This was not so much a problem while the War on Terror dominated, but has become more so as the effect faded, signaled by the election of the Rudd government in 2007. This growing disconnect between the party and its core supporters, that used to be condescendingly described as the ‘doctors wives’ effect under Howard, emerged in full under Turnbull when the party’s right, egged on by conservative commentators in the media, attacked not only Turnbull but the ‘type’ of voters of his electorate of Wentworth that were actually fairly typical of the type of voters in most of the Liberals’ core metropolitan seats.
From being a strategic positioning under Howard, climate change became an issue of ideological identity under Abbott and the dumping of Turnbull demonstrated that the party was not only unable to reconcile itself with its core supporters but almost regarded them as the problem, a very dangerous place for a political party to be. In hindsight, the dumping of Turnbull in August 2018 will probably be seen as the beginning of the end of the modern Liberal party.
Understandably, given the existential threat that has now opened up, senior Liberal strategists on the night were at a loss how to respond. Tackling housing affordability, as one suggested, might have helped in the mortgage belt but will hardly do so in true blue electorates with some of the highest home ownership in the country like Wentworth. Conservative commentators were even more clueless. Rita Panahi bravely tweeted ‘A “conservative” party with no conservative principles or policies deserves to lose’, but what exactly were the conservative principles that allowed candidates to win Higgins, Kooyong and Mackellar?
The Liberals lost more seats elsewhere, but it is hard to overestimate the destabilising impact of losing core safe seats, with it undermining the whole system of factional patronage. Labor learnt a similar lesson with the likely defeat of serial electoral loser, but canny factional operator, Kristina Keneally, in a safe Labor seat.
Labor comes to power not only with its lowest primary vote since the 1931 Lang split election but also, a first for any party coming to power, a falling one at that. Labor is also feeling the corrosive effect on its safe seats, not just the on-going challenge from the Greens in the inner city seats but, as the Keneally fiasco highlighted, a weakening of core seats in the outer suburbs as well. Labor was polling a slump in its primary in some of these seats, especially in western Melbourne, by 7 to 10%. At the beginning of the ABC coverage there was some talk of a backlash going on in these safe Labor seats in favour of One Nation and the United Australia Party over the cost of living, which has now leapt to one of the top issues and some rebound against Labor especially in Victoria over the pressures voters have gone through over the last two years. This was interesting. A shame there was not more about this during the campaign.
There was not much humility from Labor on election night at the historic weakness of their mandate, certainly not from Albanese’s speech which was quite a lot about himself as the first Labor Prime Minister from a humble background, since the last one and the one before that. Like the Liberals, Labor also had little to say on the night on its falling primary in its core seats, preferring instead to almost to embrace the vote of the Teal independents and the Greens as an implicit endorsement of their own.
In fact, overall there was little sense from the major parties of what is happening to them. Barnaby Joyce dropped his retail shtick and sounded very much like the National leaders of old dismissing minor parties as useless as they had no chance of getting into the Cabinet—perhaps not the wisest line from the leader of a small party whose only chance of seeing inside the ministry again relies on the rapid recovery of the major partner that now looks to be in serious trouble.
Throughout the night both sides talked of the minor parties as merely protest votes, implying the major parties are the only ones actually being voted ‘for’—a view frequently endorsed by the ABC host Leigh Sales. Yet a cursory glance of some of the minor parties, even if a bit shambolic, would reveal that it is pretty easy to work out what they stand for and why people would vote for them, something not so easy for the majors. The possibility that it might be the other way round, that votes might be parked with the majors as a ‘protest’ against the state of alternatives currently available, seems never to have occurred to them.
The author is an analyst who writes the Piping Shrike blog, a perspective on Australian politics.