Australia’s extraordinary election on 21 May has not only unseated a government – it also heralds a realignment of the nation’s politics. After nine years in power, the Liberal Party was defeated, its brand of conservative politics repudiated. Under the prime minister, Scott Morrison, the Liberal-National coalition’s vote slumped by 5 per cent, with at least 16 seats lost. A movement of female candidates – the “teal” independents who campaigned for climate change action, integrity in government and better treatment of women – dislodged Liberal incumbents in their affluent heartlands in metropolitan Sydney and Melbourne.
It is not yet clear whether the centre-left Labor Party, led by Anthony Albanese, can form a majority government, though a series of wins in Western Australia put the party very close. Yet its victory is still sweet. It is redemption for the party’s loss of an unlosable election in 2019 under former leader Bill Shorten. But this wasn’t a classic political victory featuring a mandate for reform. Rather, it follows an election campaign defined by “small target” politics. In place of a contest of policy, Australian voters have had a contest of character and personality.
For the past three years, Morrison has been dogged by criticism of his leadership and mounting unpopularity. Alongside his lacklustre response to the deadly bushfire crisis of 2019-20 and to sexual harassment and violence within the Australian parliament, there have been questions about his propensity for being less than truthful. Political analysts have even christened Morrison Australia’s first post-truth prime minister.
Albanese is a very different character. A product of Sydney’s inner-city working class, who grew up in public housing and was raised by a single mother on a disability pension, Albanese appeared to be a more empathetic alternative to his abrasive counterpart. Yet he also faced questions about his leadership. Under scrutiny over his political match-fitness, Albanese ran a gaffe-riddled campaign. His failure to recall the unemployment rate and the cash rate (the interest rate Australian banks charge one another) hurt Labor. When Albanese was in Covid-induced isolation midway through the six-week campaign, he was outshone by more media-savvy colleagues who stepped up in his absence.
In one sense, the Australian election presented voters with a referendum on leadership. The electorate has responded: while it didn’t believe Morrison deserved another term, it also has doubts about Albanese. Labor’s primary vote was 33 per cent, trailing the 36 per cent claimed by the Liberal-National coalition (though under the Australian preferential voting system, it ended leading the coalition 52-48 on the two-party preferred vote). Anger at the Morrison government hasn’t translated into an enthusiastic endorsement of Labor. Instead, it has been channelled into support for independents and the Greens.
This is the larger story: the 2022 election confirms a reshaping of Australian political culture. It extends the steady, long-term decline of Liberal and Labor, the country’s two main parties. About one-third of the national vote was registered with minor parties and independents.
For now, victory has numbed that painful reality for Labor. But there is no such relief for the Liberals. A section of its base – professional women in cities – has revolted and given its vote to the teal independents. Voters have defenestrated a significant number of moderate Liberals from parliament, including the erstwhile treasurer Josh Frydenberg – until now regarded as a likely future prime minister.
Liberals now face an intense period of self-reflection. Does the party want to be a populist right-wing party? Or does it want to revert to being liberal? And who will lead it? Former defence and immigration minister Peter Dutton, a hardline conservative, looms as a likely leader. If he wins, the Liberals would lurch further to the right.
Climate change has been a key trigger of the country’s ideological convulsions. Confronted by epic bushfires and floods, Australians see that the climate crisis is transforming the country. Morrison, an enthusiast for Australia’s fossil-fuel industry who once brandished a lump of coal on the floor of parliament, failed to see this. With his defeat, the “climate war” that has defined Australian politics for the past decade may finally have come to an end.
Which brings us to a very clear lesson from the election. Centre-right parties in the English-speaking world may be tempted by the polarising style of culture-war politics. But while it may work in the US – the home of the culture wars – parties elsewhere might ultimately be punished when they drift too far from the middle. This realisation came late for Morrison. Heading into his campaign’s final week, with Labor’s negative attacks biting, he offered a mea culpa. He was a “bulldozer” in getting things done, and pleaded that he was ready to change – to listen, to be kinder. Yet he leaves the legacy of a spectacular bulldozing of his own party’s electoral base.
For Albanese, the path is now open for him to become the unifying nation-builder he has promised to be. It is an adage of Australian politics that if you change the government, you change the nation. In taking office as Australia’s 31st prime minister, and becoming only the fourth Labor leader to defeat a Liberal government since the end of the Second World War, Albanese will govern a country that wants a reset to the way politics is being conducted. As this narrow victory shows, Labor still needs to persuade many Australians it can deliver such change. But, for now, a win is a win.
This article appears in the 25 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Out of Control