Naturally, Labor’s shock loss has left the party reeling. But Scott Morrison, too, should heed the warning it sends for his party’s third term.
A week after Australians voted, the most surprising truth to emerge is this: not much changed.
The Coalition won 78 seats; two more than it did in 2016. Labor won 67; two fewer than last time.
And yet, a visitor from space could be forgiven for thinking Australia’s electoral landscape had just undergone a visceral rearrangement.
Google’s search statistics revealed an overnight bump in inquiries about moving to New Zealand. Horrified left-wing commentators lamented that Australians were selfish or stupid. The hashtag #Quexit gained currency, advocating a split from the Australian state most vigorous in its rejection of Labor’s campaign.
In the Coalition camp, meanwhile, the change in mood couldn’t have been more pronounced from the same point three years ago.
In 2016, Liberals waited long into the night for Malcolm Turnbull to leave his Point Piper home and make the short drive around to the Sofitel Wentworth to claim his narrow victory. In the interim, Alan Jones — appearing on Sky’s broadcast — barked at the prime minister on-air to come out and show his face. When he did, it was to deliver a grouchy speech light on the thank yous and heavy on the complaints about the campaign Labor had run. It did not have the feel of a victory, even though it was.
But this time, the Liberal victory party was fuelled by mad joy.
“How good’s Queensland?” hollered Scott Morrison repeatedly, to hysterical assent from the gathered crowd.
And yet — what happened? Australia is very much the same as it was last week. The net movement between the major parties in Australia is this: The Coalition won Bass (a Tasmanian seat which has chosen a new MP at nine of the past 10 elections) and Braddon, a seat it only lost in 2016. It also won Herbert and Longman in Queensland, and Macquarie in NSW. Labor won Corangamite and Dunkley in Victoria, and Gilmore in NSW. That was it.
Precious little movement, really, for what was expected to be one of the great change elections.
So what accounts for the ferocity of the response?
Years of polling which put Labor well ahead of the Coalition created the expectation of a Labor victory; an expectation so settled that it solidified almost into reality.
So when the great Australian voting public didn’t follow suit, the result felt like a significant swing.
For those wanting a Labor win, the readjustment wasn’t from the actual starting point (a narrow Coalition majority) but from the perceived starting point (a significant Labor majority, and all that flowed from it). Hence the intensity of the response among those who had hoped for a Shorten government.
And it comes despite the fact that — when surveyed in the light of day — the 46th Parliament is politically a more moderate place than its action-packed predecessor. Fraser Anning is gone from the Senate, shown the door by the very state from which some seek to secede. And Tony Abbott, the standard under whom the Liberal Party’s right wing rally, is history too.
But what does this election mean, when viewed in the context of history?
“Once every 25 years or so, an opposition will try to win government with a detailed agenda for significant change,” a senior Liberal told me in the small hours of Sunday morning.
“It didn’t work. And no-one will try it again for a while.
“Labor tried to do too much. In the end, elections are really about changing the government. And the idea that you can change the government AND get a mandate for massive change at the same time doesn’t work out.”
The most obvious example, of course, is 1993.
Liberal leader John Hewson campaigned against the unpopular government of Paul Keating with Fightback, only to be defeated by a resurgent Keating.
Keating called it “the sweetest victory of all” — a remark rather cheekily repackaged on election night by Peter Dutton, whose return in the seat of Dickson was something Keating himself campaigned against, urging Queenslanders to “drive a stake through Dutton’s black heart”.
Hewson recalls that the late Bob Hawke, whom he’d later periodically encounter on the speaking circuit, always chided him that he’d made a grave error in the 1993 campaign.
“He’d always find an opportunity to bring it back up,” says Hewson.
“He said to me: ‘You should have put the GST stuff in your bottom drawer, and not pulled it out till after the election’.”
“Hawke held me fully responsible for giving this country John Howard.”
The senior Liberal I spoke with on election night completes the story of 1993.
“Three years later, with John Howard, we reverted simply to ‘Let’s get rid of this government’. And the mandate for reform was developed in government.”
When it’s time, that’s all you need
In the past 50 years, there are probably only five instances of oppositions running for office with a significant or risky reform proposition; Whitlam in 1969, and again in 1972, Hewson in 1993, Mark Latham’s Labor in 2004 and Bill Shorten’s Labor in 2019. Of these, only one was successful — Whitlam in 1972.
In 1969, the Liberal Party had been in power for two decades. But the death of Harold Holt in 1967, and the internal stirring by Country Party leader “Black” Jack McEwen (who effectively vetoed the assumed replacement for Holt, Billy McMahon) left Prime Minister John Gorton in a vulnerable position, in a time of social upheaval and emerging intergenerational tension.
Whitlam’s campaign — offering free university education and a universal Commonwealth health insurer among other features — fell just four seats short, in what became known as the “Don’s Party” defeat.
The Gorton government collapsed anyway (Gorton losing his leadership to Billy McMahon) and Whitlam — with an unrepentantly ambitious policy platform — won solidly in the “It’s Time” election of 1972.
But Craig Emerson, an advisor in the Hawke government and senior minister in the Rudd and Gillard governments, says the 1972 election — and the 1983 election at which Bob Hawke took power — were about convincing a nation that it was time for a change.
“These were not detailed policies,” he says. “Not with costings or today’s crazed demands for economic modelling of everything.
“The Hawke proposition was more economically focused and the Whitlam proposition was more about modernising Australia, but these were broad visions.”
In 1983, the Hawke campaign was built around the themes of Reconciliation, Recovery and Reconstruction; the economic reforms that made the Hawke government famous were developed and implemented later, in office.
Would Hawke have won office if he’d campaigned on cutting tariffs and deregulating the economy?
Debatable, at the very least.
Does John Hewson, all these years later, wish that he too had kept things broad? Stuck the GST in his back pocket and brought it out when he was safely installed?
“Maybe I would have won, but I would have stood for nothing,” he says.
Traversing the aftermath
Elections are merciless — particularly the close ones. And a certain degree of hard-headedness is required. In the most recent campaign, Scott Morrison vigorously opposed changes to negative gearing that he’d actively considered as treasurer. And Hewson’s GST was a proposal Paul Keating had advocated inside the Hawke Government.
“On the first day back in Parliament, we were walking between the Lower House and the Upper House and he pulled me aside,” says Hewson of Keating.
“He apologised. He said “I called you some terrible names. But you’ve got to understand that politics is a game, and I’ll say and do what I have to do to win.”
During the campaign against Hewson, Keating promised a series of tax cuts. Soon after his re-election, he was obliged to renege on the promise. The Government plummeted in the opinion polls and remained in low public opinion until John Howard won the subsequent election.
He did so with a policy offering far less detail than Hewson’s; Howard explicitly repudiated the GST in the 1996 campaign, but took it up again after winning government; another demonstration that it’s easier to develop difficult policy in government than it is to pitch it up front.
The Howard government encountered crises in each of the four terms it enjoyed between 1996 and 2007, but it was the 2004 election at which it encountered its most provocative opponent.
Mark Latham — elected to the Labor leadership by one vote to replace Simon Crean who’d taken the leadership unopposed after the 2001 election — set a fresh direction for Labor.
The Howard government, growing stale as it neared the end of its third term, was rattled.
It matched Latham’s policy to end the generous superannuation scheme for MPs, and disgorged an expensive set of spending measures at its 2004 campaign launch.
Like Shorten in 2019, Latham had a large and expensive health policy centrepiece (Latham’s was Medicare Gold, an enhanced scheme of benefits for the elderly) and a strong redistributive flavour, with Latham’s policy of removing funding from a “hit list” of wealthy private schools.
Polls favoured Latham before the election, but Labor suffered a significant defeat, losing not only the quest for government but also any influence in the Senate, control of which went to the Coalition for the first time since the 1970s.
Howard’s control of the Senate gave him his head on industrial relations and he was finally able to pass the Work Choices policy; an overreach which cost him government just three years later.
Kevin Rudd’s campaign that year was, however, much more conciliatory than Latham’s. Rudd promoted himself as an “economic conservative” and held the union movement at arm’s length, periodically expelling unionists from the Labor Party for poor behaviour, while the ACTU ran a powerful parallel campaign against Work Choices.
Rudd won in a landslide.
A lesson for leaders
It’s easy — given the expectations of a Labor win — to read last week’s election result as a lesson for oppositions.
But equally, there are epic warnings for governments in this nation’s history of “surprise” election wins, in which ageing or troubled governments have rallied against spirited challengers.
In 1969, 1993 and 2004, the governments that survived against the odds were gone three years later.
Gorton’s government succumbed to division. Keating’s never recovered from the breaking of the promise on tax cuts. Howard’s committed the terrible sin of hubris. Scott Morrison — as he scrambles a Cabinet and musters Coalition advisers who until Saturday were anticipating a break — is already dealing with the reality that his promised tax cuts won’t be paid by July 1 as promised.
The one-man Scott Morrison campaign, laser-focused on the risks of electing a Shorten government, has created a vast opportunity for the Coalition: an extremely vague mandate.
“They don’t have an agenda. Morrison doesn’t have a policy agenda,” says Hewson.
“The whole thrust of Morrison’s campaign was we have a strong economy and we’ve got to keep it strong. But the economy is not strong. I think reality will bite them.”
‘My God. It was so close’
So what is the lesson Morrison should take?
“In 1993 and 2004, the governments of the day took away the wrong lesson,” says the senior Liberal.
“It was ‘we’re invincible!’ But the real lesson was ‘actually, the people wanted to vote for the opposition, but the opposition scared them off’.
“The lesson from this election isn’t ‘We can’t be beaten!’ The lesson is ‘My God. It was so close’.”
Craig Emerson, meanwhile — a Queenslander — spiritedly rejects the notion that last Saturday’s election was a victory for climate denialism, or bigotry.
“That’s silly. Half of the country doesn’t feel that way. And of the other side, there are plenty who do care about those things, but there were some who found it a bit too scary,” he says.
“I see people on Twitter saying “What a shit of a country”, but that’s not true. It’s a fantastic country. It’s a country where people file into the voting booths, lodge their secret ballot, the people on the booths are talking to each other, politely in the main, they’ve done their bit and it’s up to the public to decide. And they did. With no violence. What a democracy.”