By Tim Montgomerie
Before I get into the detail of the inconclusive election result here's some wisdom from the Editor of The Spectator in Australia, Tom Switzer:
"Australia remains a conservative nation. On a wide variety of hot-button issues – border protection, economic management, social policy – the political gravity is well to the right of where many Labor partisans and small-l liberal intellectuals might think. So much so that a former socialist who now leads the ALP is browner and more anti-immigrant than John Howard… The marginal seat polling tells the story: the key groups that help turn federal elections are not the so-called left-wing elites from metropolitan Melbourne and Sydney who care passionately about refugees, multiculturalism and man-made global warming. No, the key voters are sections of the culturally conservative working and lower-middle classes, many of whom are mortgaged to the hilt and deeply concerned about population pressures and illegal immigrants."
Switzer makes his case in full here.
The voters' indecisive choice will mean Australia has its first coalition government in seventy years.
Australian Labor became the first, first-term government to lose a federal election since before WWII. Australian general elections happen very frequently – at least every three years – and the electorate has always given its governments another go at the first time of asking. Labor's defeat – less than three years after Kevin Rudd defeated four-terms-winner John Howard – is a historic moment.
Ditching Kevin Rudd hurt Labor badly in Queensland. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd suffered a massive and rapid fall from public favour after he u-turned on his climate change policy (which he had described as the greatest moral challenge of our time) and threatened to impose a supertax on Australia's vital mining industries (the industries that helped the country avoid a recession). Labour dumped Rudd and replaced him with the Welsh-born Julie Gillard, Australia's first female PM. At first Labor jumped in the opinion polls and Gillard rushed to the polling stations in the hope of a honeymoon election victory. The benefits of dumping Rudd have been negated, however, by leaks – allegedly from the Rudd camp – that hurt Gillard's image and a backlash in Rudd's homestate of Queensland (where Labor lost eight seats out of 13 (so far)).
Every commentator agrees that Labor recriminations are about to start. The Age, for example: "There will be a backlash within the party against the coup makers. Many will think that the leadership change was counterproductive, and also that Ms Gillard, having got the leadership, went to the election too early." This will make governing hard.
The Greens hit double figures in the primary vote. Most of the drop in ALP support went direct to the Greens (ALP -5.4%, Coalition +1.8%, Greens +3.7%), boosted by Labor's backtracking on environmental policies. The Greens will hold the balance of power in Australia's Upper House, the Senate. ABC has more on the 'end of two party politics'.
Tony Abbott won most first preference votes. The Coalition won at least 400,000 more votes than Australian Labor but Julia Gillard has claimed that Labor edged ahead once second preference votes were counted under the country's AV system (by 50.7% to 49.3%). In the final stages of the election Labor is estimated to have out-spent the Coalition by more than two-to-one, largely with union money.
Abbott was a model Leader of the Opposition. A former journalist, notes Crikey, Abbott was adept at identifying a Labour weakness and relentlessly exposing it. He did this most effectively with his opposition to Rudd's climate change and mining tax policies. He spent little time on 'decontamination'. John Howard commented:
"It's clear that he has undermined and potentially destroyed a first term Labor Government. That is a tremendous achievement and I am very proud of him."
Abbott's campaign messages were simple, retail and drilled. He promised to stop Labor's taxes and 'stop the boats'. He copied the UK Tories' idea of 'a Contract' but, unlike the Tories, deployed it from the start of the campaign. 'Ironman' Abbott is known for his fitness regime and 4am starts. Labor underestimated him but his physical fitness was a clue to the message discipline he was able to demonstrate on the campaign trail. The physical and political came together in a Cameron-esque 36 hour final marathon.
Three established independents in rural Australia hold the balance of power. There are differences of opinion as to who will win the six seats that are still counting votes (the Sydney Morning Herald offers the minority view that the counting will favour Labor) but most likely is that three independents in rural Australia will decide whether Abbott or Gillard becomes Prime Minister. The majority view is that these independents hail from conservative parts of the country and will vote for Abbott. Gillard, however, may be prepared to offer them more 'pork' for their pet projects and there is a history of "loathing" between the independents and Abbott's junior Coalition partner, the Nationals.
And by way of a PS, the Australian press reports the UK media's lack of interest in the Abbott v Gillard election.