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Dr Peter Poggioli is a former director of the Australian Liberal Party’s Victorian Division and has served as Chief of Staff to Federal and State Cabinet Ministers.

Australia’s federal election was held in May.  Against expectations and contrary to all published opinion polls, the election saw the Scott Morrison-led Coalition Government returned for a third, three-year term.

House of Representatives

The Coalition (LNP) won 77 seats in the 151 seat House of Representatives (Liberals – 44; Liberal Nationals (Qld) – 23; Nationals – 10), giving it a one-seat majority.  The Labor Party (ALP) won 68 seats (down one); the Greens one seat (no change); and independents five seats (up one).

The Coalition’s result is an increase of one seat on the 76 seats (a bare majority) won at the 2016 federal election.  It gives them a very slim working majority ,and frees them from reliance on the crossbench for support in the House of Representatives but not the Senate.

The two-party preferred result was LNP 51.53 per cent / ALP 48.47 per cent, almost an exact reversal of the result forecast by opinion polls.  The result was an improvement of 1.17 percent for the Coalition on the 2016 two-party preferred result LNP 50.36 per cent to the ALP 49.64 per cent.

Only ten seats changed hands at the election, with two of these (Corangamite and Dunkley in Victoria) already notionally Labor following federal electorate redistribution in the state of Victoria. See below –

State Electorate Area Won by: % SWING to/from Coalition Formerly held by:
QLD Herbert Townsville LNP 8.38 ALP
QLD Longman Sunshine Coast LNP 4.07 ALP
NSW Gilmore South Coast ALP -3.34 LIB
NSW Lindsay Penrith LIB 6.15 ALP
NSW Warringah Sydney Northern Beaches IND -18.79 (swing away from Tony Abbott) LIB
NSW Wentworth Inner eastern Sydney LIB 2.53 (swing back to Libs following Oct 18 by-election) IND
VIC Corangamite Surf Coast ALP (notionally Labor) -1.04 LIB
VIC Dunkley South Eastern Melbourne ALP (notionally Labor) -1.71 LIB
TAS Bass Launceston LIB 5.83 ALP
TAS Braddon North-west LIB 4.82 ALP

 

The election results varied significantly from state to state, but the common factor was that the results never delivered the anticipated swings and seats to the Labor Party. Again, see below –

State or Territory 2PP% Swing to/from Coalition % Labor Primary Vote 2PP%Coalition
NSW 1.25 34.56 51.78
VIC -1.31 36.86 46.86
QLD 4.34 26.68 58.44
WA 0.89 29.80 55.55
SA 1.56 35.38 49.29
TAS 1.40 33.61 44.04
NT 2.86 42.27 45.80
ACT -0.48 41.09 38.39
National 1.17 33.34 51.44

 

In Victoria, the expected Coalition wipe-out did not materialise and the Government essentially held its ground.  Not only did Labor fail to win any seats beyond the two that were already notionally theirs, but they failed to get any electoral return on their diffuse campaign targeting safer high-profile seats, such as Kooyong, Higgins and Flinders.

The turn against Labor by voters in key regions and mining areas was significant.  Regional Queensland voters’ potent reaction to Labor’s lack of support for the Adani coal mine and perceived attack on retiree savings saw swings to the Coalition of more than eleven percent in some seats, much of it filtered through the UAP and One Nation.  Labor’s primary vote fell to below 27 percent in Queensland and they were left with just six seats in the entire state, none north of Brisbane.

In Tasmania, voters in the north of the state also turned strongly against Labor, delivering swings of almost six percent to the Government.

Senate

In the Senate, the Coalition has improved its position, gaining four seats, the Labor Party and the Greens have remained stable while the cross bench has been reduced from ten to six.  One factor in the success of the major parties is the fact that it was not a double dissolution Senate election where minor parties, because of lower quotas, always fare better.

Coalition gains were in New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria and Western Australia, while the ALP gained a seat in both New South Wales and South Australia, but lost a seat in Queensland to the Coalition and in Tasmania to Jacqui Lambie.  Senate numbers in Tasmania are slightly confusing because Steve Martin, who replaced Jacquie Lambie in the previous term of government, later joined the National Party.  In a sense the Liberal Party gained a seat, Lambie retained what was hers at the 2016 election and Labor has lost a seat.

In the 76 seat Senate, the numbers are as follows:  Coalition 35; ALP 26 , Greens 9; Centre Alliance (Xenophon) 2; Australian Conservatives 1; Pauline Hanson’s One Nation 2; and Jacqui Lambie.

Those Senators not re-elected include Derryn Hinch (Victoria); One Nation’s Peter Georgiou from WA; Independent Tim Storer from SA; and defectors from Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, Fraser Anning and Brian Burston. Of the cross bench, Jacqui Lambie won a seat from the Labor Party in Tasmania.

The Coalition needs 39 Senators to secure its legislation, as it will need to supply a President.  In a Senate of 76, with the President supplied, it will need 38 votes on the floor to the opposition of 37.  Therefore, its negotiating position requires support from four cross benchers.

The Coalition’s best chances to secure these votes will be to negotiate with a pool of five Senators: Cory Bernardi (SA – Australian Conservatives and ex-Liberal), two Senators from Pauline Hanson’s One Nation (QLD – Pauline Hanson and Malcolm Roberts), and two Senators from Nick Xenaphon’s Centre Alliance (SA – Rex Patrick and Stirling Griff).  Jacqui Lambie from Tasmania is another potential vote, but cannot be consistently relied upon.  That said, the Coalition cannot afford to take any crossbench vote for granted.

Alternately, the Government could try to negotiate with the Labor Party, although they do not have a strong record of bi-partisanship.  Anthony Albanese has vowed to end conflict on crucial issues and Labor will need to reassess its stand on some of the Government’s tax measures and other policies.  The Government recalled Parliament in July in order to pass its tax cut package, in the face of Labor opposition, the Coalition secured the support of four crossbench senators, and Labor voted with the Government in the end.  In its the first test, Labor was out manoeuvred.

The Greens are traditionally unwilling to negotiate with the Coalition and will maintain their opposition to the Government on most legislation.

The Campaign task and context

In 2016, the Coalition had scraped in with a bare majority – with 76 of 150 seats, with Labor holding 69 and Independents 6.  It polled 50.3 per cent of the 2PP.

By election day 2019, the Coalition’s position had worsened, with the loss of Wentworth in a by-election, an unfavourable redistribution in Victoria which made the seats of Corangamite and Dunkley notionally Labor, the creation of an additional Victorian Labor seat in Fraser, and the desertion of Julia Banks from Chisholm.  The addition of a third ACT seat, Bean was offset by the abolition of the South Australian seat of Port Adelaide.

In effect, both the Coalition and Labor notionally held 72 seats and Independents and minor parties seven in the new 151 seat Parliament.

Thus, the task for both major parties was to win an additional net four seats at a minimum to reach 76.

The 2019 election took place with the expectation of a Bill Shorten/Labor victory.  For most in the media, the question was not whether Labor would win but the size of its majority.  Published opinion polls pointed in this direction: for most of the two years prior to the election, Labor led the Coalition by an average of 53-47 in the well regarded Newspoll.

Anticipation was intensified by Labor’s big agenda of radical economic reform and redistribution of wealth, contrasted with two terms of Coalition instability and the chaos of three different Prime Ministers within just three years.  It was further encouraged by the result of the November 2018 Victorian election, in whcih a left-leaning Labor Party massacred the Coalition, winning Liberal heartland seats.  If the state election result was replicated in Victoria at the 2019 Federal election, it alone had the capacity to deliver government to Labor.

Expectation of a Labor victory was also heightened by the result of the 2017 same sex marriage plebiscite with its consequent enrolment of record numbers of young voters (1.69 million), and large climate change rallies in capital cities, where these young voters and school children (read ‘the future’) turned out in droves.  There was an assumption that those newly enrolled voters would rally to the progressive cause.

There was also continuing focus on the aggressive attacks by Labor, the Greens, independents and interest groups such as GetUp against high profile conservatives and ambitious campaigns in traditional, safe Liberal and National seats which were seen as vulnerable: Higgins, Kooyong, Flinders in Victoria, Cowper, Farrer and Warringah in New South Wales, Boothby in South Australia and Dickson in Queensland.  The election results in Victoria lent credibility to Labor’s strategy. With the exception of Warringah, all the seats remained in Coalition hands.

The mainstream media and political commentariat were largely seduced by the apparent zeitgeist and reflected the clamour anticipating and demanding an end to the Coalition Government.  Add to this the evocation of the Labor pantheon of Hawke and Whitlam by Shorten in the last days of the election campaign and the mood was set for a change of Government.

The Coaltion’s Narrow Path to Victory

While polls had tightened during the election campaign (as is normal), most commentators believed the Prime Minister’s path to victory was uphill and “narrow” because he needed to win seats without losing any and concluded that while he had run a good election campaign, an honourable loss would be his best result.  The fact that Labor also faced the same task was less widely discussed because of the assumptions of wins in Victoria and threats to other high-profile Coalition seats.

Like Britain’s Brexit result and Donald Trump’s Presidential victory, the Coalition’s triumph was a shock for most of the media.

Ultimately, the Coalition victory was a combination of what the Coalition did right in terms of its policy and campaign, and what the Labor Party did wrong.

The Coalition’s targeted, disciplined campaign, led by Morrison, delivered with a comparative economic message:  tax cuts and a strong economy on the one hand or the risk of Labor’s hip pocket pain, budget debt and a slowing economy on the other. The message appealed to the aspirations of voters in target seats, while at the same time blunted Labor’s negative attack and highlighting the tangible and immediate risk of Labor’s tax and social reform agenda to individuals and their families.

The foundations for the messaging were laid in the months before the election.  A parliamentary committee inquiry into Labor’s franking credits policy held nineteen public hearings around the country and received 1777 written submissions, handing down its final report in April 2019.  It raised the level of concern about the policy’s impact on self-funded retirees.   By the end of the inquiry the removal of franking credits had metamorphosed into a “Retiree Tax.”  Morrison’s new Treasurer argued about the Labor risk in the summer months before the election, laying the foundations for “the Bill you can’t afford line”. The April Budget buttressed these themes as well.  The Coalition successfully framed a vote for Labor as a vote against one’s personal economic interests.

Morrison himself would not be distracted from the message and brought the campaign back on message, no matter what the question: now is not the time to change course when the risk is too great. Liberal nightly tracking polls reinforced message discipline with Coalition support weakening when the message was diluted.

The Coalition campaign focussed on the key electorates that would deliver the government’s return.  The task and strategy were clear, contain the losses in Victoria, shore up vulnerable seats and win key seats in other states.  They targeted and won Wentworth (NSW) and Longman (QLD),and the volatile Tasmanian seats Bass (bereft of the fierce 2016 GetUp campaign) and Braddon, which both had ineffective members, and a further seat in Queensland (Herbert) on the tide of Adani sentiment, plus Lindsay, where Labor had been forced to disendorse its sitting MP.

The Coalition drove the campaign to the end, and in spite of the record number of pre-poll votes, the campaign mattered: post election surveys noted that 40 per cent of voters made up their mind in the last week, including 20 percent on election day itself.  The focus and targets remained:  a Morrison whirlwind of five marginal seats in three states on the last day, with polling booth visits in Bass and Braddon on election morning.

Further, the positioning of Scott Morrison, who proved a unifying and very strong, popular campaigner, as the paramount voice of the Coalition campaign, diminished Labor’s negative attack of Coalition leadership instability and chaos. He addressed the issue of revolving door Prime Ministers effectively, reframing the issue as a clear choice of leaders by saying the Liberals had changed the rules:  if you elected him, you would get him and keep him; if you voted Labor, you would get Shorten, and keep him too.

There were no breakouts; there was no Rudd Gillard tension as in the 2010 and 2013 elections.  In contrast to the reminder of past bad blood at Labor’s 2019 launch – Rudd and Gillard, and Hawke and Keating, tellingly, there were no opportunities to evoke the more recent chaotic past on the Liberal side:  Abbot and Turnbull were not at the 2019 campaign launch, and neither was Howard.  The singular focus on Morrison almost made it seem as if Australia had a new Government. If the Coalition’s past leadership history was not erased, it was not relevant.

From the outset of his Prime Ministership, Morrison framed both himself and his government as inclusive and down to earth, acknowledging the concerns of everyday Australians, themes framed in the everyday, which carried into the campaign.  It was a voice that rang with authenticity:

We’re on your side. We’re on your side because we share beliefs and values in common. As you go about everything you do each day – getting up in the morning, getting off to work, turning up on site, getting the parent you’re caring for up in the morning, exchanging that smile each and every day, getting the kids off to school, getting home at night, perhaps if you’re lucky, a bit of time together, those happy moments, too often too far between with the pressures that so many families face today… The Liberal Party is on your side, the National Party is on your side.

The values and beliefs that we hold is what connect us all. If you have a go in this country, you will get a go. There is a fair go for those who have a go. That is what fairness in Australia means. This is something we hold very dear to us. It is why we believe Australians should keep more of what they earn. It is why we believe that those who have come from so many different parts of the world to this country to create this country – and demonstrated that by their very actions – they have sought that fair go in this country as we all have whenever we got here. Ten generations ago, or 10 minutes ago.

The Labor Campaign

In contrast to the Coalition campaign, Labor’s lacked focus and drive.  Wedged between the need to protect its inner city seats from the Greens and to retain its working class trade union base, Labor’s message lacked clarity and unity, pitted some Australians against others and made it vulnerable to the Coalition attack on its taxation reform policies.

Labor’s campaign was diffuse in both its target seat strategy and its policy agenda.  It spread its resources across too many seats and failed to deliver the policy detail necessary to convince voters of the future benefits of its complex, radical, and divisive policy agenda and to assuage their concerns about the immediate impact of tax reform to them and their families.

In short, Labor targeted too many seats, failed to explain its policy agenda either sufficiently or persuasively with inconsistent and vague messaging unable to reconcile the competing interests of the progressive inner city residents with those of suburban, regional and rural Australia.

There was a clear disconnect between Labor’s rhetoric and the reality on the ground.  This was exemplified by the Adani mine issue, where the climate change message to the inner city was utterly toxic in the regions where mining means jobs and prosperity.

Labor’s leader, Bill Shorten, who had consistently trailed in the polls as preferred Prime Minister, was seen as wooden and failed to engage voters.  He was not across the details of his policies and was clearly annoyed and dismissive when questioned about them, labelling questions about the cost of the climate change policy as “dumb”. This attitude was hardwired into Shorten’s approach well before the campaign began.  At the Labor National Conference in December 2018 Shorten was confronted by protesters opposed to the Adani mine and offshore detention immediately before the start of his keynote speech.  After the protesters were removed, Shorten responded by sidestepping and dismissing both issues, saying:  “I know these people are well intentioned, but the only people they are helping is the current government of Australia.”

This dismissive and divisive attitude proved contagious within the Labor Party.  When asked about the franking credits issue, shadow treasurer, Chris Bowen, responded that if self funded retirees (all 1.4 million of them) didn’t like it they could vote against Labor.  Labor’s lack of detail and clarity, married to a dismissive attitude about cost impacts, made the policies appear risky and threatening to voters.

Shorten’s reversion to his National Conference response to protesters frequently became a campaign distraction which hindered the promotion of Labor’s message.  Refusing to engage a worker in a high vis vest earning $250,000 a year when he asked how Labor’s policies would affect him and his family, bundling a Queensland candidate into the car when she was asked about Adani, and equivocal answers by Shorten about the future of the Adani mine became the story and raised questions about Labor’s policy benefit.  Bob Brown’s caravan to Queensland only served to harden opinions, weaken Shorten’s environmental credentials and drive Queenslanders in their droves into the arms of the Coalition.

In the final days of the campaign, Shorten tried to don the mantle of Whitlam in Bankstown and Hawke at the John Curtin Hotel. While Morrison canvassed for votes in marginal seats, Shorten appeared complacent.  It reeked of arrogance and only served to remind many Australians that Bill Shorten was no Gough Whitlam and certainly no Bob Hawke.  It appealed to his “true believers base” rather than to the electorate at large.

Labor campaigned on a broad “good for Australia” platform of action on Climate Change, redistributing wealth, more money for health, education and disability services, pay rises for some workers and intervention in wage setting.  This was underpinned by a theme of “them and us”, demanding an end to unfair benefits and tax breaks that benefited only the “top end of town”.

Labor’s lack of detail about how they would pay for their spending and how their promises would benefit individuals made their policies look broad brush and impersonal. On the other hand, the Coalition’s counterattack was tangible, branding Labor’s policies as taxes on houses and retirees, making them immediately personal: hip pocket pain.

By attacking policy settings and financial instruments that support creation of personal wealth, Labor failed to recognise the fundamentally aspirational nature of Australian voters.  It failed to recognise that many of those whose votes it sought, had or wanted an investment property, or had parents who had shares with franking credits. Instead of creating a coalition of supporters, Labor built a battalion of enemies: self funded retirees and their families, well remunerated trade unionists, accountants (whom Bowen attacked), ute-owning tradies, and small business owners.

Labor’s fairness slogan was a two-edged sword, feeding a “them vs us” theme. The funding of Labor’s social agenda was estimated at $154 billion over a decade.  Of that 60 per cent or almost $91 billion would come from the end of franking credits and the changes in negative gearing.  For many who had played by the rules, this disproportionate share of the burden seemed like retribution and significant financial pain rather than fairness.  The categorisation of these people, many of modest means, as the “big end of town” rubbed salt into the wound.   In short, Labor painted its policy canvas with broad brush strokes from a palette of divisive, class warfare pigments.

The lack of policy detail and policy inflexibility had another unintended consequence: the spectre of future changes to the tax regime raising the questions of “who and what’s next?”  In the words of one Labor insider, the policy agenda “scared people”.

In the world of politics, ‘good for me and my family’ always trumps ‘good for the country’, and Morrison trumped Shorten in spades.

The Morrison Government

Morrison is now Prime Minister in his own right and in a very strong position.  By virtue of his victory, he is free of factional tensions for the moment and has a Parliament without factional lightening rods Turnbull or Abbott.

He has a demoralised Opposition and is also likely to have more receptive Senate.

For the Coalition Government, there is an opportunity to occupy the Centre, to stop being held factional hostage, to reach out and to engage with people about issues. Its communications must continue the empathetic style of the campaign by acknowledging the concerns of the broad community.

This is as much about how you communicate, as what you do. Climate change is a good example, where an acknowledgement of the issue and the actions taken which address it should be addressed and sold, rather than ignored. Climate change is ultimately about energy:  any way forward on the issue has to address price, reliability of supply, and emissions; in other words, it’s about giving people and business certainty and a sense of control over their future, which is the type of leadership people want and expect from government. The combining of Energy and Emissions in one portfolio is a good first step.

For both sides of politics there are risks. The Coalition needs to be realistic about the size and nature of its victory.  In spite of the description of the win as a miracle, it was not a landslide, and a by-election or two, or an unruly Queenslander could bring about instability.  The crossbench in the Senate will need careful handling and most probably mean compromises on the Coalition’s agenda.

Labor needs to acknowledge that they got it wrong, they ran a bad campaign. The fact is when you lose it’s a bad campaign.  The worst thing they can do is fall into the “we wuz robbed argument”, whether it be News Corp, a Coalition scare campaign, Clive Palmer buying the election for the Coalition, behemoths or leviathans.  It must resist the temptation to think that they nearly won, that policies just need better communication and they’ll be right on the night in 2022.

While the electoral pendulum looks more promising for the Coalition, with some previously marginal Coalition seats looking much safer, the fact is that many of those seats could swing again in an election contest based on other issues.  Seats like Dawson, Capricornia and Herbert are not safe Coalition seats, and Northern Tasmania is notoriously fickle.  The political reality is sobering for both parties: there are 25 seats with margins of under four percent, including 15 for Labor and one for an Independent.

Other factors will need to be considered by Coalition strategists.  The demographic pendulum is swinging against the Coalition. The fact is there will be fewer Boomers the next time and the time after that.  The Millennials and beyond will continue to grow and grow up with a different world view and different concerns from their parents and grandparents.

The challenge before the Morrison Government is how to create a vision of Australia, which the younger generation embraces, where individuals can make a difference, where merit and hard work not only deserve reward but deliver it, where greater wealth enables a society to be compassionate and caring, and finally, where Australians by nature and inclination gravitate toward good rather than bad and do not need the dead hand of government to mandate how they live their lives and shape the future.

23 comments for: Peter Poggioli: How and why Scott Morrison pulled off his surprise win in Australia

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