Terry Barnes advised Tony Abbott when he was a Cabinet minister in John Howard’s government. He is also a fellow of the Institute of Economic Affairs.
Those who read my preview piece for Conservative Home about yesterday’s Australian general election rightly may have thought me a trifle pessimistic about the prospects of Scott Morrison’s Liberal-National Party government.
I was, however, reflecting the collective pessimism of the Government’s own supporters, including those in the government itself. Before yesterday, Cabinet ministers were preparing to clear out their ministerial offices for an incoming Labor administration led by Bill Shorten .
That the opposite has happened – that Morrison has been returned as Prime Minister in his own right, and a beaten Shorten has consigned himself to the dustbin of history by resigning his leadership is, as Morrison himself declared in claiming victory, a miracle.
Even on the day, final opinion polls indicated a clear Labor victory. Exit polls did the same. Absolutely nobody predicted the states of Queensland and Tasmania would swing so decisively to the Coalition, with half a dozen Labor seats falling while winning only one from the Liberals in return. When the expected large pro-Labor swing in its strongest state, Victoria, didn’t eventuate and Liberal seats in Western Australia held easily against strong Labor challenges, the election was done and dusted.
The only real disappointment for the government was that Tony Abbott, the former Prime Minister, was heavily defeated in his own seat by a nominally centre-right but aggressively climate activist independent. Abbott faced a perfect storm: disgracefully demonised personally for his conservatism on social issues and climate change, and targeted by a lavishly resourced campaign by political opponents and activists. He can draw some comfort, however, that resources thrown at him were diverted from other at-risk government seats, and that his falling as the government was returned was akin to Moses gazing on the Promised Land as he died.
As the dust settles, several salient factors help account for this stunning result.
On Friday I wrote hopefully that Australian voters are not easily tempted by shiny toys and glib promises. It seems I was right. Labor’s sweeping redistributive, soft-socialist agenda, funded by an estimated tax grab of A$387 billion over a decade, was seen as unrealistic, irresponsible and economically dangerous. Voters reacted strongly against it and Shorten’s messages of class and intergenerational envy.
The silliest thing written so far about the Australian result is a New York Times comment that “The conservative victory also adds Australia to a growing list of countries that have shifted rightward through the politics of grievance”. The truth is the opposite. In the last two Australian elections, Labor sought to build Left coalitions of grievance against the government, throwing promises and money at anything that would appeal to the disaffected. On Saturday, the Australian electorate decisively rejected such confected and dangerous populist politics of Left grievance.
Jeremy Corbyn, take note.
But essentially the government – specifically Morrison – won thanks to Morrison’s near-solo campaigning effort. Dogged by the Liberals’ Abbott-Malcolm Turnbull-Abbott leadership revolving door, he successfully convinced Australians that not only had his party reunited under him, but he was one of them in terms of his mainstream values, social outlook and his very ordinariness. Shorten, on the other hand and despite almost six years as Labor leader, never won over the electorate: it’s no exaggeration to say that had they a more popular and likeable leader, Labor would still have romped home.
In response to Labor’s redistributive munificence, all Morrison promised was stability and a continuation of the government’s economic management, which has kept the Australian economy growing and created over a million new jobs with low inflation. The Prime Minister bet his house that the electorate would endorse his simple offering and his demonstrated personal competence and mastery of policy and detail: he has been proven spectacularly right.
Boris Johnson, as he plans his Conservative leadership campaign, should take note too.
As for Shorten, he complacently assumed the government’s leadership woes and his own programme would propel him into government. He had good reason: no reputable opinion poll has had the government leading from soon after the 2016 general election. Unsurprisingly, Shorten and Labor became complacent, even arrogant: his campaign-end mass rally proclaiming Labor’s imminent victory was premature and counter-productive – just as Neil Kinnock’s triumphalist Sheffield extravaganza in 1992 almost certainly turned off many voters then flirting with voting Labour.
What will resound in Australian politics in years to come will be how the centre-right deals with the politics of climate change. The Left and evangelistic activists consistently have berated the government as failing to address global warming as they would wish it, accusing it as not being serious about reducing carbon emissions, and denouncing its support for a massive Queensland coal mining project promoted by India’s Adani company to export high-quality coal to the Indian energy market.
In safe, affluent Liberal seats, where mining and energy sector jobs aren’t an issue and climate activism, let alone electricity bills, is easily afforded, these attacks resonated and caused significant swings to the Left. But in less affluent suburban and regional seats, especially in Queensland where the massive Adani mine will be established, concerns about jobs and power bills trumped moralistic environmental activism. Tony Abbott summed it up perfectly in his dignified concession speech: “when climate change is a moral issue, we Liberals do it tough. But when climate change is an economic issue, as tonight’s result showed, we do very, very well indeed”.
To stay in office, Morrison and his returned government must try to reconcile these two vastly different constituencies on this fault line issue, which is the Brexit equivalent to Australian politics. But having achieved the miracle of winning the unwinnable election, surely it’s not beyond him.