June 2022

Comment

A defeat for the true deceivers

By Richard Denniss
Image of Scott Morrison, May 21, 2022

Scott Morrison, May 21, 2022. © Asanka Ratnayake / Getty Images

The demise of Morrison’s Liberals paves the way for a transformative parliament

If a party loses its heartland, does that mean it has lost its heart? The Liberals didn’t just lose once “safe seats” such as Kooyong, Goldstein, Wentworth and Mackellar to independents, they lost the seat of Ryan to the Greens, and Higgins – Peter Costello’s old seat – to Labor. While former Liberal MPs such as Tim Wilson claim they were attacked from all directions, the reality is that former Liberal voters ran fleeing from their party in all directions.

While much has been made of the fact that only 32 per cent of voters put a “1” next to their local Labor candidate, what is far more significant, for both the parliament and the country, is that for the first time there is a super-majority of parliamentarians who, like the Australian public, support stronger action on climate change, corruption and gender equality. The composition of the parliament will help Anthony Albanese’s government far more than a slightly higher primary vote.

Countless polls over decades have shown that the Australian public has been streets ahead of its parliamentarians on the issues that have now cost the Liberals power. While Labor and the Coalition never seemed to tire of arm wrestling over who would represent a handful of blue-collar workers in a handful of marginal regional seats, Australian voters grew weary of that boring battle and, on May 21, they changed not just their minds but also their votes. In turn, they changed the parliament in a way we have never seen before.

Scott Morrison was banking on voters in seats such as Kooyong putting their identity as Liberal voters ahead of issues that were important to them. The cold calculus – that inner-city Liberal voters would rather vote against Labor than for the policies they wanted – has been winning the Liberal Party elections for decades. But this time something snapped. Like a tearful boyfriend trying to save a doomed relationship, Josh Frydenberg urged voters to “Keep Josh” but he promised nothing new. And hundreds of thousands of voters changed their behaviour knowing that the Liberals would never change theirs.

John Howard knew Liberal voters wanted climate action – that’s why he promised an emissions trading scheme in the dying days of his government. Tony Abbott knew the same, which is why he spent billions of public dollars on dodgy carbon credits to hide his inaction. Malcolm Turnbull knew, too, and where his predecessors were punished by voters for doing too little he was punished by his party room for trying to do too much to reduce Australia’s fossil-fuel emissions. Scott Morrison was never accused of that crime and, in turn, his party lost a dozen of its safest seats to candidates promising to do more than him.

Inaction was Morrison’s greatest strength. He knew that doing important things caused waves, made enemies and, most importantly, was a distraction from the task of blaming, buck-passing and bullying to push the consequences of his apathy onto others. Doing nothing also allowed Morrison to court the millions of voters who most fear change, mainly older men and those in regional Australia. For them, Morrison’s slothful response to the economic, environment and social winds reshaping Australia offered salvation and a safe harbour.

At the 2019 election, Morrison bet the Liberals’ house that he could win some of the lowest income electorates in the country by promising to protect voters from the change that those in the big cities were demanding. Morrison knew that when the “inner-city elites” mocked his view that electric cars would ruin the weekend, older voters in his key seats would be reminded of both how much they had to fear from city dwellers and how little Morrison would do to drive any change. And, as history records, Morrison’s bet paid off.

But not this time.

While Morrison carefully calibrated his message in 2019 to make it almost inaudible to the inner-city ear, in 2022 he was forced to shout it from the rooftops. Not only was he a known quantity this time around, his National Party colleagues were far more bellicose. Barnaby Joyce was once described as Australia’s best retail politician, but even if that were ever true, not even the best salesman can sell milk that is years past its use-by date.

Morrison’s miraculous result in 2019 was based on promises that he couldn’t keep. He promised the regions he would expand coal and gas production while promising the city he would tackle climate change. He told voters he would deliver a corruption watchdog and told his colleagues they had nothing to fear. He promised to plant a billion trees, build 47 new car parks, cut spending, cut taxes, deliver budget surpluses and restore trust in Australian politics. He failed to deliver on them all. But all those failures were not why he lost the election. He lost the election because he bet that inner-city elites would put their identity as Liberal voters ahead of their interests in making Australia a better place.

Imagine the shock in Tim Wilson’s office when the former Liberal member for Goldstein, Ian Macphee, came out in support of independent Zoe Daniel, the former journalist who now holds what was until recently one of the Liberal’s crown jewels. Like his colleagues, Wilson knew that his values, his policies and his priorities were at odds with his electorate, but he bet that “his” voters would stick with him regardless. And he lost.

The Liberal Party treated voters in its “blue-ribbon” seats with such contempt that it’s not at all clear they are winnable next time around. Indeed, there are five more seats for the Liberals to chase that are more marginal than Kooyong, and all of them are in the regions. It’s not clear that the remaining Liberals would see Kooyong as a must-win at the next election, and it’s even less clear that the Nationals would let them chase it.

Climate change was never a “woke” issue of mere symbolic importance to latte-sipping lefties with no real problems in their lives. It is the most pressing problem the world faces. According to our Pacific neighbours, our determination to build new coalmines is one of their major foreign policy concerns. According to the European Union, Australian exports will face tariffs if we don’t impose our own carbon price. But even when Boris Johnson told us to lift our game, Morrison’s Liberal Party responded with a smirk instead of a solution.

Like climate action, demands for a federal integrity commission and greater respect for women were never issues of “identity politics”. They were always issues of economic management, competent government, respect for the rule of law and personal safety.

A record number of Australians have now voted for minor parties and independents; it’s a trend that has been apparent for decades. But, just as few notice a dam is filling until it overflows, few paid attention to the declining market share of the major parties until a flood of new candidates was elected.

The “identity” of a record number of Australians is now that they see themselves as voters who can make a difference rather than people with no way to make their voices heard. For decades those who lived in safe seats knew that, come election time, it would be those in marginal seats who would be listened to. But after 2022 the idea of a safe seat is all but dead.

In the once blue-ribbon seat of Bradfield, held by former communications minister Paul Fletcher, the Liberal vote fell by 15 per cent. Trent Zimmerman’s vote fell by more than 13 per cent in North Sydney, and in Mackellar, which covers much of Sydney’s Northern Beaches, Jason Falinski saw his primary vote fall by 11 per cent while local GP Sophie Scamps romped home with an incredible primary vote of 39 per cent. All up, 15 Coalition seats saw their primary vote fall by double digits.

Labor also learnt a painful lesson about the new fragility of voter support. Kristina Keneally was parachuted into the “safe” seat of Fowler ahead of a Labor candidate with strong links to the local Vietnamese community, only to be defeated by an independent with, you guessed it, strong links to the local Vietnamese community. Labor’s primary vote there fell by an enormous 18 per cent.

One of the major barriers to people voting for independents has long been the belief that it is a “wasted vote” or that such candidates can’t win. The fact that so many independents did win in 2022 will no doubt help each of them hold their seats next time, and will see even more independents challenge in 2025.

So where to from here?

Labor will need the support of the Greens and minor parties in the Senate. And come the next election, it will also need the Greens and independents to hold the seats they just won from the Liberals.

Labor may only have a slim majority of members of parliament, but it has a policy agenda that is supported by an overwhelming majority of that parliament. Albanese is right to insist he will focus on the changes he has already promised, and the Greens and independents are right to insist that they are in parliament to push for even more. The whole point of parliament is to thrash out such conflicts in public. If done well, it’s likely that voters will get a lot more good policies than they are used to, while the Liberals – or what remains of them – fight over the fruits of failure.

By focusing on issues with overwhelming public and parliamentary support, a Labor government has the opportunity not just to deliver big reforms but also to reset the public’s faith in the role of government as a force for good. It may even restore faith in democracy itself.

Just as the passage of marriage equality laws was transformative of our politics, the resolution of the climate wars, the creation of a federal corruption watchdog, the pursuit of an Indigenous voice to parliament, and a genuine effort to improve women’s safety and economic situation all have the potential to raise Australians’ expectations of what government is for.

If the remaining Liberals jump on board for such a ride, as they ultimately did with marriage equality, then our body politic will be even stronger for it. And if they act once again as the party to protect the past, at the next election the choice faced by voters in the Liberals’ once heartland seats will be all the easier. And what could be more liberal than offering voters a choice?

The next three years will not be easy, and they will not be without scandal or conflict or partisan politics. But whatever the problems that come Labor and Australia’s way, they will be addressed by a parliament with a super-majority of support for solving some of the biggest problems we face. If Anthony Albanese focuses on solving big issues, he has the opportunity to permanently change the identity not just of swinging voters, but of Australia.

Richard Denniss
Richard Denniss is the chief economist at The Australia Institute.

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