Where to from here?

Where to from here

I’m pulling the blog out of hiatus early owing to the unusual events surrounding the 2019 election, which I felt couldn’t go without comment. I still won’t be back to regular posting until some time in June.

Political analysts around the country were taken completely by surprise by the outcome of the 2019 federal election.1 I was certainly one of those expecting a Labor victory last night, though I did not in any way expect a landslide. Most analysts got that much right: that it was a tight and tightening election. Hindsight is of course 20/20 and it’s easy to say now why Labor failed to win the unloseable election: a repeat of the failed strategy tried by Hewson in ‘93, the presidentialisation of Australian politics, and the Trump Effect.2 Many expected the death of Bob Hawke to have been a possible boon for Labor,3 as it brought back into the collective consciousness a past Labor leader who had been successful and popular. The problem is that Bill Shorten is his opposite in many ways, and that many people remember the Hawke-Keating years and the fact that they heralded certain economic and social changes which many did not welcome, even if they were necessary.

The Fightback Effect

Undoubtedly there was an element of the ‘93 election in the ‘19 election. We had an opposition in a strong position to overturn an unpopular government racked by leadership instability, and a government gifted the opportunity by said opposition to criticise their proposed policies for years in advance. Labor was not entirely unwise, although it was certainly quite idealistic of them to overestimate the public’s interests in the nuance of public policy. Labor put out its controversial policies years in advance in the hope that they could both A) claim a mandate to implement them, and B) let the government exhaust its energy attacking them before it would really matter. In truth, the policies were needed in order to fund the meaty policies unloaded during the election: Medicare expansion to address cancer treatment, free dental care to the elderly, free TAFE spots, etc. The problem was that the last Labor government is in too recent memory to allow a Labor opposition to campaign on controversial policies around tax and climate, both sore spots for the Labor Rudd/Gillard government, and the Coalition exploited this. In fact, it was the only attack the Coalition could make since it has no policies of its own, and because people’s political memories stretch back far enough they got scared and cowed by the idea of a big-thinking Labor government.

Undoubtedly, Labor would have done better to stay quiet and present themselves as the stable alternative to the Liberals, without articulating any large policies. Once in government they would be free to use the boost from incumbency to put forward big ideas at the next election. They put too much forward at once for people to digest, and people don’t have the patience to actually look at and understand complex public policies. It’s much easier to understand the prime minister screeching “taxes on retirees” than the opposition leader calmly talking about “dividend imputations and franking credits.”

Again, I’m not going to claim I had some sort of crystal ball. I didn’t even consider the Fightback Effect in my pre-election ponderances and predictions because I thought Labor’s strategy of big spends during the campaign would work to hide the controversial policies put out years ago.

The Trump Effect

Here is something I did anticipate, however. I certainly did consider the possibility that the Coalition was under-polling in Newspoll owing to people under-reporting their political dispositions, particularly those who were leaning away from Labor and towards One Nation and United Australia and were planning to follow those parties How to Vote cards — preferencing the Coalition. The question is why people were lurching to right wing populist parties and towards the right in general.

In short, Adani. In that single word is encompassed some serious polarisations happening in Australia and across the Western and particularly English-speaking world. The growing gentry of educated middle class voters is resented by the working class voters for their social views in large part. Middle class voters tend to be pro-immigration and pro-environment, and put jobs and the economy second on their list because of their own personal economic security. For working class voters it is the inverse. When a person comes along saying they’ll give the middle finger to the people who they perceive as not caring about them, and at the same time promising to take things back to “the way they were” it’s easy to see why, frightened by the reforms they’re being offered by one side, they’ll stick with the side offering nothing and giving first preference to the middle-finger candidate as an aside. The Coalition is pro-Adani, they want the coal mine in central Queensland to go ahead, no matter how much subsidy it requires, because they consider the temporary creation of a handful of jobs in the area to be more important than the consequences for the environment. This is obviously short term thinking, and voters can’t be blamed for short-term thinking, especially when they’re living paycheque to paycheque. However, the Coalition can be blamed for short term thinking; they had the opportunity to articulate an alternative, for economic reform or some social policies to ease the economic transition for blue collar workers. Perhaps some major infrastructure projects across Queensland instead to generate jobs.

All of that said, Labor is pro-Adani as well, but it’s about perceptions and optics; because Labor pays lip-service to the environment to keep one part of their base happy, they risk alienating other parts of their base. And that’s exactly what happened. People in North and Central Queensland, and in other parts of the country where economic growth is slow and economic inequality is severe, people couldn’t give two shits about the environment, and who can blame them? They just want answers to their everyday problems, about finding a job and keeping meals on the table. It’s partly about economics (“I want a job”) and partly about culture (“screw the moralistic southerners.4”) That’s the Trump Effect in action in Australia. It doesn’t matter whether Labor’s policies will actually benefit working class people long term; it’s about optics, culture, and short-term thinking. The Democrats suffered for it in 2016, and may well suffer for it again in 2020, just as Labor suffered for it last night.


An aside is to mention the tendency in Australian politics towards an increasingly leader-oriented electoral contest. Bill Shorten was never popular, and he was not even slightly charismatic. In my view, Morrison doesn’t have the X-factor either, but he could think and speak on his feet pretty effectively, and in a contest of leaders this matters more than it should. Whether leader-oriented (‘presidentialised’) electoral contest are good or bad for Australian democracy is something I’ll leave till another time.

Where to from here?

That’s the big question that both parties are asking. Labor mostly, but the Coalition as well. Though the Liberals and Nationals have won, and have a winning strategy for the time being, they have little political mandate to implement reforms in an economy that is crying out for change. Inequality, wage suppression, joblessness, and housing scarcity will all continue to get worse and the Coalition has no practical way of fixing these issues because they didn’t put forward any policies and can’t claim a thumping mandate to do as they please as they likely will only have a modest majority. Couple that with their flimsy political budget surplus, and they don’t have much room to move at all. That’s in part why they won — because they promised not to rock the boat — but what happens when somebody needs to steer the boat to avoid some rocks? A recession is coming, we’re due for one, and we’re totally unprepared.

Labor is facing a much tougher task, of course. It has a raft of policies it will now need to throw overboard as it has no mandate for them, but it will spend the next three years fending off criticism for said policies. Undoubtedly, the 2022 election will be fought just like the last from the Coalition, based on fear-mongering. They’ll claim, no matter how little policy detail Labor puts forward, that they are going to implement everything they said they would in 2019, and had implemented back in 2007-2013. Establishing a clean slate will be the most difficult task the next leader has, and it will be made especially difficult because all the leadership contenders who have thus far put up their hands are old blood; they were there in the Rudd/Gillard years, and they stood by Shorten’s side as he led them to defeat. A fresh face is what they need if they’re going to have any hope of establishing a clean slate, but factional politics and the weighting to the caucus in leadership primaries make this impossible. Not to mention that any candidate is required both to be an existing member of parliament, and to be backed by at least 20% of the caucus just to be nominated. By definition they must be establishment. The only thing they can do which might help, would be to back whoever gets the backing of the general membership. The caucus over-rode the overwhelming support from the base to install Anthony Albanese in 2013 in favour of Bill Shorten; they can’t do that again or they risk disillusioning their remaining loyalists and propping up another unpopular leader. They need to avoid the mistake of British Labour and it’s efforts to keep Jeremy Corbyn out of leadership. Albanese and Plibersek are no Corbyn, but if they have the backing of the foot soldiers the generals should fall into line or face a mutiny.

Aside from the issues each party faces, there’s the issues the public now faces. No party will ever again put forward big-picture ideas; both sides will now be allergic to serious reform and will be more reactive than proactive in dealing with issues as they arise. Everything will be about personality of the leader, and the branding of the party; policies will take a back seat. This short-term thinking will be bad for the economy and for political debate in this country. Everything will be even more greatly simplified and dumbed-down, especially in the commercial media, and people will know less and less what they’re actually getting when they go to the polls to cast their vote. People will be more likely to drift to populist and niche or extremist parties that will be the only ones who have nothing to lose and can actually provide ‘solutions’ whatever they happen to be. I suspect Clive Palmer and Pauline Hanson may well have a good future in this environment. I also suspect that Australian political scientists will be pointing to 2019 as the year that things changed...by staying the same.

  1. Votes are still being counted, but there is no path to the widely-expected Labor victory ↩︎

  2. When I refer to the Trump effect, I’m referring specifically to the backlash to the socioeconomic changes caused by neoliberal internationalism, which causes a drift in working class votes to the right. This is not a uniquely Trump or American phenomenon, but he best embodies it. ↩︎

  3. I recognise the poor taste of framing a death in political terms, but politics is very rarely in anything but poor taste. ↩︎

  4. i.e. people in Melbourne and Sydney, as opposed to Cairns or Townsville ↩︎