Australia’s election “miracle” has given Prime Minister Scott Morrison the opportunity to seize the agenda after a tumultuous period in the nation’s politics. But if the winner takes all, it is back to the future for the losing Labor party, which failed with its “big target” strategy under Bill Shorten.
For two years, the opposition center-left party had maintained an apparent election-winning lead over the ruling center-right Liberal-National Coalition, which had suffered the trauma of changing leaders twice in three years.
Shorten reportedly had already organized movers for a shift to his likely new residence in Canberra, ahead of Australia’s May 18 election.
Instead, it was the Liberal party leader nicknamed “ScoMo” proclaiming a “miracle” victory on election night, while Shorten and his devastated supporters attempted to come to grips with losing the “unlosable” election.
“Not a single opinion poll predicted the result – we all knew it was going to be close, that it might be a hung parliament, but no poll predicted a majority government for the Coalition,” said political analyst Dr. Paul Williams.
The Griffith University senior lecturer attributed the result to “a rejection of Labor’s potentially high taxes and Shorten’s tepid leadership.”
Shorten’s Labor party had presented an ambitious agenda of increased government spending on education, health, and public transport, along with vowing to increase renewable energy usage. The plan was attacked by Coalition adverts as “the bill Australia can’t afford.”
The extra costs would be paid for through higher taxes “on the top end of town,” including on property and stock investors along with self-funded retirees.
In contrast, Morrison’s party pledged to create jobs, cut taxes, and produce a budget surplus while attacking Labor for its reported A$387 billion (US$270 billion) extra tax burden.
Gene Tunny, principal at Adept Economics, suggested Labor’s tax proposals had alarmed voters. There were also concerns over mining jobs, particularly in regional areas, following Labor’s mixed messages over Indian company Adani’s proposed Carmichael thermal coal mine in central Queensland.
“The Adani factor, that concern about jobs in regional Queensland was much stronger than I expected,” he said.
“Labor may also have underestimated how the public would interpret their tax policy. The public saw these tax changes and started to worry: what else might they have in mind?
“We even had the issue of inheritance or death taxes come up, even though the opposition wasn’t proposing it. But they found that scaremongering hard to counter as they had such a big tax grab to begin with.”
Williams attributed the “unusually” inaccurate opinion polls to a number of factors, including undecided voters and sampling.
“While there appears to have been no late swing — pre-poll voters were just as anti-Labor as election day voters — it could be a case of a large number of undecided voters, up to one in six in the last week, disproportionately siding with the Coalition,” he said.
He also pointed to problems with sampling, since left-leaning voters could be more willing to engage with pollsters’ “robo-calls,” along with “herding,” where pollsters tweak “rogue” results to reflect their competitors’.
The biggest error was in the primary vote, with the Coalition and Labor portrayed as roughly similar in the high 30 percent range, whereas the Coalition won 41 percent and Labor 33 percent.
In the two party-preferred vote, the polls were far closer, with Labor seen leading by 51 percent to 49 percent but losing by 48.5 percent to 51.5 percent on election day, just outside the polls’ 2.5 percent margin of error.
The narrow margins were reflected in the final results. As of June 4, the Coalition had secured 77 seats in the 150-seat lower house, up just one from the 2016 poll, with Labor on 68 seats, down one, and other minor parties holding the remainder.
In the upper house, the Coalition was projected to hold 35 of its 76 seats, up four, with Labor holding 26 and the Greens nine (both unchanged). Yet with the support of One Nation and other right-wing senators, the Coalition’s legislation could still pass the Senate, with the support of other centrist independents.
Williams suggested the tight result could make the next election challenging for the Coalition.
“It’s very close – if the Coalition loses just a couple of seats in 2022 it will be in minority government, or even out of office. Labor has got to get its formula right, but if they get the right leader with a small target [strategy], the next election could be a blood bath for the Coalition,” he said.
Vowing to “burn for the Australian people every single day,” Morrison thanked “quiet Australians” including small business owners and farmers for his victory.
In announcing his ministry, which includes seven female Cabinet members, Morrison pledged to create 1.25 million more jobs over the next five years, maintain budget surpluses, deliver tax relief, increase public spending, and “keep Australians safe.”
First on the agenda for the re-elected government is its promised tax cuts, while Morrison made his initial foreign policy move by visiting the Solomon Islands and pledging A$250 million in infrastructure investment as part of a Pacific “step-up.”
Asked what to expect of the 46th parliament, Williams said it would be “more of the same.”
“There will be fewer moving parts – the Senate will be a little bit easier to deal with. It’s going to be a smaller role for government, except in places like border protection. We may hear more about religious freedoms. But we’ll see more of the Morrison stamp – he delivered the party room a victory, so they will give him almost a blank check,” he said.
The election loss of former Liberal leader and Prime Minister Tony Abbott has also removed a potential obstacle to Morrison’s authority on issues such as energy policy.
Despite outspending the major parties with a reported A$60 million on election advertising, Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party failed to win a single seat in parliament.
Yet the outspoken businessman told reporters he had “saved Australia from a trillion dollars of extra taxes and costs,” thanks to a preference deal with the Coalition.
Labor’s Shorten attacked Palmer in his post-election address to his colleagues, saying “we were up against corporate leviathans… spending an unprecedented hundreds of millions of dollars advertising, telling lies, spreading fear.”
However, the party’s move to replace Shorten with his former rival, Anthony Albanese, has marked its move back toward the center, with the Sydney-based lawmaker vowing to bridge the gap between city and rural voters.
“We need to stop this issue of trying to divide Australian against Australian,” he told reporters on June 4.
“All Australians are deserving of respect, that’s the starting point. Once we do that we’ll be a long way on the path to having a policy that can win the support of Australians wherever they live.”
While supporting the government’s promised tax cuts to low and middle-income earners, Albanese has signaled a battle over more generous tax cuts to higher earners pledged by mid-2024.
A fiscal boost could prove essential amid worries over faltering domestic and global growth, despite the “Lucky Country’s” record-beating economic growth streak.
On June 4, the Reserve Bank of Australia cut its official cash rate to a new record low of 1.25 percent, amid subdued inflation, sluggish consumer spending, and concerns over a housing price slide in the biggest cities of Sydney and Melbourne.
Tunny said lower taxes would benefit the economy, but Morrison could look to an even broader agenda.
“The prime minister has so much political capital now he should provide the leadership to make some changes,” he said, suggesting such areas as Commonwealth-state relations, energy policy, and consumption tax along with the National Disability Insurance Scheme.
In the meantime, Australia likely will “muddle through” with below-average growth, Tunny said, helped by continued population growth.
“The last six years have been a bit chaotic – the federal government hasn’t achieved a great deal, but Morrison and [Treasurer] Josh Frydenberg have started to right the ship. People are putting faith in them that we won’t have to worry about the chaos of the five years beforehand,” he said.
For Morrison, preventing further chaos and ensuring voters relax again over federal politics could prove key to his re-election prospects. For Labor and its new leader, it is back to the drawing board as it ponders what might have been.