Australian elections: no sweeping populist victory

By Douglas Hynd
June 4, 2019

The unexpected return of the Liberal National Party coalition to Government in Australia at the election on 18 May 2019 resulted in a kneejerk overreaction among commentators. Three weeks down the track we are probably sufficiently over the shock to attempt a more informed assessment of what happened and what it might portend. In that vein I come to offer nuance and not panic. Nothing of a populist revolt on the scale or significance of Trump, or Brexit can be discerned in the entrails of the result. I should note, however, that the implications of the election for a range of policy issues, not least the development of an effective contribution to the emergency of climate change may be both substantial and serious in the longer term.

It looked more exciting on the night

The initial reaction as the numbers flowed in on the night of the election was that there had been a substantial swing to the coalition. Now we have a final count, the result is less dramatic. In the House of Representatives, the lower house, out of 151 seats, the Liberal National Party Coalition (the Coalition) has 77 seats, the Labour Party (ALP) 68 seats, and a further six seats are in the hands of minor parties and independents. After providing the Speaker, the Coalition will form a majority government in its own right. When the preferences of voters cast for minor parties and independents are allocated between the two major parties, the Government will have won around 51.8 per cent of the vote as opposed to 48.2 per cent going to the ALP. By that measure there was minimal change when compared to the 2016 election. 

In other words, the Coalition government just flopped over the line with a sigh of relief. After allowing for the effects of a redistribution, the coalition has one more seat, the independents one more seat and the Labor party one less seat than in the previous parliament. This is the sort of majority that could easily be lost in the course of the next three years. If that happened, the government would have to function in a minority mode, scrounging votes where it could, as was the case before the election. On an issue such as climate change it could only rely on one of the six minor parties/ independents.

While counting for the Senate, the upper house, is not yet complete, the likely outcome is that out of 76 seats, the Coalition will have 35 the Labor party 26, and the Greens nine. Of the six remaining seats, three will be held by right-leaning and three by centrist parties. To pass any legislation through the Senate that is opposed by both the Greens and the ALP, the Government will need the votes of four out of those six senators. That will be doable but will require careful negotiation all the way. The result across both houses highlights the reality that Australia remains fairly evenly divided between conservative and progressive tendencies, with caution about change the default setting. 

No populist revolt

This surface stability however, conceals some cross-currents. By historical standards the election was not a good one for the two major parties, the Coalition and the ALP receiving a combined primary vote of 75 per cent, their lowest primary vote in 85 years. The Coalition spent much of the campaign defending its historically safest seats in Melbourne and Sydney, suffering some large swings against it and struggling to win back seats from independents. The attempt to straddle concerns about climate change in urban electorates in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide, angst about the future of jobs in the mining industry, with fear of an uncertain future more generally in coastal electorates in Queensland succeeded, but only narrowly. This outcome was achieved by not actually having a substantive and coherent climate and energy policy.  

While there is a long-term drift away from the two major parties, no major populist insurgency emerged on this occasion. Signs of a populist revolt, a la Brexit, were regionally limited. The One Nation Party vote of over 10 per cent in Queensland was enough to win it a Senate seat. In half a dozen lower house seats in regional Queensland, One Nation scored between 15-20 per cent and in one solitary regional seat in NSW over 22 per cent of the vote. Populism on the right has so far been confined to Queensland, and Western Australia. 

On the left, the ALP continues to struggle with an ongoing cultural and demographic insurgency by the Greens in inner city areas, particularly in Melbourne and Brisbane. The electoral system of compulsory preferential voting in the House of Representatives does not make it easy for populists to overthrow established parties in the way that is possible first past the post systems with voluntary voting. The Senate’s proportional system, based on states and territories, tends to give an advantage to parties who have local roots and can project a regionally recognisable profile in their assault on the major parties. 

The political fallout

There are a number of political consequences of this election result. In the short term at least, the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, will have a free hand within his party having won an election that the party and its members had been bracing itself to lose. He has a further degree of freedom because the former Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, noted for his bomb throwing within the party over the past few years, was defeated by an independent, ironically in a campaign in which climate change was a central issue. 

Against that freedom to set an agenda, Morrison faces the limitation that the coalition did not ask for a mandate from the electorate on anything very much. It ran on a campaign of opposition to the ALP and fear of its policies. The only mandate that it has from the electorate is to not be the Labor Party. What that exactly means, I expect, will be the source of contestation between conflicting factions within the Coalition. Claims of a ‘sweeping victory’ as the basis for a political agenda have their basis only within the terms set by the media’s own expectations and a political imagination that did not see the result coming. 

The tensions arising from the coalition not having a substantive climate change policy for example, have already emerged. The Minister for Resources and Northern Australia started out his tenure by lecturing industry on the need to stand up to bullying environmentalists and banks over investment in fossil fuels. This stance indicates the gap between the scientific and economic realities as seen by industry and the government’s failure to have a coherent policy on decarbonising the economy, including immediately a shift to renewable energy.

It remains to be seen exactly what lessons the ALP draws from its loss at the polls. The most likely outcome on the evidence so far is for a cautious approach to most policy issues. There was certainly a conscious attempt to avoid factional conflict through a managed approach by the factions in settling on a new leader without a contest within the party. While it is far too early to gain a clear picture of exactly how cautious the Opposition will be and where it will seek to differentiate itself from the Government on one specific issue that I actively involved in the early signs are not encouraging. 

The new Shadow Minister for Home Affairs has signalled a continuation of a bipartisan approach by the ALP to the Coalition’s treatment of asylum seekers with no evidence of pushing the government to deal with asylum seekers who have been stuck on Manus Island and Nauru for six years. The failure by either party to offer a path off Manus Island and Nauru for people detained there for up to six years has lead to a total loss of hope and a string of nearly twenty suicide attempts since the election. Political opposition on this question has been left to the Greens while civil society, churches, doctors and welfare and advocacy agencies will continue to provide support and advocacy in the face of a continuing political and moral failure by the major parties.

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© Douglas Hynd is Adjunct Research Fellow at the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture, Charles Sturt University. He is an Ekklesia associate and an Anabaptist active on peace and justice issues, particularly support of asylum seekers. He writes here: doug-subversivevoices.blogspot.com Twitter: @DouginCanberra

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