Australian elections are usually predictable affairs. Typically, the party expected to win does win. But on May 18, that maxim was shattered when Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s conservative Coalition government won Australia’s federal election. The result confounded opinion polls and the prognostications of most of Australia’s political-media class.
Just eight months ago, Australia’s conservative government was on life support, weakened by defections and resignations from its parliamentary ranks and Cabinet—not to mention a war to the political death between former prime ministers Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott. Morrison was seen as a compromise candidate who might diminish the scale of the anticipated electoral thrashing from the Labor party and its leader, Bill Shorten. How then did an apparently dispirited and hopelessly divided minority conservative government win an unwinnable election? There are many reasons, but two are especially worth highlighting.
The first point to keep in mind is that Scott Morrison’s Liberal party is a center-right party. By contrast, Morrison’s predecessor as prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull (dumped by the same Liberal party last year), is certainly not a conservative—nor much of a classical liberal. He’s best described as an inner-city Sydney progressive.
This meant that Turnbull was regularly at odds with most of his own party: a recipe for perpetual strife. Turnbull is, for example, an outspoken advocate of climate change activism. His party is not. In 2017, Turnbull campaigned in favor of changing Australia’s marriage laws. Most of his party’s base—which includes considerable numbers of evangelical Christians and conservative Catholics—were opposed.
The inevitable dissonance caused by a progressive leading a mostly conservative party largely dissolved, however, once Morrison became prime minister. He’s not an intellectually-driven conviction conservative like the former prime minister, Tony Abbott. But Morrison is a conservative and he is skilled at giving pragmatic reasons for center-right policies. Dispensing with Turnbull consequently restored some intellectual and policy coherence to the Coalition government’s conduct. The message for center-right parties throughout the world is this: Conservative parties function better with conservative leaders. Nota bene, Britain’s Tories.
A second reason for the Coalition’s triumph concerns the Labor party. Over the past few years, Labor has steadily drifted leftward, toward very progressive positions. This was on full display during the election campaign. Among other things, Labor promised to raise taxes (including on pensioners!), redistribute wealth, and implement radical energy and environmental policies to fight climate change.
Such positions may play well with affluent inner-city progressives who can afford higher taxes and for whom environmentalism seems to functions as a substitute religion (or, so it appears to me every time I visit my homeland). But they do not resonate with the rest of the country, especially wage-earning Australians who have grown up in a capital-intensive, trading, and natural resources-driven market economy which was, ironically enough, largely created by Labor governments in the 1980s.
In this light, it is not surprising that Labor was pummeled in Queensland and other states rich in natural resources. Yes, inner-city, environmentally-minded progressives managed to unseat Tony Abbott, but Labor’s progressive shift proved politically poisonous everywhere else. The same associations, I suspect, meant that Labor could not convince Australians that a Labor government would not go soft on border security—something Australians across the political spectrum take deadly seriously.
Worries that electing Labor might open the door to a very ideologically-driven progressive government was exacerbated by Shorten’s attack on Morrison’s religious convictions in the last week of the campaign. In late 2017, Australians voted in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage. But polls indicate that they also strongly believe in religious liberty protections. Shorten’s comments about Morrison’s brand of Christianity carried more than a whiff of secular progressive zealotry. They likely hurt Labor in those seats with large concentrations of religiously-active Australians worried about what Labor’s proposed changes to anti-discrimination laws might mean for religious freedom.
Inevitably, some will ask: Does Morrison’s election success fit the pattern of Brexit and America’s 2016 presidential election? In many ways, Morrison is unlike figures such as Donald Trump or Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro. His rhetoric, for instance, lacks their edge. A devout Pentecostal, Morrison doesn’t hide his religious convictions. Nonetheless, he avoids cultural confrontation. His policy instincts are incrementalist.
There are some parallels with Brexit and Trump, however. The Australian election reflects wider realignments throughout the West, which has seen social democratic parties losing large chunks of their traditional support to the right. Since 1996, Labor has held office in Canberra for a mere six years. That poor track record has much to do with taking blue-collar Australia for granted.
Morrison’s victory is thus a sharp reminder that the more that Western center-left politicians mistake progressive enclaves like New York or inner-city Melbourne as proxies for the wider electorate, the more they limit their ability to win national elections. Judging from the way Australia’s Labor politicians presently seem hell-bent on refusing to acknowledge this point, it seems they, like much of the Western left, prefer life in a progressivist bunker. That will certainly help conservatives win elections. Whether it is beneficial for the body politic as a whole, and the exchange of ideas that is essential for good policy, is an entirely different matter.
Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute