It Was Never An Unloseable Election For Labor, But Still…?!?!

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Ben Eltham wraps up an extraordinary election campaign, and an even more extraordinary result.

Hands up if you saw that one coming?

Very few would have predicted Scott Morrison’s remarkable victory, even amongst his own ranks. Morrison didn’t just defy the polls, he rewrote the political how-to guide.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. The Coalition did not win a national poll in its entire second term. It lost nearly 200 of them. The Liberal Party removed a popular leader, and replaced him with a less popular one. It presided over falling house prices and a weakening economy. It had next to no policy to campaign on, relying instead on a massive scare campaign about the Opposition. And yet it won.

In the end, the Coalition only picked up a handful of new seats. But that was all it needed. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has not articulated a mandate for much of anything, except lower taxes and keeping Labor out. But he has won something much more important. He has won government.

Exactly how the polls got it so wrong will be debated at length in coming months. Methodologies will be scrutinised. Were the polls wrong, or did hundreds of thousands of voters simply change their mind in the ballot box? Was it ‘shy’ conservatives, ashamed to tell pollsters they vote Liberal? Are the statistical models broken? Or do people use polls tactically now, aware that they can influence politicians by their polling opinion?

For Labor, this is an untrammelled disaster. The ALP has now lost 7 of the last 9 federal elections. This election was never unloseable, of course – no election is. But after leading in the polls for the entire term, Labor insiders will be tearing their hair out. How can it have come to this? Where did it all go wrong?

The Guardian sent Brigid Delany along to Bill Shorten’s election party. She described volunteers crying, and members openly blaming the electorate. The ashes of defeat are bitter to the taste, but Labor will also need to work out why it lost.

Will any opposition go to an election promising a reform agenda again? Eventually, I suppose, one will. But probably not for a very long time. It’s hard to be optimistic. Tactically, there can be no doubt that the Coalition’s relentless attacks on Labor were effective. Shorten and the ALP leadership thought Labor could win by presenting bold, progressive policies that would also set Australia up for the new century. They were wrong.

The blame game must surely begin with Labor’s tax policies. The policy to abolish franking credits now appears to be a key culprit in Shorten’s demise. The policy itself was a sensible reform that affected relatively few voters. But it was little understood by voters and poorly explained by Labor. It also enabled the scare campaign on “Labor’s retirement tax” to run and run. And It sucked up oxygen from more popular ALP policies, like its generous childcare subsidy.

Climate policy too will need to be re-examined. Climate change destroyed Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard’s prime ministerships; it has now contributed to Bill Shorten’s destruction too. Voters accept the science and they tell pollsters they want something done. But whenever conservatives frame climate policy as a threat to voters’ livelihoods, they win. Figuring out how to square that circle is an existential challenge for Labor, which must also defend its left flank from the Greens. Perhaps there is no answer: voters tell pollsters they want better schools, roads and hospitals, but they also want lower taxes.

And Labor’s leadership failed. Bill Shorten is a likeable man. He is a good negotiator and a clever developer of policy. He united the party in the dark days of 2013. But he is an electoral liability. Voters never warmed to him, particularly outside Victoria. As a source in the Queensland ALP told me on Saturday night, “People just do not like Bill Shorten. It’s as simple and complicated as that. They see him and they don’t like him. It is what it is.”

Labor’s primary vote was just 34 per cent this election. That is not a winning primary vote. The ALP will not win back government unless it can poll above 40 per cent on primaries across the nation.

The grand old party of the left has some serious soul searching to do. How can it win back voters in the outer suburbs and regions? How can it combat the seemingly unstoppable message that the Coalition is better at managing the economy? What compromises will it be willing to make? Will compromise even work?

Labor also needs to work out how to win in Queensland. The LNP looks like it will hold 23 of 30 seats north of the Tweed. Queensland’s politics have always leaned conservative, but the state also has strong populist traditions that at times have swung in Labor’s favour. Recapturing voters in the Sunshine State must be a key priority for the party in coming years.

As bad as things were in Queensland, Labor struggled in the suburbs and regions too. Leaving aside the wipe out up north, the ALP lost seats in Tasmania and New South Wales, and couldn’t pick up any in Western Australia. All of these results point to Labor’s message failing to convince working families and middle-of-the-road voters, the very people we thought would sweep Bill Shorten to victory.

Progressives will also need to reflect. Some cherished myths may need to be abandoned. On the evidence of this weekend, Australia is not becoming a more social democratic nation. For many voters, this clearly wasn’t a “climate change election.” On the other hand, it seems clear that Australian voters really do vote with their hip pocket. Scare campaigns do work. So do lies.

The ALP’s ambitious policy agenda was rejected by voters, particularly older voters. This is a particularly disappointing outcome for younger demographics, many of whom are far to the left of seniors on the environment and economics. As in Britain after Brexit, a yawning generational gap has opened up in Australian politics. Roiling social conflict will ensue before it closes.

Scott Morrison has delivered the miracle his party prayed for. A campaign strategy that many criticised (including me) for its negative tactics and its one dimensional focus on Morrison has been vindicated.

And so has Morrison, in the most personal way. The daggy dad stereotype, the baseball cap, the steady stream of media japes and his Pentecostal faith may have been detested by many on the left. But Morrison genuinely appears to have cut through with swinging voters in suburban electorates, particularly in New South Wales and Queensland.

It will be Scott Morrison’s Liberal Party now. His influence within the party will be unmatched. Morrison will be able to refashion the Liberal Party in his image, a party of small business suburbanites, of “quiet people” that “have a go”. In defeat, such clichés seem like empty rhetoric. But in victory, they take on substance and form.

Last week many were wondering about a Liberal split and predicting a long spell in the wilderness for conservative forces. But the Liberal Party has emerged from a trying three years stronger and newly reunited. Who now would bet against a fourth term?

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Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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