Stefan Boscia

How climate change decided Australia’s election

How climate change decided Australia's election
Text settings

Australian Labor leader Bill Shorten will forever have the ignominious label of the man who lost the unlosable election – Australia’s answer to Neil Kinnock. After six years of the conservative Liberal-National coalition government, and three different prime ministers, Labor were considered the clear favourite to win Saturday’s general election.

The government had been wracked with disunity over climate change and same-sex marriage and were governing in a minority for the past nine months. The Liberal party also saw several high-profile retirements in the lead up to the election as MPs started jumping off what they thought was a sinking ship.

Newspoll, Australia’s largest political poll, had Labor in front for three consecutive years; while the country’s largest bookmaker paid out all bets placed on Labor winning the election days before the poll.

But it was prime minister Scott Morrison who stood victorious at the podium on Saturday, proclaiming in his victory speech: “I’ve always believed in miracles.” Shorten meanwhile ended his night by stepping down from the Labor leadership. So where did it all go wrong for the former trade union kingpin?

In the aftermath of the poll, it’s now clear that Labor completely misread the nation’s appetite for widespread economic change. The party’s policy platform outlined A$35bn (£18.8bn) worth of spending promises – much of it on health and education – compared to just A$1.4bn (£754m) from the Liberals. The spending spree was to be paid for by ending a range of tax concessions and loopholes that disproportionately benefit older and wealthier Australians. Labor also promised to cut tax for low-wage earners, restore previously reduced public holiday wages for retail and hospitality workers and make housing more affordable.

Labor’s message over the past five weeks revolved around giving “a fair go to all Australians” and Shorten spoke a lot about changing the country on the campaign trail. Yet the party’s pitch ignored the fact that Australia is an economically successful country that is naturally wary of change. Since World War II the country has voted for a change in government on just six occasions, despite having three-year term limits.

Labor’s ambitious agenda – including Shorten's message that “when you change the government, you change the country” – simply scared people off. A more charismatic and likeable politician may have been able to sell such an expansive agenda to the electorate but not Shorten, whose personal approval ratings were consistently low over his six years as opposition leader.

Morrison, meanwhile, ran a personality-based campaign that relied on the public’s distrust for Shorten, who is widely regarded as a duplicitous career politician. His spinning of his opponent’s policy agenda as “a big tax on everything” also paid off. So, too, did the former ad-man's masterfully constructed image of himself as a regular bloke – a goofy, rugby league-loving dad – who could relate to everyday voters he called “the quiet Australians”.

Labor’s vote collapsed in working class areas, particularly in the state of Queensland, despite the party’s redistributive and populist economic agenda. This demonstrates a backlash from the continuing culture war that has waged for the past two decades in the country, which has helped hollow out Labor’s traditional base.

The best example of this is on the issue of climate change and the environment. Labor promised a marked increase in renewable energy usage over the next decade, which Queensland voters translated into fewer jobs for the state’s large coal industry – and higher power prices. The idea of a party of inner-city elites taking away their communities’ jobs was too much to bear for many.

Morrison’s election victory will set the course for the nation’s politics for years to come. It will be a long time before a political party takes an ambitious policy agenda to the electorate for fear it will be punished like Labor was on Saturday. This may mean political leaders will be overly cautious in the foreseeable future and be dissuaded from making big picture changes to the country. This is a great shame as significant reform in even the most basic areas may be ignored for fear of future electoral backlash.

The prime minister’s victory will also reinforce the notion that negative election campaigning is a route to electoral success in Australia.