‘Scott Morrison is empathetic – without the “em”.’ Those words, spoken on Friday by the Labor party frontbencher Jason Clare, on a national breakfast programme, perfectly encapsulated how Scott Morrison was defeated in the Australian election on Saturday.
Morrison wasn’t saved by his economic management (this Friday Australia’s unemployment rate was confirmed as 3.9 per cent, the lowest in 50 years). Nor by the fact that Australia’s post-Covid economic bounce-back was one of the biggest and quickest in the OECD. He wasn’t saved by his government’s management of the Covid pandemic either, which contained the threat, kept Covid-related death rates exceptionally low and achieved a national double vaccination rate of nearly 95 per cent. And he didn’t survive even though his Labor opponents barely had any constructive policies during these crises.
Instead, the Liberals lost the Australian election in the face of overwhelmingly vicious public opposition, led by Labor leader Anthony Albanese, and because of Morrison’s personal unpopularity with the electorate.
After everything Australia has been through in the last three years – fire, flood and Covid – Morrison has been there. But if the Liberals were hoping voters would remember their extraordinary economic interventions that kept families and business going in the initial phase of the pandemic, they were wrong. Not only did they lose spectacularly on Saturday night but Australia’s Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, lost his safe seat in a Portillo-style moment.
In the end it didn’t matter that Labor’s own policies were ludicrously thin on the ground. The opposition won by successfully framing this election as a referendum not on Scott Morison the prime minister, but on Scott Morrison the man. Clare’s televised insult was actually mild compared to some of the barbs directed at Morrison who, in turn lacked, perhaps, the self-awareness to deflect them.
It didn’t help that subtlety isn’t exactly the prime minister’s style. In the three televised debates between Morrison and Albanese, the Labor leader managed to inject likeability, empathy and self-deprecation into his appeals to voters. Morrison, on the other hand, in his determination to make his case, all but shouted at voters in their living rooms. His presentation brought to mind Queen Victoria’s complaint about Gladstone: ‘he addresses me as though I am a public meeting.’
The sustained attacks on Morrison’s personality and character though were malicious and unfair. Morrison may have his own character flaws, but Labor’s election victory will debase Australian politics for decades.
What also stunned the Liberals were the sustained attacks on its flanks. On the right, too many disillusioned Liberal voters, appalled by Morrison’s government’s complicity in the county’s crushing lockdowns and other authoritarian Covid measures, deserted to populist and libertarian parties. In Australia’s Single Transferable Vote electoral system, this dangerously lowered the Liberal ‘primary’ vote, and made it easier for opponents to leap over incumbent Liberal MPs.
But far more serious was the successful raid on the Liberal left flank by a group of ‘teal’ independents – teal being a bilious mix of green and Liberal blue. These independents, extraordinarily successful and impressive professional women who were engaging and well-funded, stood in a clutch of highly-affluent Liberal seats in mostly Sydney and Melbourne, which were held by male, moderate, male, Liberal MPs. The teals stood on, essentially, a single issue: climate action. It was a message that resonated in households where the cost of living is not a daily worry – rich people talking to other rich people about rich people’s issues.
At close of counting on election night, these ‘teals’ had won at least five seats, with the possibility of one more. If Albanese doesn’t succeed in winning 76 seats and an absolute majority, these independents, backed by three and perhaps four Greens, will be in a position to drive the already green-tinged Albanese government harder and faster on emissions reduction and accelerated net zero targets.
Not only have those teal independents captured the bluest of Liberal seats, but in Frydenberg they removed the Liberal most likely to replace Morrison as leader.
And Albanese? He is a fundamentally honourable and decent man but, in claiming victory, he made it clear his government will implement the most radical programme of social and economic reform since his ill-fated predecessor Gough Whitlam ended 23 years of conservative rule in 1972. He is doing so with no mandate; less than one-third of the popular vote and, at this point, lacking a majority of seats.
The precedents set at Saturday’s election are dangerous not only for the Liberal party’s future. They do not bode well for Australia’s long-term future in an ever more dangerous and difficult world.