Matthew Lesh

What the Tories can learn from Australia’s election upset

What the Tories can learn from Australia’s election upset
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It is hard to exaggerate the level of shock caused by Scott Morrison’s Australian election victory. The re-election of the country's Liberal party prime minister – and the defeat of left-wing Labor leader Bill Shorten – took the polls and plenty of Aussies by surprise. Earlier this year, Shorten told a bemused Arnold Schwarzenegger “I’m going to be the next prime minister of Australia”. The Australian people had a different idea.

In his victory speech, Morrison thanked “quiet Australians” for supporting him. A similar dynamic was, of course, at play among shy Tories in the 2015 election in Britain, shy Brexiteers in 2016 and then shy Trump voters later that same year.

“I’ve always believed in miracles,” Morrison, an evangelical Christian who was criticised for his personal beliefs during the campaign, declared in that same speech. Morrison became leader last August after the dumping of moderate and press gallery-darling Malcolm Turnbull. Before entering politics, Morrison was an adman who was behind one of the most successful tourism campaigns in Australia’s history: “Where the Bloody Hell Are Ya?”. The Australian stock market has shot up to a 12-year high following Morrison’s victory, adding £17.6bn  in value.

Morrison led an extremely disciplined campaign. The Liberal Party’s messaging was clear: we will cut taxes, create jobs, grow the economy and let you and your family get on with your life – and Labor is a danger to all this. The policy differences could have been starker but the rhetorical contrast was very clear. Labor talked up fairness and inequality; the Liberals focused on opportunity and aspiration. “If you're having a go you'll get a go,” Morrison said. Labor promised £210bn in new taxes to fund public services; the Liberals backed moderate income tax decreases and budget surpluses. Labor promised action on climate change; the Liberals committed to supporting the Adani Coal Mine.

The Liberal-National Coalition is expected to have a small majority of 78 seats in the 151-member House of Representatives – up from 73 at last election. The voting trends fit into the global story about socio-economic political realignment. Class is no longer the dividing line. Last election a majority of Australians who self-identify as working class voted for the Liberal-Nationals Coalition, meanwhile the upper middle class is increasingly voting for Labor and the Greens. These trends are accelerating.  

This is the divide between Inners – the progressive cosmopolitans who value change, diversity, and self-actualisation – and Outers – instinctive traditionalists who value stability, safety, and unity. This distinction is inspired by David Goodhart’s Brexit-backing Somewheres and Remain-backing Anywheres, and the divide between the prosperous coasts and fly-over America identified by Charles Murray’s Coming Apart and Donald Trump’s success.

Inners voted decisively for Labor, leading to swings in previously safe inner-Melbourne and inner-Sydney Liberal seats against the government. For these people, the environment, identity politics, and inequality are salient issues. This helps explain former prime minister Tony Abbott’s defeat at the hands of climate change-focused independent Zali Steggall. Abbott, a socially conservative climate change sceptic, was ill-suited for a high education, high income seat that voted 75 per cent for same-sex marriage.

Meanwhile, Outers – with their more traditional concerns about the economy and services and unease with growing inner-city elitism – were drawn to Morrison’s down-to-earth persona. The government had meaningful swings and picked up seats in Outer parts of the country in Queensland, parts of Tasmania, and western Sydney – particularly in areas lost by Turnbull at the last election in 2016. The political geography of the country is becoming increasingly stark. Labor now holds just 11 of 43 parliamentary seats north of Sydney on the east coast, meanwhile, the Liberals hold just 11 of 38 seats in Victoria – the ‘Massachusetts of Australia’.

The reactions to the election result have revealed an increasingly polarised and insular Australia – and perhaps why the Inners failed to see this upset coming. According to some tweets, this election shows that Australia is a “racist, ignorant, backward thinking” country and people voted for “climate change denying, white supremacist, Islamophobic, homophobic, misogynist, anti-worker” government. The Labor Party is blaming the election on the public, not themselves. “It’s not you Bill, it’s the country,” a Labor supporter yelled during Shorten’s concession speech.

This election has caused Inners to become estranged and alienated from many Australians, in the same way Outers have been for years. You might recognise something similar in this country in the past three years since the Brexit referendum.

The international coverage has attempted to slot Australia neatly into the rise of populists. A New York Times report declared Morrison’s victory was “propelled by a populist wave” and joins a “growing list of countries that have shifted rightward through the politics of grievance”.

But how the re-election of a centre-right government, little different in disposition to the Howard Government (1996-2007), is a shift rightward, is not clear. The actual populist minor parties did miserably. Australia’s closest equivalent to the BNP, the Conservative National Party, not only lost their single parliamentarian, Senator Fraser Anning, none of their 48 candidates got more than four per cent of the vote – costing the party at least £54,000 in lost deposits.

Other populists, such as the One Nation Party are set to win just a single Senate spot and the United Australia Party have won zero seats. If anything, Morrison strategically subdued the populist catch-cries by listening to genuine concerns, promising secure borders, and declaring that he was on the side of every Australian – not stuck in the Sydney-Melbourne-Canberra bubble. This is an important playbook for those seeking to combat authoritarian populism.

There are many lessons for the Conservative party in the UK. Brexit must be addressed or populists will prosper. Changing to an electorally-focused leader shortly before an election can be successful. And finally, the election-winning formula is not a mystery: a low-tax pro-aspiration message, letting people live their own lives, and not being Labour-lite in rhetoric or action.

Matthew Lesh is the head of research at the Adam Smith Institute and author of Democracy in a Divided Australia