The Australian Federal Election Offers a Choice Between Disaster and Disappointment
Scott Morrison is widely disliked, and his conservative government is divided, incompetent, and mired in corruption. Despite this, the Labor opposition’s platform is one of the most timid and conservative in memory.
The 2022 federal election comes at an inflection point for Australia. COVID-19 is still claiming fifty lives a day and more Australians have died from the virus this year than in 2020 and 2021 combined. Extended lockdowns, while saving lives, have been extremely divisive: in 2021, widespread social anguish at the length of public health restrictions culminated in running street violence in central Melbourne. Much of southern Queensland and northern New South Wales then suffered devastating floods this summer. More distantly, the specter of global insecurity looms, as war returns to Europe and China expands its influence in the Pacific.
On the economic front, brisk employment growth combines with a nasty inflation spike. In particular, the rising cost of petrol, rent, and fresh food has driven a deterioration in living standards. Wages have not accelerated to match higher living costs: with wage growth of just 22 percent in the ten years, since March 2012, Australian workers have endured a lost decade of wage growth. Unsurprisingly, real wages are now negative. Meanwhile, the Reserve Bank has raised interest rates, signaling the start of tighter monetary policy. This will hurt highly indebted homeowners in Australia’s frothy property market.
This is the context for the May 21 federal election, in which nearly 20 million voters across the continent will decide between reelecting the three-term Liberal-National government of Scott Morrison and giving Anthony Albanese’s opposition Labor Party a try. Many voters will also choose to vote for a chaotic assortment of minor-party and independent candidates, all spruiking for their chance to represent voters.
Perhaps, given the severity of the situation, the most remarkable thing about this election is the almost total absence of hope. The choice is between almost certain disillusionment under Labor and the devastation of a fourth Coalition term; that is, it’s a choice between unhappiness and double unhappiness.
After nine years in office, there is little sense that Scott Morrison’s incumbent Liberal-National government has anything of substance to offer. A former marketing executive and Liberal Party official from Sydney, Morrison has been Australia’s prime minister since he wrested the office from Malcolm Turnbull in an internal party coup in 2018. In that time, he won a surprise election victory in 2019 and governed Australia through the difficult years of the pandemic. However, conspicuous failures to respond to natural disasters or to secure an early supply of COVID-19 vaccines have led to widespread disaffection with his government.
Although Morrison and the Liberal National Party (LNP) are behind in the polls, many observers, including in Australia’s increasingly febrile and populist news media, believe he may still pull a rabbit out of his hat. But with a cost of living crisis hurting suburban voters, Morrison’s time may be running out.
A chameleonic populist, much has been made of Morrison’s background as a marketing executive, which supposedly underpins his superior ability to craft populist messages and exploit a pliant media ecosystem. This and Morrison’s unashamed religious Pentecostalism have encouraged many comparisons with American Republicans. But the more telling comparison might be with Boris Johnson’s ruthless political opportunism and eye for the main chance. Like Johnson, Morrison is notorious for his dissembling. Few within the Liberal Party genuinely like him, although many fear him, and even more loathe him.
In keeping for a politician who has always favored image over reality, Morrison’s policy record is unimpressive. The raison d’être for Australian conservative parties has been suppressing wages and constraining union power. Morrison, however, has not made much progress on this front, abandoning a sweeping bill to bust unions after his former attorney-general was forced to resign in an integrity scandal. Nor has Morrison satisfied the religious right, failing to implement a bill to entrench the right of churches and private schools to discriminate against LGBTQ teachers and students. Fiscal hawks dislike the huge deficits Morrison has run; libertarians and neoliberals consider him to be weak on personal liberties and the rights of capital.
The Coalition’s biggest problem may be integrity. Australians like to believe that their federal politicians hold generally high standards of governance and accountability. Nine years of Coalition government mired in scandal have tested that belief. Some senior ministers have quit, some have stood down pending investigations, while others are so politically toxic they are being kept hidden during the election campaign. Energy minister Angus Taylor is at the center of many of the controversies, linked to dubious dealings over multimillion dollar water buybacks paid from federal coffers to shell companies in the Caribbean. Taylor also tried to scotch environmental regulations that applied to ecologically sensitive grasslands owned by a family member.
Education minister Stuart Robert had already been sacked once for lobbying the Chinese government as a favor for a Liberal Party donor. Since then, he has also managed to run up a $38,000 internet bill, supposedly by accident. And then there’s minister Bridget McKenzie, who has returned to cabinet after resigning earlier in this parliamentary term for breaching ministerial standards over the notorious “sports rorts” affair, which saw federal grants allocated to sporting clubs according to a color-coded spreadsheet that mapped to marginal electorates. Despite — or perhaps because — of this doleful record, Morrison has ruled out a federal anti-corruption agency.
At the same time, the conservative electoral base is decomposing. The stresses of the pandemic have acted like a centrifuge on Liberal voters, spinning some further to the right while drawing others toward a vacant center. On their right edge, the Liberals are vulnerable to a proliferating kaleidoscope of micro-parties, including Pauline Hanson’s One Nation and billionaire Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party. These smaller parties of the far right are populist, nativist and xenophobic, and have passionately embraced the anti-vaccination and sovereign citizen movements. One Nation is running candidates in nearly every lower house seat, while Palmer is bankrolling a serious advertising blitz for the UAP. Further to the right lurk actual fascists, such as Ricardo Bosi’s AustraliaOne movement.
The right wing parties take primary votes off the LNP. While some of these are recycled back to the government via preferences, the growth and energy of the non-Coalition right has visibly discomforted the Liberal Party in recent times. Liberal backbenchers like Gerard Rennick and David Van have openly courted the anti-vax protest movement, while Morrison himself has pushed culture war talking points for most of his time in office.
In part because of its rightward drift, the Liberal Party is bleeding support in the major cities, especially among women. This never used to matter much, as the Liberals could be assured of winning wealthy electorates that were unlikely to vote Labor or Green. However, when Morrison and his treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, lent tacit support to violent anti-vax protesters in 2021, affluent city voters were horrified. Morrison’s blokey and often prickly demeanor also clearly alienates many educated professional women, who are further repulsed by the government’s appalling policy record on gender equality and women’s policy. On climate, the government’s risible carbon policies lack credibility, let alone ambition.
Into this void has stepped a group of independents known as the “Teals” for the blue-green hue of their campaign colors. A group of mostly wealthy professional women, they are running against sitting Liberals in well-heeled suburban electorates. Leveraging the government’s dismal record on climate, the Teals have secured important fundraising support from philanthropist Simon Holmes à Court, a renewable energy campaigner who has put a considerable amount of his family fortune toward Climate 200, a political action committee.
Catching the prevailing wind blowing against a three-term government, the independents have vacuumed up surprising levels of grassroots support. Senior Liberals, including Frydenberg, are genuinely worried. Should voters in these seats desert the government, it’s possible that the independents could hold the balance of power in Parliament, effectively making them the kingmakers in deciding the next government.
If government changes hands, it will pass to the Australian Labor Party, currently ahead in the polls — not that anyone believes opinion polls these days. Led by Anthony Albanese, a lifelong party official from Sydney, the ALP has been in opposition since 2013, and for twenty of the last twenty-six years. Labor’s defeat in the 2019 election was traumatizing. The ALP presented an uncharacteristically strong suite of social democratic policies to voters but ran a poor campaign that foundered on the unpopularity of former leader Bill Shorten and a successful scare campaign over its tax policies.
The lesson Labor appears to have learned from 2019 is to abandon ambitious policies altogether. After much soul-searching, Albanese has junked much of Labor’s progressive platform and refashioned the party with a slimmer, less substantive policy offering. Recent Labor announcements include capitulations over tax cuts to high-income earners; a dismal race to the bottom on anti-refugee policies, including turning back refugee boats; a refusal to raise the rate of unemployment benefits; and a guarantee to develop new coal mines. This gives left-of-center voters little to hold on to beyond the hope of removing Morrison and the LNP from office.
Albanese’s small target is in part an admission: that in the electorates and demographics where Labor needs to win, the party does not believe voters will support social democratic policies. In a society that has been radically destabilized and individualized, where social institutions have been run down, where wages are stagnant, jobs are insecure, and housing is expensive, selling a message of redistribution can be tough.
Housing policy provides a good illustration. Australia’s property market is disastrously unequal, with a generation of younger people locked into renting substandard and unaffordable private housing. Labor took a serious set of reforms to the 2019 election to try and address this, rolling back tax breaks to property investors and promising a big investment in social housing. They have abandoned those policies this time round, instead offering a modest and largely symbolic policy to help ten thousand families a year purchase a dwelling with the help of government equity. It’s Band-Aid on a gaping wound, and sums up Labor’s cautious and timid approach to major policy challenges. Scarred by the trauma of 2019 and intimidated by the individualist aspirations that remain an undeniable keystone of the Australian popular zeitgeist, Labor has lost the will to put forward collective solutions or genuinely redistributionist ideas.
What, then, does Labor under Albanese stand for? It’s tempting to say simply that it stands for getting back into government. In a party notorious for deposing its leaders, Albanese has shown plenty of patience and political discipline to position Labor with a chance to return to office. The party has promised a wide-ranging new anti-corruption agency, which will almost certainly uncover all sorts of malfeasance should it come into existence. Labor has a far better target for emissions reductions. And the ALP does offer some hope of labor-market reform to improve the power of unions and increase real wages for workers.
To the left of Labor and the Teals are the Greens. Originally a party formed by environment campaigners, in recent times the Greens have also expanded their policy platform to embrace more collectivist and social democratic positions on the economy, taxation, and corporate regulation. The party is to the left of Labor on most social issues, including migration, education, welfare benefits, trans rights, and the arts. However, the Greens have not been able to break out of their strongholds and build wider support: the party has hovered on around 10 percent of the vote for the decade. Still a minor party, the Greens have a senator in each state, and hope to add an extra lower house member in either Brisbane or Melbourne. But the most they can hope for is the balance of power in Parliament to give them the right to negotiate with a Labor government.
A Labor government reliant on support from the Greens and independents opens tantalizing vistas for reform. Such a crossbench would likely demand stronger climate policies than Labor is currently prepared to envisage. It might also be much more amenable to social and economic reforms than a Labor government with a simple majority. Much will depend on whether Labor’s campaign can secure enough votes in the next month to get Labor within striking distance. If not, a fourth-term Coalition government is likely to be vicious in its punishment of enemies, moving further to the right both economically and socially. As a result, despite the dispiriting campaign so far, there is an awful lot at stake on May 21.