21 May 2019

By rejecting reform for the status quo, the Australian electorate has given reforming governments and opposition parties elsewhere pause for thought, writes Sarah Nickson.

A prime minister runs an aggressive, negative election campaign, focused on the risks of switching to an opposition party promising redistributive tax reform. He defies the widespread expectations of pollsters and political pundits to claim victory.

This could be the tale of David Cameron’s surprise 2015 general election victory. But four years later, a similar story has played out half way around the world.

Australians cast their votes in a general election on 18 May and have returned a conservative Liberal-National government. While results are yet to be finalised, the Government looks on track to win 77 seats – one more than needed to rule in its own right.

The outcome stunned commentators and politicians alike. Labor, led by Bill Shorten, had led every opinion poll since mid- 2016. One betting company even paid out wagers on a Labor victory before election day had arrived.

But the status quo was seen as the safer option

The conventional wisdom that ‘disunity is death’ reinforced the expectation of change. Having brutally dispensed with two Prime Ministers – Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull – in party room ‘coups’ since 2015, the Government replicated the in-fighting that drove its Labor predecessors out of office in 2013.

By contrast, Shorten’s shadow cabinet had put up a relatively united front through six years in opposition. They assembled a comprehensive reform agenda, much of which had been developed and aired well before the campaign rolled around.

But this wasn’t enough to convince voters – untouched by recession for nearly three decades – to abandon the status quo.

The Labor leader failed to connect with the voters

Labor’s agenda was ambitious – though not radical or revolutionary by the standards of their British counterparts. They pledged to cut concessions for property investors and other tax perks enjoyed by wealthier Australians, generate 50% of electricity from renewable energy by 2030, and hold referenda on becoming a republic and recognising Indigenous Australians in the Constitution.

By contrast, the Government offered a comparatively thin set of promises, dominated by income tax cuts, and campaigned relentlessly on the dangers to voters’ wallets from Labor’s proposals.

Labor couldn’t convince the electorate to support tax changes that don’t lend themselves to simple explanation, or unite country on the urgency of acting on climate change. Bill Shorten’s wooden façade was frequently lampooned by the media, and his failure to connect with voters was a serious problem for a party trying to sell policies which would create clear losers.

And while Scott Morrison’s ‘daggy dad’ persona also prompted disdain from the commentariat, it appealed to the fabled ‘ordinary Australian’ – or, at the very least, failed to dissuade sufficient numbers from voting for his party.

As in Britain, Australian politicians need to bridge demographic divides

The fault lines of age, geography and income exposed by the Brexit vote were also evident in Australia on Saturday. Inner city seats swung towards left-leaning parties and independents, while rural and less economically prosperous constituencies were more likely to reject the Labor agenda.

Labor’s proposals on climate change, and its stance on a new coal mine proposed in Queensland, are seen as key factors. Internal party polling reportedly indicated a split on age lines too – the biggest swings to the conservatives came from over 65s, an age group that stood to lose tax concessions associated with ownership of shares.

These divides are a barrier to action on long-term challenges like climate change and fiscal sustainability in the face of ageing populations. But, as one rural, conservative constituency’s election of an independent pledging to prioritise action on climate change demonstrates, the divides are not unbridgeable.

Reforming parties need to work out how to sell reforms with upfront pain

So what are the lessons, in Australia and elsewhere, from this election? Early analysis has contemplated the prospect that future opposition parties will steer clear of ambitious policy agendas, to minimise damaging attacks from political rivals.

That would be a serious misstep. Policy-lite elections would dilute governments’ democratic mandate, and as Tony Abbott demonstrated, can seriously backfire. Under his leadership, the conservatives’ 2014 budget was dominated by measures that cut benefits and services to vulnerable groups. These hadn’t been set out in the preceding election campaign, and Abbott’s prime ministership never recovered from a budget for which the electorate had not been prepared and which they regarded as unfair.

This election showed the difficulty of selling reform where significant segments of the electorate are losers – or are convinced they might be. Parties, and their leaders, must back reform substance with salesmanship that convinces disparate parts of the community of the need for change.