As everyone expected, Tony Abbott and his crew have won an easy victory in the Australian election. But it was not the landslide the opinion polls and even the exit polls predicted. They all suggested the Labor Party would lose most of its seats in its Western Sydney heartlands and in Brisbane. They also suggested that Kevin Rudd would lose his Brisbane seat. In the event Rudd held on quite comfortably and Labor kept most of its Western Sydney seats – as it did in Melbourne and Adelaide.
Personal factors seem to have been important. Labor’s younger rising stars all held on, and the Liberals failed to win what should have been an easy Sydney seat by selecting an unbelievably incompetent candidate. Labor held both Canberra’s seats with its usual huge majorities. Their ethos is dominated by the Federal Civil Service and the universities. We might have expected the civil servants to be fed up with Labor’s internal disputes. But they clearly still see Labor as the party of the state – and thus of them. That is something conservative governments have to live with though they hate it. Furthermore many of Labor’s losses were narrow and are, other things being equal, pretty easily recoverable.
Nonetheless Labor was beaten decisively. In part this is due to two demographic movements working against each other. One is the continuing migration to Queensland and Western Australia – the two fastest growing states. Both have traditionally been difficult for Labor. They are mining states where the interests of the big miners – all of which are predominantly overseas owned – are assumed to be also the interests of the voters. They are also disproportionately Anglo-Celtic. Labor will not recover unless it can do something in these two states. (It holds only six of Queensland’s thirty seats.) The other demographic shift has to do with ethnicity. Anglo-Celts have fewer children than non-Anglo communities and that will probably have long-term consequences. The higher the non-Anglo population, the higher the Labor vote. The country’s most ethnically diverse seat, Fowler in Western Sydney, swung heavily to Labor, possibly in reaction to the relentless xenophobia of the conservative parties’ rhetoric. Fowler also has very many children.
Nonetheless, Labor lost an election in circumstances in which notionally it should have won. One of the most surprising things to an outsider is the Australian conviction that they are in economic difficulty. The reverse is true. It is one of the richest countries in the world, has sailed through the great crisis, and a perfectly competent government has introduced important social reforms. Levels of government debt are low. That is not, however, the way many Australians see it and all that is ‘wrong’ is blamed on the Labor Party.
Australia’s is a parochial political culture which has little sense of what the rest of the world has to put up with. It is dogged by a press (70 per cent of press circulation is owned by Rupert Murdoch) which has spent the last three years telling its readers how frightful everything is, and Labor was faced by an opposition determined to deny the government’s legitimacy regardless of cost. At this election, only one paper, the Melbourne Age, supported Labor and that might account for Victoria’s being the only state where Labor won a majority of seats. The Sydney Morning Herald gave a hundred reasons not to vote for Abbott but then said you should, because Abbott could be ‘trusted’. In many respects the Liberal Party lied its way into office. But the lies were believed, and the electorate will have to live with the consequences, which will not be long in coming.
The Labor Party contributed to its defeat. It did nothing about media ownership generally or Murdoch in particular. It faces many of the same problems that social democratic parties in Europe do. It has historically been dependent on a strongly protected economy with high trade union membership. Neither of these now exist. The result is that its ‘primary’ vote, unlike that of the Liberal Party, has been declining steadily. It is now in effect a shaky coalition of working-class voters and middle-class ‘progressives’ – basically the Greens. And the Greens are not reliable allies. They forced Julia Gillard into introducing the complicated carbon tax – which she had promised not to introduce and which was hated by the voters.
Like all Australian parties only worse, the Labor Party has always been highly factionalised. Organised factionalism was not always a source of weakness: it produced very successful electoral machines at state level and was also, paradoxically, stabilising. In the last six years, however, it turned destructive. Rudd was overthrown in 2010 not simply because he was difficult to work with but because he had no faction to protect him. The factions became parodies of themselves. Gillard was of the ‘left’ faction although by the time she became prime minister she hardly had a left-wing bone in her body. In New South Wales the machine began to work in its own interest rather than the party’s: at the last state election the Labor Party was almost wiped out. Rudd eventually grasped the nettle, and the New South Wales branch was suspended this year. That perhaps explains why Labor polled very much better in the federal election than it did in the state. But New South Wales was always a heavy burden and will be difficult to reconstruct.
What now? Despite the conservatives’ clear victory in the House of Representatives they have nowhere near a majority in the Senate and presumably the new government will have to make deals with the independent oddballs who hold the balance. Much of the rhetoric will survive and no doubt the asylum seekers coming by boat are in for a bad time. There will be further privatisation and general philistinism. Budgets no doubt will be returned to ‘balance’ by the elimination of ‘waste’. The mining companies will probably be allowed to rip up and rip off the country as they wish. But Abbott is unpredictable. He was not a pure free marketeer when he was a minister under Howard and he has committed himself, more or less, to continuing Labor’s policies as well as to some expensive programmes of his own. He was noticeably less enthusiastic about attacking Syria than Rudd was. And he will still have a discontented electorate, but now with no one to blame but himself.