Hell hath no fury greater than left-wingers who lose an election in a surprise upset. Think Brexit in 2016. Think Trump’s victory the same year. Now add Australia.
Conservative prime minister Scott Morrison shocked pollsters and pundits alike with his victory on Saturday, and the reaction has been brutal from supporters of the opposition Labor party. They can’t seem to decide whether Australia’s electorate is stupid, evil, or both.
Cathy Wilcox, a newspaper cartoonist, tweeted: “It seems unfair that the morons outnumber the thinking people at election time.” Broadcaster Meshel Laurie concluded that “Australians are dumb, mean-spirited, and greedy. Accept it.” Some were ready to write off the whole country. Brigid Delaney, a columnist for the Guardian, wrote, “It’s the country that’s rotten.” She reported from the Labor party’s Election Night event. People there had to face “the fact that their vision for Australia’s future was not affirmed,” she wrote. That “made them feel estranged and alienated from their own country.”
By contrast, Zareh Ghazarian, a political-science lecturer at Monash University in Melbourne, was snobbishly restrained: “We have completely expected an opposite thing for two years,’ he told the Washington Post. “Voters rejected the big picture.”
By that, he meant that voters have rejected a sweeping Labor-party platform that urged Australia to move in a dramatically leftward direction on everything from higher taxes on retirement income to greater benefits for indigenous people to an ambitious program to reduce carbon emissions by 45 percent from 2005 levels over the next decade. Labor was heavily promoting renewable energy and electric vehicles; many Australians called the plan Labor’s version of the Green New Deal in the U.S.
The sweeping nature of these ideas gave Prime Minister Morrison the opening to paint his Labor challenger, former union head Bill Shorten, as a risky, job-killing opponent of traditional Australian values. Morrison “ran a targeted, presidential-style campaign with a tight message focusing on tax increases under Labor,” lamented Osmond Chiu, editor of the Australian left-wing magazine Challenge. “He often appeared as if he himself was not in government but rather the insurgent.”
Polls showed that a majority of Australian voters wanted more action to combat climate change, but the issue wasn’t a vote changer in most seats. Climate change did sink the career of former conservative prime minister Tony Abbott, who ended the nation’s first carbon tax in 2014 during his stint in office. Abbott was running in a wealthy suburban Sydney district that clearly leaned left culturally. He was beaten by an independent candidate who focused solely on Abbott’s environmental record and dodged other issues.
But for every seat that shifted left over climate change, there were several more where working-class voters broke with the Labor party they had long backed. In mining-oriented Queensland, voters were furious when caravans of environmentalists arrived this spring to protest the proposed Adani coal-mining project.
“Labor’s climate policy and the local desire to save jobs were critical to its crushing defeat in Queensland,” conservative political consultant David Goodridge told me. “The highest swings against Labor were in electorates bordering the Adani mine areas.” Prime Minister Morrison is no opponent of renewable energy, but he insists that fossil fuels not be demonized. He once scandalized the Left when he brought a lump of coal into Parliament and said that no one should be scared of a product that had built Australia’s prosperity.
Matthew Lesh, the head of research at Britain’s Adam Smith Institute, says the Australian election result has broader lessons for American and British conservatives: “Create broad differentiation” from your opponents, he advised today in the Telegraph. “Be the party of lower taxes and aspiration — and never give up. Then an unexpected victory could be heading your way.”