Australia likes to think that its electoral system is immune to the sort of shock outcomes seen elsewhere in recent years.
Voting is compulsory, so there’s never a surprise driven by turnout. A system that requires voters to nominate multiple candidates means that insurgent third-party campaigns have little purchase, because people can have their protest vote and still choose a mainstream candidate too.
While nearly a quarter of the electorate placed a minor party first on their ballot on Saturday, nearly 90 percent put either the governing Coalition of Prime Minister Scott Morrison or the opposition Labor Party first or second. As a result, the Coalition and Labor will account for all but six or seven seats in the 151-member House of Representatives. The government looks certain to lack a controlling majority of the House, but the deals it will have to cut will be with a handful of centrist independents and single-seat minor parties, rather than a powerful populist fringe.
At the same time, Saturday’s election result is a political shock scarcely less expected than the victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 US Presidential election, or the triumph of the anti-European vote in the UK’s Brexit referendum earlier that year.
It’s been almost 18 months since any opinion poll showed Morrison’s Liberal-National Coalition 1 with a shot at victory. Newspoll – the most closely followed survey, whose poor showings were used as justification for the internal party coups that removed Morrison’s predecessors Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull in recent years – has put the Coalition behind in 56 consecutive polls since 2016. An exit poll by Nine Entertainment Co. news Saturday night had Labor ahead 52% to 48%. 2
Even the parties’ own polling (which should generally be treated with a health warning) doesn’t appear to have been immune to error. Leaked Liberal polls had indicated heavy losses of as many as 11 seats in the southeastern state of Victoria; in the event, the only two that are likely to switch sides were more or less handed to Labor thanks to redrawn electoral boundaries.
Yet while the result is a surprise, it’s hardly a revolution. The Coalition gained seats and drastically outperformed expectations, but owing to by-elections and redistricting it actually ended up with fewer constituencies than it did after the last election in 2016. Governing from a minority will present formidable challenges, too.
That’s particularly the case around the politics of climate, which has claimed the careers of three Australian prime ministers in the past decade. The Coalition seems certain to be dependent on at least three of six minor-party and independent candidates to command a majority. Five of that group have campaigned hard on stepped-up climate action that will alienate much of the government’s heartland vote. Bridging the gap won’t be easy.
That’s no reason for Labor to be feeling comforted. Some of the biggest swings away from it were in coal-mining areas in northern Queensland and north of Sydney which will lose jobs as domestic generators close and exports decline over the coming terms of parliament. That risks creating a soot belt of disillusioned working-class electorates serving a similar role to the US midwest in the 2016 election.
Indeed, one way in which the result reflects what’s been happening in the US was the growing gulf between increasingly liberal and affluent big cities and more conservative and hard-bitten regional areas.
Despite some claims that the Coalition won on the basis of wealthy and older voters turned off by Labor’s promise to increase taxes on shares and investment property, some of the biggest swings to the Coalition were in lower middle-class suburbs and exurbs that have some of the youngest demographic profiles in the country.
The traditional urban-rural maps on which Australia’s major parties have built their majorities are being scrambled.
Just as in Texas and west London, right-of-center slices of its cities are growing more liberal; just as in Ohio and northeast England, left-of-center regional areas are becoming more conservative. Which side is better able to capitalize on those trends will decide the direction of politics for the coming decade, not just in Australia but across the world.
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