Saturday’s Australian election provided an unexpected result, reinstalling a conservative government that most expected to lose. So, what are the take-home lessons?
1. Keep it simple. The opposition Labor Party’s store-window was too crowded. A big new policy would be highlighted at the start of the day, but by the afternoon, the party leader, Bill Shorten, was on to something new. On the other side of the street, the government — led by the Prime Minister Scott Morrison — used its window to present one simple, negative message: Labor wants to tax you more. If anything, this election was a rerun of 1993. Back then, the roles were reversed: the Liberal Party’s economic plan ran hundreds of pages. The detail gave Paul Keating, the Labor leader of the time, his election ammunition. The policy was “the longest political suicide note in history,” according to John Hewson, who this week observed Labor’s arrival in the same hole into which he had fallen.
2. If running a betting agency, don’t pay out early. The betting agency, Sportsbet, was — along with everyone else — so certain of the outcome, it paid out on bets predicting Labor’s victory, despite the vote still being two days away. It was a publicity stunt that cost the betting house an extra $1.3 million, (about $900,000 in U.S. currency).
3. Scare campaigns work. During the 2016 election, Labor sent text messages falsely warning of plans to privatize Medicare, the nation’s popular universal health care system. The government derided the campaign as “Mediscare,” but it worked. This time, the government had its own cynical distortion, using social media to pretend that Labor would bring back death duties, a tax abandoned in the 1970s. In an era in which parties can reach individual voters — via text message or social media — these furtive whispers are more powerful than ever.
4. It’s the leader, not the team. Shorten surrounded himself with key players from his party; an acknowledgement of the popularity of front-benchers such as Penny Wong and Tanya Plibersek. That wasn’t an option for Morrison, whose front bench had been depleted by ministers leaving in either frustration or exhaustion. Somehow, the prime minister turned that into a positive — running an energetic, single-handed campaign in which he warned about Labor’s policies while offering few of his own.
5. Voters are deeply divided on climate change. Polling shows increasing number of Australians rate the environment and climate change as one of their key concerns. The result, however, showed huge geographic variations. A former prime minister, Tony Abbott, lost his blue-ribbon seat largely over his skeptical attitude toward climate change. Meanwhile, in the coal-mining Hunter Valley, north of Sydney, and in Queensland, where the huge Adani coal mine is being proposed, there were swings to the government of up to 15 percent. If a choice is presented as being between “jobs” and “the environment,” mining communities choose “jobs.”
6. Don’t believe the polls. All the published polls got the result spectacularly wrong — particularly when it came to Queensland. What went wrong? Some theorize about the “shy Tories” who didn’t want to confess their conservative intentions. More likely: finding people at home, on a landline phone, willing to talk, is no longer so easy.
7. Money, once given, is hard to take back. Labor’s plan saw the end of some much-prized tax concessions. The party pledged to use the extra funds to provide better services, such as education, child care and health, but it failed to convince voters of the link between the certain pain and the promised gain. In particular, the removal of concessions relating to share market income was dubbed as a “retiree tax” — and the phrase, however unfair, proved deadly.
8. We still believe we’re a classless society. Australian politicians often talk about “fairness,” but Shorten went further and criticized the “top end of town.” John Howard, Australia’s most successful living former leader, responded by saying “one of the proud boasts of this country is that we are not driven by class.” He added: “We treat people equally. We inherited wonderful things from the Brits, but one thing we didn’t inherit was class distinction.” Many would disagree with Howard’s assertion of a classless society, while agreeing that many Australians enjoy seeing it that way.
9. Don’t take on Murdoch. Past Labor leaders have sought meetings with the Australian-born media mogul Rupert Murdoch, whose company still controls around 60 percent of the nation’s newspaper circulation. Shorten chose not to. Last week, the headline of my Global Opinions column asked the question: “Can a politician take on Rupert Murdoch’s empire and win?” The outcome is proof of the old newspaper adage: If if a headline ends in a question, the answer is nearly always “no.”
10. Real reform is increasingly difficult. Two days before the election, Australia mourned the death of one of its greatest prime ministers, Labor’s Bob Hawke, whose government opened Australia to the world, creating a wave of prosperity which continues to this day. By Saturday night, some were wondering whether such a reforming agenda is possible in today’s era of fractured politics, 24-hour news and social media silos.
Putting aside the outcome of the election, it’s now clear that Australian politics will now be more risk averse. And, in challenging times, that appears to be a self-imposed brake on our future.