Opinion What Australia’s election rout shows the country — and world

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison at an election night event in Sydney on May 21. (Nazanin Tabatabaee/AP)

In Australia, for just the fourth time since World War II, the Labor Party, this time under leader Anthony Albanese, has been elected to form government from opposition. The conservative Liberal Party — led by outgoing Prime Minister Scott Morrison — was routed.

How did it happen? And what are the lessons for politics in Australia and elsewhere?

1

Don’t take your heartland for granted

Morrison not only lost seats to Labor but also lost a swath of seats to a group of female independents who adopted the color teal — a blend of Liberal blue (to signal they were economically conservative) and green (to signal they were progressives on climate change and the status of women.) The “teal independents” won seats in wealthy parts of Sydney and Melbourne that had long voted Liberal — including that of Morrison’s deputy, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg.

2

You can’t win without women

Some seats are yet to be determined, but of the 14 seats that have already changed hands, 12 have been won by women. Morrison’s party has, for years, failed to run enough women in winnable seats. Morrison himself appeared baffled by issues about respect and safety for women. And Labor had the better policy on child care.

3

Charisma is overrated

Conventional wisdom holds that Labor only wins from opposition with the assistance of a charismatic candidate — Gough Whitlam in 1972, Bob Hawke in 1983 and Kevin Rudd in 2007. Then again, Australia’s longest-serving leader in recent years, Liberal John Howard, was hailed by supporters as authentic but bordering on dull. This election result may prove the case for unflashy authenticity — especially when confronting a leader such as Morrison, who seemed more interested in photo-opportunity campaigning than in governing.

4

You can’t win without action on climate change

According to the ABC’s Vote Compass, the country’s largest survey of voter intentions, a majority of voters wanted “much more” action on climate change. That’s hardly surprising in a country that has been ravaged by floods and fires of increasing severity. The triumphant teal candidates all listed action on climate change as a priority. Meanwhile, the Australian Greens are celebrating what their leader calls their “best result ever.”

5

Rupert Murdoch no longer calls the shots

The Australian-born press baron dominates the Australian newspaper industry. In this election, all but one of his newspapers editorialized in favor of Morrison, and there were slanted headlines aplenty. Yet, this seemingly had no discernible impact. In a world of social media and multiplying sources of information, even the most strident Murdoch headlines can struggle to be seen.

6

You can’t win by fighting the last election

They say bad generals always fight the last war, and the Liberal campaign fell into the same trap. Morrison won a surprise victory in 2019 through a negative campaign in which he depicted then-Labor leader Bill Shorten as a dangerous radical. Labor, wary of giving Morrison a second victory, changed its strategy. It matched many of Morrison’s policies and was cautious in its own offerings. Labor was like an echidna, the spiky Australian animal that rolls into a ball when attacked. Morrison kept attacking, as if he knew no other mode, even though Labor’s small-target strategy gave him so few opportunities.

7

Imported culture wars don’t work

In Britain, a battle over the rights of the trans community has generated great heat on both sides. It hasn’t been the same in Australia. Maybe it’s a “live and let live” attitude, or maybe we just haven’t gotten around to that particularly toxic battle. Either way, Morrison attempted to weaponize the issue by endorsing a candidate who had expressed extreme anti-trans views. He might have hoped that would play well in the conservative outer suburbs. Happily, it didn’t seem to work. Instead, according to one Liberal minister, it created a “contagion effect” that helped others, such as the teal independents.

8

Don’t take the locals for granted

Labor’s biggest blunder was to select one of its star performers to contest one of its safest seats, Fowler in western Sydney. A local candidate was shunted aside. The result: a 17 percent swing against Labor and the election of an independent with links to the area.

9

Covid-19 memories are short

Australia did well with controlling covid-19. The vaccine rollout may have been a “stroll out,” but lockdowns and closed borders delivered one of the lowest death rates in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Voters, however, seem to remember failures more easily than successes.

10

Don’t create slogans that can be used against you

Morrison, a former marketing man, loves creating snappy slogans — but some have proved his undoing. “I don’t hold a hose, mate,” was his answer when questioned about a holiday in Hawaii during the bush fires of the summer of 2019-2020. And “it’s not a race” was his reply when asked in March 2021 why his government was so slow in ordering vaccines during the pandemic.

It turned out, of course, that it was a race. It’s now also clear that in times of peril, Australians want a leader willing to hold a hose.

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