Late on Saturday came the announcement that crushed Australian liberals’ dreams of returning to power. Defying all expectations and polls, the center-right administration of Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison managed to hold onto power, echoing the surprise victory of President Trump in 2016.
Beyond the unreliability of polls, there was another echo of 2016.
After Trump’s victory, disappointed Democrats eager to leave the country crashed the Canadian immigration website.
Almost three years later, the same could be observed on the other side of the world on Sunday, hours after the conservatives’ win in Australia. In New Zealand, where Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has managed to position herself as a global liberal role model despite governing a country with a population smaller than London’s, government servers registered a surge in interest to migrate there over the weekend.
The New Zealand immigration website had more than 11,000 visitors on Sunday, compared to fewer than 3,000 seven days earlier, according to officials. Google analytics showed a surge in related search queries in Australia.
Those seeking a way out were in luck, as migrating to New Zealand isn’t much more difficult for Australians than it is for Americans to go to Europe on vacation. “If you are a citizen or permanent resident of Australia you don’t need to apply for a visa to live and work in New Zealand,” the country’s immigration website states.
This almost certainly wasn’t news to most Australians.
It also is unlikely that the surge in traffic will indeed translate into a substantial rise in Australians moving to New Zealand, as the U.S. elections have previously proved: Whereas announcing imminent departure for Canada on social media was a largely effortless move for many, actually moving to Canada was not a major trend. Rather than causing a surge in U.S. migrants to Canada, the Trump victory resulted in only a temporary uptick.
Information snippets, such as one day of search traffic, should not be overinterpreted.
Another cautionary tale in this vein was Britons’ rush to Google “What is the E.U.?” hours after the country had voted to leave the European Union. To Brexit’s opponents, the anecdote served as evidence that few supporters of leaving the E.U. knew what they were getting themselves into at the time of the vote. But British E.U. opponents would have cautioned that a few thousand Britons taking to Google may make for an online trend, but that it was at best a nonrepresentative, minor detail — and at worst a misleading effort to portray Brexit voters as unintelligent and unprepared.
The Internet, those critics maintained, had provided E.U. supporters with the tale they wanted to hear.
While temporary spikes in online search behavior provide limited insights, the debate they cause can often be more telling.
In that context, last weekend’s New Zealand immigration episode may be less an indication of a wave of Australians moving to New Zealand and more a metaphorical expression of the extent of liberal Australians’ frustration with their government — and their hopes for an Ardern-style challenger.
The differences between Morrison and Ardern could hardly be more pronounced.
Morrison has portrayed himself as a defender of the country’s influential coal industry and has resisted calls to cut emissions more significantly. He has largely shrugged off climate action protests.
Given that Australia’s agricultural heartland — long a conservative stronghold — is now the most severely affected by climate change-induced droughts, liberals expected a growing momentum for their anti-coal calls there. But so far, few farmers see climate change as the reason for the record droughts that are threatening their livelihoods, even as researchers maintain that Australia has already heated up by 1 degree Celsius over the last century.
In comparison, Ardern has pursued a more far-reaching climate change policy, banning all new offshore oil exploration last spring as part of an effort to make the country carbon neutral.
Whereas Ardern’s government has just rolled out the world’s first so-called well-being budget — focused on improving citizens’ happiness instead of growing GDP — Australia’s conservatives mostly ran on the promise to preserve economic growth. The liberal opposition Labor Party had campaigned for a more New Zealand-style approach, favoring high taxes to address social inequality.
Another difference between the two parties was their stance on immigration, with the conservatives pursuing tougher policies, including continuing to hold refugees in offshore centers, where several people tried to commit suicide after Saturday’s election result was announced, according to Agence France-Presse.
Unable to elect a government that vowed to change course, some of Australia’s liberals instead began to explore options to become migrants themselves on Sunday.
While New Zealand officials said they did not expect most of them to be serious, the 2020 U.S. elections could become another test of whether Democrats are willing to keep living in a country run by a president they abhor.