The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Australia ousts conservative Prime Minister Scott Morrison

Anthony Albanese, leader of Australia's Labor Party, is flanked by his partner, Jodie Haydon, and son Nathan Albanese as he addresses supporters in Sydney on May 21. (Jaimi Joy/Reuters)

SYDNEY — Australia delivered a stinging defeat to the country’s ruling conservative coalition on Saturday in what amounted to a personal rebuke of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s abrasive brand of leadership.

The result paves the way for opposition leader Anthony Albanese to become the next prime minister. But it was unclear whether his center-left Labor Party would win an outright majority or be forced to negotiate with a handful of independent and Greens candidates elected on platforms of combating climate change.

Albanese took the stage shortly before midnight to address a boisterous crowd.

“Tonight the Australian people have voted for change,” he said. “It says a lot about our great country that a son of a single mum who was a disability pensioner, who grew up in public housing down the road in Camperdown, can stand before you tonight as Australia’s prime minister.”

Morrison had conceded an hour earlier, saying his administration has left the country in a “stronger position” than when he took office in 2018.

“I think on a night like tonight, we can reflect on the greatness of our democracy,” he said, adding that he was stepping down as leader of the Liberal Party.

The concession offered some clarity on a night of confusing, almost chaotic results that at times left even seasoned political analysts scratching their heads.

“We may be in for a long night,” election expert Antony Green said on the Australian Broadcasting Corp. network. “And we may be in for a long week to work out which party wins which seats. And we may be in for two or three weeks before anyone works out who is the government.”

What was quickly evident on election day was that the Australian political landscape was fracturing.

Independent and Greens candidates appeared on track to win almost a dozen seats — due, in part, to a focus on climate change, an issue that exit polling suggested was on many voters’ minds.

“I think there was a real attempt from Liberal and Labor to bury it as an election issue,” Greens leader Adam Bandt told the ABC. “And we were really clear about the need to tackle climate by tackling coal and gas.”

Zali Steggall, an independent who retained her seat on Sydney’s north shore, said a failure to address climate change had hurt both major parties.

“Climate change simply did not feature in the policies and platforms from the major parties and in particular from Scott Morrison,” she told the ABC. “It’s like he forgot that over the last three years, we were ravaged by bush fires and floods, and somehow it was swept under the carpet.”

Morrison, a staunch backer of Australia’s coal industry who once brought a lump of the black sedimentary rock into Parliament, had tried to neutralize climate change as an electoral issue by belatedly committing to net zero emissions by 2050. But he promised it would not hurt coal mining jobs or raise the cost of electricity, and he avoided the issue on the campaign trail.

Stung by a shock Labor loss in 2019, Albanese ran a small-target campaign, paring back some of his party’s more divisive policies, including cuts to carbon emissions. Although Labor’s climate targets were more ambitious than those of Morrison’s coalition, they trailed those of the Greens and independents, and Albanese didn’t trumpet them.

That cautious approach drew derision from voters in Albanese’s own electorate of Grayndler in inner-city Sydney.

Amy Knox and Evan Solomons, both 36, said they voted for Labor in 2019 but were now going with the Greens because of climate change concerns.

“Both major parties have been really uninspiring” on the issue, said Knox, an attorney at a community legal center. “The whole thing is pretty uninspiring, to be honest.”

Under Australia’s preferential voting system, Albanese would almost certainly end up benefiting from their votes anyway. As the couple led their two children through a rainy graveyard plastered with political signs, a Labor Party poll worker offered their 3-year-old daughter a “Vote Albo for PM” sticker, which she hesitantly accepted.

In the wealthy Melbourne electorate of Kooyong, there was equal uncertainty about the major parties, but also an alternative with a strong chance of winning.

Kooyong is traditionally a safe seat for the right-of-center coalition. But Josh Frydenberg, Morrison’s treasurer, faced a stiff challenge from one of a slate of climate-focused independent candidates.

All 10 voters who spoke to The Washington Post at Camberwell Primary School on Saturday morning said they were voting for the independent, Monique Ryan, a children’s neurologist.

“I believe in all her ideals, especially for climate action and especially for the integrity of the parliamentarians,” said Anne Byrne, 87, a nun and retired teacher. Like other “teal independents” — they tend to support the free-market policies of the blue conservative coalition although they also have a green focus on climate — Ryan has said she will push for an independent commission to investigate claims of wrongdoing against federal politicians.

“I voted for her because the House of Representatives needs a bit of a shake-up,” said Kathryn Beasley, 24, an aged-care worker. “With an independent, you’ll be able to break up the two-party dynamic.”

Ryan appeared headed for victory on Saturday night.

“Josh Frydenberg has lost his seat!” a Ryan supporter shrieked in disbelief inside the Auburn Hotel, where the noise was deafening and the atmosphere elated. Frydenberg did not concede, however, saying it was “mathematically possible” that he retained his seat “but definitely difficult.” Local media called the race for Ryan.

All 151 seats in the House of Representatives were up for grabs. Morrison’s coalition held a one-seat majority in Parliament’s lower chamber. Labor needed to pick up seven seats to form a government. Forty of the 76 seats in the upper chamber, the Senate, were also up for election.

The contest came at a tense time Down Under. The land of “no worries” has become, well, worried. Australians, normally among the most optimistic people on the planet, have grown increasingly dissatisfied with their lives and concerned about their future, recent polling shows.

The world’s 13th-biggest economy is going strong, as exemplified by Morrison’s gleeful announcement this past week that unemployment had dropped to the lowest level in half a century. But inflation, equally strong, means many Australians are effectively earning less by the day.

Mark Kenny, a professor of politics at Australian National University, described the prevailing mood as “fatigue, uncertainty, a little bit of fear.”

“Things like an increasingly assertive China, the war in Ukraine, the cost of living crisis,” he said. Morrison “has tried to leverage these things and package them all up into an overall atmosphere of uncertainty that will only be added to if you change government.”

But those warnings against change did not gain traction.

A year ago, Morrison, 54, appeared to be cruising toward reelection thanks to Australia’s early success in keeping out the coronavirus. But a slow vaccine rollout and outbreaks of the delta and omicron variants renewed criticism of his crisis management — a subject that first flared when Morrison went on holiday during devastating bush fires in 2019.

When questioned about his absence, his reply — “I don’t hold a hose, mate” — fed into criticism that Morrison is slow to act but quick to dodge blame. Those complaints resurfaced in March, when the prime minister waited more than a week to declare a national emergency over historic floods.

Morrison also faced credibility issues. Last year, French President Emmanuel Macron accused Morrison of lying about a scrapped submarine deal. Then came a flurry of attacks from within the coalition, including leaked text messages describing him as a “horrible person” and “complete psycho.”

“I have a distrust of Scott Morrison,” said Simone Gupta, 48, shortly after voting for Allegra Spender, a teal independent who would win another crucial battleground, the Sydney beach electorate of Wentworth. “It’s his mishandling of the treatment of women in government.”

Morrison’s party has faced a series of scandals, including an allegation by a former coalition aide that she was raped by a colleague in Parliament in 2019. The accusation sparked nationwide demonstrations for gender equality, a demand that Gupta said the government has not met.

The coalition’s defeat was “clearly more of a rejection of Morrison than it is a loving embrace of Albanese or Labor,” said Paul Williams, a political scientist at Griffith University in Brisbane. “But it wasn’t all about his leadership. There’s obviously a distinctive choice among a huge number of Australians to pursue a more progressive policy agenda, otherwise teal independents wouldn’t have emerged, and people wouldn’t have voted for them.”

The result was a recasting of the political landscape Down Under and an “existential crisis” for the coalition, he said. Shorn of its moderates, the coalition was now “a conservative rump.”

But the election also left Labor with some soul searching to do, such as why some suburban working-class voters had abandoned the party, Williams said.

Like Joe Biden in the 2020 U.S. election, Albanese, 59, appeared happy for the election to be a referendum on his divisive opponent. And like Biden, he emphasized empathy and unity, themes he returned to in his victory speech.

“I want to bring Australians together,” he said. “I want to seek our common purpose and promote unity and optimism, not fear and division.”

“Together we can end the climate wars,” he added, referring to infighting that has dogged both major parties.

The small-target strategy posed a risk for Albanese, who started the race as the far-lesser-known candidate and struggled to introduce himself to voters.

But on Saturday night, he basked in chants of “Albo, Albo, Albo!”

“My fellow Australians,” he said. “I think they’ve got the name by now.”

Vinall reported from Melbourne.