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28 May 2019

Scott Morrison's surprise win recalls John Major's in 1992

Mike Rann

MIKE RANN: As in the UK back then, an expected Labor victory didn't materialise

Aus parliament
Aus parliament

On Saturday 18 May Australia’s conservative government, now led by Scott Morrison, was re-elected for a third term.


The close result – with a small swing to the government – devastated Labor, embarrassed pollsters and confounded commentators who believed a Labor victory was inevitable. Now Australia is debating how Labor could have lost the “unlosable election”.


Australia is entering its 28th year of continuous economic growth, including enjoying strong jobs growth during the global economic crisis. Australia’s economic embrace of Asia, now overwhelmingly its biggest export destination, has paid off. However, economic stability and one of the highest per capita GDPs in the world, has not been reflected by calm in Australia’s domestic politics.


In the 32 years between November 1975 and December 2007 Australia had four Prime Ministers:  Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and John Howard. Since 2013 it has had five: Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd, Tony Abbott, Malcom Turnbull and Scott Morrison. If the polls had been accurate, a sixth, Labor’s Bill Shorten, would have been added to that list.


Commentators believed that bitter infighting and bloody leadership challenges would consign the government to the same fate as its Labor predecessor following the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd soap opera. In 2013 Tony Abbott won by exploiting Labor’s divisions and with the simple mantra that he would “stop the boats” and “scrap the carbon tax”. Ironically, he didn’t last as long in office as either Rudd or Gillard. A succession of toxic polls saw Abbott toppled by the more moderate Malcolm Turnbull, who, last August, lost the Prime Ministership to Scott Morrison, famous as a hardline Immigration Minister and infamous for taunting climate activists with a chunk of coal in Parliament. Despite Morrison’s folksy enthusiasm, it appeared that Australian voters had already pulled the curtains on a government that month after month trailed Labor 45% to 55% in the polls.


Perhaps comforted by its poll lead, a united Labor Party decided on a brave approach to election campaigning: announcing in detail wide-ranging policies, including its tax and spending program. By doing so it made itself a large and vulnerable target.


Labor’s policies included a 45% reduction in carbon emissions, a big commitment to renewables and electric vehicles, a promise of greater funding for cancer treatments, increased support for public schools and universal pre-school access for three- and four-year-olds. However, it was Labor’s tax policies that included changes to negative gearing, dividend imputation and franking credits that scared many voters. Labor was unable to adequately explain its complexity, giving the government the sword it needed. Instead of government divisions being the campaign issue, Labor was forced onto the defensive. Its redistributive tax agenda was depicted as a grab for cash threatening the retirement income of middle-class Australians in a country with high levels of share ownership and property investment. Labor argued that only a small proportion of Australians would be affected but many voters, who aspired to have a comfortable retirement, felt threatened and suspicious of Labor’s assurances.


The Coalition, having released its budget just before the election, made no similar mistake on the policy front. Their campaign was policy-light, instead reinforcing Scott Morrison’s “preferred PM” lead over Shorten by upbeat media conferences with few Cabinet colleagues in sight. The government’s sharpest focus was on the “threat” posed by Opposition tax policies. Their slogan, “The Bill Australia can’t afford”, cut through. Labor described the campaign contest as “hope versus fear”. Fear prevailed. 


By the last week of the campaign Labor’s polling lead had been reduced to 51/49. Two days before the election Labor’s most successful Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, died, aged 89. Hawke’s last public act was to endorse Shorten, proclaiming him “ready to be PM”. There was an avalanche of positive publicity about the immensely popular Hawke, who won four elections in a row. Policy achievements of his government included major economic reforms and an embrace of Asia that were instrumental in underpinning Australia’s sustained economic growth. In addition, there was Hawke’s universal medical insurance scheme, Medicare, major education reforms and compulsory superannuation, ensuring that Australia now has trillions of dollars under management, much of which is invested in Australia.


Many commentators believed the pre-election wave of sentiment about Hawke – with even the Murdoch press running front pages proclaiming “Larrikin, Leader, Legend” – would help nudge Labor over the line.


For Labor, that happy ending was not to be. The early confirmation on election night that Tony Abbott had lost his safe seat to an independent did not herald more good news for Bill Shorten. The expected big swings in Victoria didn’t occur. In Sydney, the seat of Wentworth, previously held by Malcolm Turnbull and lost to an independent in the by-election that followed his ousting, was brought back into the Tory fold. It soon became apparent that Labor would not pick up the small number of extra seats it needed to form a government. In Western Australia, whose time zone means that polls close later than the Eastern seaboard, there was no relief from a night of despair. The cruellest blow fell in Queensland. In the regional towns of central Queensland there were concerns that Labor’s climate policies might cost jobs and lead to the cancellation of the vast Adani coal mine. In Brisbane fears about Labor’s tax rather than climate policies probably contributed to Labor’s terrible result in the “Sunshine State”.


Australia has compulsory and preferential voting. There is no doubt the Coalition’s campaign was helped by a “preference deal” with controversial Queensland billionaire Clive Palmer, who spent more than $60 million on advertising, plus the backing of other populist parties that make UKIP look moderate. Their support was particularly helpful in regional Queensland.


Some commentators have drawn parallels between Morrison’s upset win and Trump’s victory. I disagree. In Australia it reminds me most of the 1993 election when a confident Opposition Leader, John Hewson, released a 650-page economic and tax strategy called “Fightback”. Labor PM Paul Keating, in the face of bad polls, turned that election into a referendum on Hewson’s proposed introduction of the goods and services tax. By doing so Keating won the unwinnable election and a fifth in succession for Labor.


Here in the UK perhaps the closest analogy is when, in 1992, John Major’s Conservatives, in power for 13 years and in the face of a recession, pulled off a surprise win against a Labour campaign led by a confident, perhaps over confident, Neil Kinnock. Here again Labour had released a comprehensive tax package which became a target for the Tory campaign.


As for the pollsters, there will inevitably be similar scrutiny and a rethink on methodology as there was following the UK elections in 2015 and 2017. However, it wasn’t just the pollsters who got it wrong. Betting agencies had a very bad night. Bizarrely, one agency paid out a Labor victory several days before the election and then had to pay out handsomely to those who backed the Coalition.


One thing’s for sure: there will be very few punters betting that franking credits will feature prominently in the next election, three years from now.

Mike Rann was Premier of South Australia from 2002 to 2011, and a former Australian High Commissioner to the UK. He is currently a Visiting Professor at the Policy Institute, King's College London.

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