Australia’s political class, pollsters and election watchers are reeling following the extraordinary and unpredicted Liberal National Coalition win at Saturday’s election. In announcing victory, the devout Prime Minister, Scott Morrison said he believed in miracles – which will surely become the leit motif of his next government.
And it is his miracle alone. Mr Morrison fought this election as a one man band, keeping his team and even the Liberal brand far away from the spotlight.
Labor had basked in three years of successive opinion polling that said it would win this federal election. That is, more than fifty consecutive polls predicted an easy Labor win. Those opinion polls were as wrong as they had been in the recent NSW state election. Yet, as voting closed on Saturday, exit polls – said to be the most reliable of indicators – gave the election to Labor.
Why, the Liberals must be asking themselves, did they allow years of favourable Labor polls to become a catalyst for them to dump two Prime Ministers, and be riven with internal divisions based on personal and factional enmity? It was those dodgy polls that ultimately propelled Mr Morrison into the top job only nine months ago.
Saturday’s final vote count is still underway in the race for 76 seats needed to govern as a majority. As we write, it is likely that the LNP Coalition will do so with a one or two seat buffer. For Labor, the result may likely be its worst election outcome in many years.
What is certain is that opinion polls can’t continue to shape politics and even leadership. Another certainty is we can dump the once accepted ‘truism’ that a divided party cannot survive an election, and that voters punish parties that regularly dump leaders.
In his spectacularly unsuccessful bid to become Australia’s 31st Prime Minister, Labor’s leader, Bill Shorten led a unified, stable and gender diverse team that presented an ambitious set of reformist policies shaped as a ‘fair go’. In doing so Labor made themselves a ‘big target’ for the mostly negative Morrison campaign.
Mr Morrison successfully shot down Labor’s policies that included dumping negative gearing for property investors and a complicated reform to remove share tax rebates from wealthy retirees. In doing so, Mr Morrison planted seeds of doubt in nervous voters concerned about cost of living pressures and falling house prices. Some pundits have already labelled the Morrison attack on Labor’s franking credits removal, a scare campaign. What they overlook is that scare campaigns profit from confused and poorly explained messages. Labor’s radical tax plan was just that.
Climate change, consistently presented as a weakness for the Morrison Government, was supposed to be major concern of voters, and thus give victory to Labor. In reality, Independent Zali Steggall was the only successful climate change campaigner when she trounced former Prime Minister, Tony Abbott in his once very safe seat. However, it is arguable that other factors, including Mr Abbott’s personal style, contributed to his loss.
The Liberals campaign wasted little time presenting policies other than income tax cuts, and a first home owners grant scheme. Infrastructure projects and a budget surplus promised in its April budget received little attention. Rather, Mr Morrison successfully and rather brilliantly made the election a test of Mr Shorten’s reformist agenda .
Labor’s opinion poll winning virtues of stability, and a highly visible, and gender-balanced team contrasted with Mr Morrison’s ‘lone ranger’ style. With only months in the top job after a series of leadership coups, Mr Morrison traversed the country largely alone, save for his very likeable family by his side. This included a risky Mother’s Day campaign launch with no senior women colleagues sharing the stage. That space was taken by his mother, wife and two young daughters.
What we know about this next Morrison government agenda can be found in its April budget, which was largely a political document rather than an economic one. It included:
- bringing forward already announced income tax cuts,
- $500 million in healthcare – with grants to research projects, $331 million for listings on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS),
- cash grants for pensioners to cope with high electricity bills,
- extra funding for regulators to counter Labor’s taunts that the Morrison government was ‘soft on big business’ transgressions,
- underwriting energy projects, including the refurbishment of a coal fired station in NSW, and
- funds for ‘congestion busting’ infra structure projects.
In the coming days, Mr Morrison will announce his next ministry. Labor will elect a new leader after Mr Shorten announced he was stepping down.
Jacquelynne Willcox, EVP & MD Powell Tate Australia