The Labor Party has lost the unlosable election, and with it, the chance to change Australia’s course towards something approaching social democracy.
The result defies every poll, pundit and focus group. The Coalition’s policy offering was astonishing in its vacuousness and cruelty, led by a man who engineered his predecessor’s downfall, after six years in government that were defined by policy paralysis and internal division.
They promised climate inaction and tax cuts for the wealthy -- both policies that Australians overwhelmingly oppose. Their sales team was skeletal, as Liberal Party front-benchers abandoned ship to avoid an expected electoral wipeout and the Nationals navigated scandal. They defined themselves in opposition to change, pledging to maintain the same ecologically destructive, unfair and racist status quo.
And they won.
Was this our Trump moment, like some in the mainstream media are suggesting? It hardly feels like it. Morrison didn’t ride a populist, neoconservative wave so much as he did validate the wishes of retirees to retain their tax concessions and scare lower income voters into voting against their economic interests.
Border security and foreign policy -- areas that the right have traditionally capitalised on in elections -- occupied very little of the spotlight (Labor capitulated on these issues a long time ago), and it seems as though many voters, so far as they paid attention, were quietly happy to stick with a rudderless incumbent than a moderately disruptive alternative.
Add in Clive Palmer’s $60M campaign spend -- which ran an explicitly anti-Labor message, no doubt connected to Palmer’s interest in a returned Coalition government and his mining business -- and the cancerous influence of NewsCorp, and the prophets of crony capitalism did enough to get across the line.
Where does the ALP go now?
The ALP is hardly the radical left-wing party that it once was, but it ran on an agenda that was progressive in comparison to past offerings. It’s policy platform was refreshing in its scope and substance, with clear and consistent messaging: on the need for significantly more interventionist strategies to combat climate change; on the long-term costs of spiralling inequality; of the interconnections between low wage growth, housing (un)affordability and the crisis of insecure work.
Shorten played the integrity move with Rupert Murdoch, breaking with tradition by refusing to meet with the oligarch, and embraced a distinctly class-based rhetoric by taking aim at the “top end of town”. His team was united, disciplined, policy-focused and -- on relative terms -- manifestly deserving of victory.
To be clear, Bill Shorten was not a revolutionary, and the ALP was not embracing radicalism like some of counterparts in Europe and the United States. Rather, electing an ALP-government represented a small, but nevertheless indispensable, step towards structural reforms required to facilitate more paradigm-shifting change.
The ALP were never going to nationalise the rail networks, but they were offering positive co-operative and mutual enterprise policies; they were never going to overhaul the political funding system and ban corporate donations, but they might have instituted a Federal ICAC; they were unlikely to intervene to stop the Adani coal mine, but at least they were going to end negative gearing and give workers in the Australian Public Sector a pay-raise; they weren’t going to stop offshore processing of asylum seekers, but at least they would increase our refugee intake.
In that space, Australia’s political culture would be pulled back to the left of centre, and unions, universities and community groups -- until then under sustained attack by successive Coalition government -- would have had greater room to shift into the offensive. Ideas like the Universal Basic Income, free university education and a Green New Deal might at least have been up for debate – especially if Labor managed to piece together a few consecutive terms, or was forced into a coalition with the Greens.
All of that is off the table for the next three years, and possibly longer if the ALP is spooked into making itself a small target. The newly elected opposition leader Anthony Albanese has been at pains to shift Labor’s rhetoric to something more palatable to the right-wing commentariat, describing himself as “pro-business”, his constituency “aspirational Australians”, and his mission to facilitate more bipartisanship in politics. The risk is that the ALP yo-yo back to the centre, embracing a centre-right agenda that is progressive in contrast to the Coalition’s but remains aligned with corporate interests over those of voters.
The alternative – which my colleague Duncan Wallace analyses in much greater detail here – is that the Labor Party go in the opposite direction, adopting a more radical platform geared towards immediate change rather than incremental reform.
If that shift does occur -- as MPs like Tony Burke appear to be flirting with -- then the election last fortnight might one day be regarded as a blessing in disguise.
But looking ahead to the next three years under Scott Morrison, it’s hard to feel anything but despair for what could have been.