By Brigitte Morten *
Opinion – The Australian Labor Party hadn’t lost a single two-party preferred poll for the last two years. But when it came to the only poll that actually matters – the night – they have lost dramatically.
With still considerable counting to happen, it is almost guaranteed that Australia will have a third term Liberal-National government.
The question then is: Did Liberal Prime Minister Scott Morrison pull off the miracle campaign, or did Opposition Leader Bill Shorten lose the unlosable election?
This election set up two strikingly different campaign strategies. The Liberals ran a contest on personality. At every opportunity Morrison asked – do you want Shorten or me? The Labor team focused on big reform and big ideas – counting on the electorate’s appetite for change.
You can’t blame the Labor team for thinking that change was being asked for. Every political commentator and pollster were talking about how climate change was the biggest issue going into the election. However, as election results across Western democracies have shown us in recent years – the polls cannot be relied upon.
In key areas like Queensland, the mood for big policy reform simply wasn’t there. Morrison’s “speaking up for quiet Australians” approach capitalized on this and their seat-by-seat grassroots campaign was targeted at it.
For Labor, as the unlosable election, the safer option would have been to go small: Minimise risk and just slide in to government. It appears that hubris may have meant that they overcapitalised on the mood.
It is similar to the lead up to the 2017 election here in New Zealand where the polls and commentators were saying there was a huge mood for a complete change in politics, but on the ground – particularly in regional and rural areas – the grassroot campaigns of the parties simply weren’t seeing that. On election night this was reflected when the National Party received the highest party vote, although inevitably failed to form government
The early blame for Australian Labor’s poor result is being put squarely on Bill Shorten. His party knew that he was one of their weakest points – voters simply didn’t connect with him – but they chose stability with their track record of one leader for five years rather than returning to the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd debacles.
Australian Labor leader Bill Shorten leaves the stage after conceding defeat. Photo: AP Photo/Andy Brownbill
There will certainly be some questioning whether they should have made a last-minute switch to a more populist candidate – taking some lessons from New Zealand with an Andrew Little-Jacinda Ardern style change.
Labor also changed their messaging throughout the campaign – it was originally about health, then wages and then climate change – whereas the Liberal camp always bought it back to one question: Bill Shorten or Scott Morrison.
The election result is therefore a win for personality-based politics, the idea that people are more interested in who they can trust, rather than what they will deliver. This may be seen by some as a sad indictment on the state of politics and a reflection of that adage – when you haven’t got anything to sell, you sell yourself.
It also sends a clear signal that voters want to know who they are electing, however: They want to know that their politicians understand what they want in their lives.
Photo: Copyright 2019 The Associated Press / Rick Rycroft / All rights reserved
It required a very disciplined campaign by the Liberals to stay on message when the polls were telling them they were not cutting through, and after the mess of the Turnbull coup last year this would have been harder to achieve than ever.
This was, after all, the fourth time Australians had gone to the polls with a prime minister they hadn’t voted in at the beginning of the term.
Despite the “miracle” victory, it is not an easy road ahead for the Morrison government. Record numbers – equal to almost the entire population of New Zealand – voted ahead of election day, meaning the results will take some time to settle. And the numbers mean either a slim Coalition majority or a hung parliament relying on independent MPs.
The Senate House results are messy and means every upper house vote will require careful negotiation. Morrison will still have to deal with the issues he had going in to the campaign – like the low numbers of women across his front bench.
However, there are some clear lessons from the Australian election result: Personalities matter and you can’t rely on the polls to tell you what to do.
* Brigitte Morten is a senior consultant for Silvereye. Prior to that she was a senior ministerial adviser to the Minister of Education in New Zealand’s previous National-led government, and an adviser and campaign director for Australia’s Liberal Party. /radionz