Australia’s Left Is Breaking Through

The Australian election saw historic defeats for the Right and its backers in the Murdoch media. But the Labor Party can't change the country without fighting for a robust, progressive economic agenda.

Labor leader Anthony Albanese during the Labor Party election night event on May 21, 2022 in Sydney, Australia. (James D. Morgan / Getty Images)

If the 2019 Australian election was shattering, relief sums up the 2022 election. That relief is shared across the political spectrum, with Scott Morrison’s own party colleagues describing him as a “psycho” and a “fraud.”

After Morrison’s unexpected narrow win in 2019, there were parallels with former conservative prime minister John Howard who won four elections in a row, provoking fears of long-term conservative dominance. Instead, there were three years of aimlessness, exposed by the federal government’s pandemic response failures, failed attempts at culture warring, and sheer ineptitude. With Morrison’s popularity cratering, the election became a referendum on the prime minister and delivered the biggest conservative defeat since World War II.

It is a historic victory, with Labor now on track to form government, either as minority or a narrow majority, and has delivered a realignment of Australian politics with a breakdown of the two-party system. Labor was not the main beneficiary of big primary vote swings against the Liberals except in Western Australia. The two-party preferred result masked record low primary votes for both major parties, and a record-high vote for independents and minor parties. The rise of organized independents and the breakthrough of Greens in the House of Representatives suggests a European-style fragmentation of the party system is happening.

Scotty From Marketing

Dubbed “Scotty from Marketing” by a satirical website, Scott Morrison concocted the image of a religious, suburban dad who loves rugby league, and gave himself a nickname “ScoMo” despite his long tenure as an appointed apparatchik and no evidence of any prior interest in rugby league.

It was the devastating bushfires over the 2019–20 Australian summer that first gave a public insight into his true character. While Australia burned and coastal towns had to be evacuated by sea to escape raging fires, he went on a holiday to Hawaii and lied about it. Earlier this year, Morrison inadvertently reminded the public of the getaway during a television interview where he played the ukulele.

His prime ministership seemed to be saved by the pandemic, which turned his political fortunes around. Australia initially avoided the worst of the first COVID wave by the benefit of geography, shutting its international borders, with minimal deaths. However, a shambolic vaccine rollout wasted time accrued in 2020, with COVID outbreaks resulting in lockdowns for more than half of the population in 2021 because not enough of the population was vaccinated. Melbourne bore the brunt with nearly nine months of lockdowns over 2020–21.

The failure to secure early vaccine supplies and a shambolic rollout led the vaccine program to be dubbed “the worst policy failure in modern Australian history.” Public anger swelled with Morrison’s flippant comments that “it’s not a race.”

There was the unexpected reemergence of federalism as state governments had constitutional responsibility for public health, hospitals, and law and order. In contrast to the growing stature of state premiers, Morrison became a shrunken figure that seemed to shirk responsibility, best summed up by his response to criticism about his absence during the bushfires, “I don’t hold a hose, mate.” That list of obfuscation kept growing with devastating consequences.

What became clear to the Australian public was that Scott Morrison did not take responsibility and could not be trusted, shamelessly lying over the smallest detail, with French president Emmanuel Macron even publicly calling out his lies.

Despite attempts by the Liberal–National Coalition to make economic management and national security key election issues, neither cut through because the public stopped listening. But everything that could go wrong, started going wrong.

In their attempt to see what mud stuck, they plumbed to new lows. Right-wing defense minister Peter Dutton used parliamentary privilege to claim that the Chinese Communist Party had decided to “back” Labor. Not only did former diplomats and national security types push back, but multicultural marginal seats with a high Chinese population also swung hard against them at the election.

In the final sitting weeks, attempts to pass a so-called Religious Discrimination Act that would enable discrimination on the basis of religious belief were sunk when Coalition moderates staged the biggest rebellion on the floor of Parliament since the 1980s. Concocted to wedge Labor, the bill was withdrawn when amended to protect gay and trans kids from expulsion from private schools. It was seen as a massive defeat for Morrison, a Pentecostal Christian, who personally tied himself to the bill.

The growing resentment within his own ranks began to boil over, right-wing Liberal senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, describing him as an “autocrat and bully who has no moral compass” and “not fit to be prime minister” in a late-night parliamentary speech. Revelations of an alleged racist smear campaign that enabled him to become a member of Parliament followed.

The internal sabotage came from a fear that a reelected Morrison would fully control the party. While the Liberals had hoped to win seats in New South Wales to offset losses elsewhere, court cases prevented the selection of candidates until the last minute. The mistrust crossed the factional divide, with former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Turnbull becoming a vocal public critic after learning of Morrison’s treachery that had led to his downfall. The turmoil continued into the election campaign over an anti-trans candidate who was handpicked by Morrison.

The Collapse of the Center-Right Fusion

Instead of another election “miracle,” the biggest fragmentation of the center-right since World War II occurred. The “blue wall” of the Liberals collapsed with organized independents winning in traditional blue-ribbon conservative seats across the country, even defeating the deputy leader of the Liberal Party. Inspired by the defeat of former prime minister Tony Abbott by a pro-climate independent and drawing on the Voices for Indi model, these organized independents were financed by wealthy benefactors associated with the Climate 200 political action committee, enabled by Australia’s lax campaign finance regime. These organized “teal” independent candidates, almost all small “l” liberal professional women, focused on climate, the treatment of women, and integrity.

The climate wars, as it has been dubbed, toppled multiple prime ministers, and left Australia a laggard on addressing climate change, with the Coalition eliminating a short-lived carbon pricing scheme in its first term in 2014. There continues to be strong climate-denier wing who is resistant to a net zero by 2050 target that even irritated Coalition state governments. Action on climate change, which had been deployed to wedge the Labor Party in 2019, however, now wedged the Liberals in their own heartland.

One of the biggest factors behind the anger of liberal professional women was the perceived treatment of women by the government. In early 2021, stories of misogyny and sexual crimes of the Coalition began to dominate media coverage. There were revelations that a young female Liberal staffer, Brittany Higgins, had been allegedly raped in Parliament House. It was followed by other allegations of sexual assault, harassment, and abuse against multiple government ministers including the attorney general.

Morrison reinforced the perception that he has a problem with women through tone-deaf responses, invoking a conversation with his wife about his daughters when explaining why he finally decided to respond to Higgins’s allegations, and had previously stated that women should not advance at the expense of men at an International Women’s Day function. Other instances such as Australian of the Year, Grace Tame, a survivor of child sexual assault, revealing she was threatened if she embarrassed Morrison publicly, and the revelations about treatment of other high-profile women such as former Liberal-turned-independent MP Julia Banks only fueled this perception.

The final issue of integrity came out of growing disillusionment with the political system, declining trust in government, and fears about the undue influence of money in politics. Concerns about corruption grew after reports of systematic pork-barreling such as “sports rorts” and the outsourcing of public services giving billions to consultants and contractors. There had been calls for a national anti-corruption agency, modeled based on similar agencies at the state level, but despite a promise by the Coalition to establish one in 2018, it dragged its feet and failed to establish one.

The fragmentation has occurred in both directions, with a growth of minor right-wing populist parties fueled by opposition to lockdowns and vaccine mandates. Mining billionaire Clive Palmer, an antipodean version of Trump, spent tens of millions on an anti-politics advertising blitz for his United Australia Party. He was far from the only one, with the far-right One Nation Party attempting to capture these voters and seemed likely to take Senate seats off the Liberal Party.

Prime Minister Albo

First elected in 1996 as the member for Grayndler, incoming prime minister Anthony Albanese is one of the longest serving members of Parliament, serving as deputy prime minister in the final days of the previous Labor government. Hailing from a working-class background, the son of a single mother on a disability pension who grew up in council housing, he went on to become the sole elected left-wing paid official within the right-wing machine-controlled NSW Labor branch, before entering Parliament.

Seen as a leader of the Labor Left, he has shifted to the center and tried to link his approach with Hawke-Keating government, the Australian equivalent of the Blair government. The base of support for his leadership included not just most of the Labor Left but also the NSW Labor Right and sections of the Labor Right from other states. Drawing on its 2019 election review, Labor dumped its policies to scale back tax concessions for the wealthy, tried to project a more business friendly image, and reduced the number of policies it offered. It was also particularly sensitive about communities with carbon-intensive industries such as coal mining, and religious communities who were seen to have swung against Labor.

Though Albanese has sought to draw on the Hawke-Keating legacy, in some respects his emphasis on infrastructure such as high-speed rail and local manufacturing hark back to the postwar reconstruction of the Curtin-Chifley Labor government. Prior to the election, conservative columnist Paul Kelly noted that “an Albanese victory will break the ‘rules’ of Australian politics — that Labor wins from opposition only under a dynamic leader with a substantial change agenda.”

By the standards of previous Labor leaders that have won from Opposition, Albanese is not immensely popular, but he may be more like recent state Labor premiers like Dan Andrews, underestimated in Opposition but who dominated once in office. Albanese’s strategy of playing the long game during the pandemic by appearing constructive was widely criticized but paid off. In the lead-up to Labor’s victory, he had been criticized for an uninspiring “small target” approach that minimized differences to focus on a negative campaign against Scott Morrison, leading some to speculate he might be replaced as leader before the election.

While there are some good policies that have a greater chance of being delivered such as drastically reducing the cost of early childhood education, fixing the crisis in elderly care, tackling insecure work arrangements, creating half a million free vocational education places, and supporting rebuilding the electricity grid for a future reliant on renewable energy, none really caught the public imagination like in 2007. The lesson, however, that many will take is the truism that “governments lose elections, oppositions don’t win them” is correct.

What’s Next?

The election may have been the easy task as the incoming government will face a challenging economic, geopolitical, and political environment. Cost of living concerns, driven by real wage stagnation and unaffordable housing driven by growing inflation, was a key election issue. Increasing pressures on the health and care sectors have become evident due to COVID, and they are in dire need of billions more in funding. The effects of climate change are becoming more evident with worsening natural disasters, with massive floods having occurring across the eastern seaboard only weeks before the election, hitting the regional center of Lismore twice within weeks. There is also an increasingly tense geopolitical environment with an almost nonexistent diplomatic relationship with China, despite it being Australia’s largest trading partner.

The scale of challenges are immense yet Labor’s policy offering was far from a radical program, with Albanese describing the modest offering of “renewal, not revolution.” The legacy of massive tax cuts for wealthy Australians that will make the income tax system less progressive than at any point since the 1950s, and which are set to cost the federal budget $184 billion over the decade that Labor promised to retain, the scars of 2019’s tax scare, and inflationary pressures may constrain ambitions for a massive expansion of public spending and attempts to escape the low tax social democracy trap. How courageous Labor will be in confronting these challenges in government is still unclear. Labor has attempted to manage expectations by emphasizing it will take more than a term to “fix” the damage done by the Coalition. There will also be pressure for more ambitious policies by “teal” independents and the Greens, especially on climate.

Labor is not without its own internal tensions. A national intervention into Victorian Labor after revelations of systematic branch stacking led to a court case over the takeover by right-wing forces. There were also weeks of stories about the treatment of the late right-wing Victorian Labor senator Kimberley Kitching, a close ally of former leader Bill Shorten. The imposition of white candidates in multicultural seats over candidates of color also caused uproar. Australia is a much more culturally diverse country than the United Kingdom yet has a far less representative Parliament, resulting in Labor losing one of its safe seats to an independent.

Depending on who becomes leader, a further radicalization of the Liberal Party may occur, especially with the defeat of moderate MPs by “teal” independents. The loss of the constraints of governing may encourage culture warring and rhetoric about the threat of China further. It may cause an internal tug-of-war over whether they try to win back the moral middle class who went to independents in inner metropolitan seats or drifted toward right-wing populism with a focus on the outer suburbs and regions.

The Greens ran on an unashamedly left-populist platform of taxing billionaires, phasing out coal, guaranteeing a basic income, and expanding free universal services. While it made gains in the Senate as expected, it achieved its highest primary vote ever and may win up to five more seats in the House of Representatives, primarily in Queensland. How it balances its left-populism with negotiating with Labor in the Senate to pass legislation remains to be seen. The Greens have previously been burned by the experience in 2010 and are likely to double down on its left-populist path and seek to win more seats off a governing Labor Party at the next election.

The Senate results are still to be determined but fears of a hostile Senate did not eventuate. Former Australian rugby captain David Pocock ran as a progressive independent and is set to win a seat off a conservative Liberal in Canberra, enabling a progressive working Senate majority in combination with the Greens. Alternatively, Labor, the Greens, and Tasmanian regional populist Jacqui Lambie’s grouping will also be able to pass legislation.

For those on the Left and progressive civil society in Australia, it will be important to try to create conditions for a more confident and ambitious government. Unlike 2007, there is no public optimism or fanfare that greeted Labor’s win. It may mean a cautious government that seeks to avoid repeating the backlashes of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government from vested interests to stay in office.

Prioritizing a handful of ambitious policies that make a tangible, material difference to lives, building a large groundswell of public support, and working across parties will be necessary. The energy, fundraising, volunteer turnout, and community organizing of the “teal” independents shows it is possible to tap into a desire for change. The alternative is another wasted decade of political impotence as the climate crisis only worsens and erodes faith in the ability of government to change lives that lets the Coalition rebound. With all that is at stake, those on the Left can’t rest yet.