Primary Colours Fade

21 July 2022
Primary Colours Fade - Featured image

The centre-right must lift its game to achieve a national realignment, argues Deputy Executive Director Daniel Wild.

Anthony Albanese and Scott Morrison led their respective parties to their worst performance on a primary vote basis since World War II. At the 2022 election, Labor received just under one-third of the primary vote, while the Coalition managed just 36 per cent. The combined primary vote of the two majors had a six in front of it for the first time since WWII, at 68 per cent.

The decline in first preference support for the major parties has been swift. The recent high for Labor occurred in 2007 at 42 per cent, and for the Coalition in 2013 at 46 per cent. This means that in just 15 years Labor’s primary vote has declined by 10 percentage points, and in just 10 years the Coalition’s primary vote has also plummeted by 10 percentage points.

In the end, the Coalition’s primary vote went backwards by a greater margin than Labor’s, letting Labor limp over the line with just 77 seats; a swing of about one per cent against it on the 2019 election, and with around half a million fewer votes than the Coalition. This ought to give pause to anyone claiming Labor has a mandate to proceed with any of its radical policies on climate, indigenous affairs, education, or the economy.

Anthony Albanese and Kristina Keneally, Sydney Mardi Gras, March 2021.

Anthony Albanese and Kristina Keneally, Sydney Mardi Gras, March 2021.
Photo: Bruce Baker

But don’t expect this to slow them down. Forming a majority in the Senate requires 39 seats. Labor holds 26 seats (and the Coalition holds 32) while the Greens hold 12, for a Labor/Greens total of 38. Add to this the independent Senator for the ACT David Pocock, who has indicated he will side with Labor on major pieces of legislation, and Labor effectively have control of both houses. For example, in early July speaking to the ABC, Pocock said in relation to Labor’s proposed 43 per cent by 2030 emissions cut: “I have been very open saying that I’d like to see a higher target, but my sense is that what Australians really want is a target to be legislated.”

What this means is that Australians should strap themselves in for what will be a fast and bumpy ride for the 47th Federal Parliament. We should expect Labor to move rapidly on major issues including, but not limited to: legislation to reduce emissions to 43 per cent by 2030, and to net zero by 2050; a federal anti-corruption body; further regulation and censorship of online speech; and an indigenous-only voice to parliament.

On each of these issues the Greens and Pocock will support Labor in principle, and to the extent they flex their cross-bench muscles, it will be to force Labor even further to the left. Witness Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, who recently described the 43 per cent emission cut as “low” and “will not stop the climate crisis”.

Millions of Australians no longer feel they have a voice in politics.

By the end of 2022, Australia could be a very different country, and not in a good way. History shows Labor wins government at the federal level infrequently, but when they do, they typically move at breakneck speed and change the country in a profound way. Sometimes the change is for the better, such as with the Hawke and Keating economic reforms of the 1980s. Mostly, it is for the worse, such as Whitlam regarding education and welfare, and Rudd–Gillard with education and climate policy.

The Coalition rarely rolls back Labor policy, with Tony Abbott’s repeal of the carbon tax and border protection policies two notable recent exceptions. But even there the devil is in the detail. Yes, the Abbott government removed the carbon tax. But the Coalition government subsequently signed Australia onto the Paris Climate Agreement, which commits Australia to the deepest cuts to emissions on a per capita basis anywhere in the world. And just last year, Scott Morrison went to the Glasgow climate conference to announce the Coalition would be adopting the Labor–Green policy of net zero emissions by 2050. It remains to be seen if the Coalition will support the net zero component of emissions legislation that Labor will bring to parliament this year.

The results of the 2022 election, though, get to a much broader point: millions of Australians no longer feel they have a voice in politics, and our political system is failing in being able to transmit the preferences of our community to corresponding policy outcomes. On many of the major issues facing the future of our nations—from climate policy to mass migration to the proper role of government—the differences between the Coalition and Labor are of degree rather than kind.

'The process for choosing party leaders, especially for the Liberal and National parties, is decided by members of parliament.' Opposition Leader Peter Dutton when he was Defence Minister, speaking in Washington in September 2021.

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton when he was Defence Minister,
speaking in Washington in September 2021.
Photo US Department of Defense/Jack Sanders

The short answer to the question of how this impasse can be resolved is through a realignment of politics and culture whereby the Coalition become the party of the working-class and resolve to no longer pursue the inner-city teal seats they lost at the election. How this might be achieved, however, is less clear, but the political earthquakes in the US and the UK in 2016 demonstrate it can be done. The Republicans won the 2016 US Presidential election because of a policy platform that appealed to working- and lower-middle-class voters who traditionally voted for the Democratic Party. Also in 2016, the vote to leave the European Union in the UK won because of strong support among working-class Northerner and Midland Brits. The subsequent 2019 General Election saw the fall of the ‘red wall’ where many traditional Labor voters backed Boris Johnson’s Conservative government, with a promise to deliver Brexit.

Yes, it is true the protagonists in these seismic political shifts—Trump, Farage, Johnson—have big personalities. That is why much media attention and commentary was focused on the role these individuals played in driving these historical outcomes. But the key drivers of the 2016 election, Brexit, and the Tory 2019 victory were policy and values. In the US the promise was economic policies around trade, migration, and energy, which would deliver jobs and higher wages to the working class, alongside support for traditional American cultural values such as freedom of speech, which had been under sustained assault by the elites.

On the foreign policy front, Trump emphasised the costs that foreign conflict was having on working-class families, which provide most of the cannon fodder for these wars. In the UK the promise was to deliver Brexit, a vote motivated by concerns around mass migration and the rapidly changing nature of British society, a loss of democratic sovereignty to the EU, and the outsourcing of jobs in manufacturing and heavy industry.

The 2022 federal election in Australia provides some indication of a yearning among lower-income and less educated voters for a similar realignment. Over the past two decades the Labor Party—which traditionally represented working-class Australians—has increasingly adopted policies that are diametrically opposed to their interests.

Support for climate policies such as net zero emissions by 2050 and a 43 per cent cut to emissions by 2030 disproportionately impact working-class Australians in terms of jobs and higher electricity bills. The support for mass migration undermines domestic job creation and wages growth. And support for internationalism erodes Australia’s domestic democratic sovereignty. As a consequence, Labor (along with the Greens) is becoming the party of the affluent, inner-city elite.

At a headline level at the 2022 election, the Coalition won just five of the 20 richest electorates in the country (Labor holds seven, and the Greens and teals hold eight). In 2019 the Coalition won 12 of the 20 richest electorates in the country. In 2022 the Coalition won 16 of the 20 poorest electorates in the country, which is the same as in 2019.

There are two key takeaways. First, in an election with a nationwide 5.5 per cent swing against the Coalition, the Coalition still managed to retain all of its working-class seats but lost seven of its high-income inner-city seats despite having a policy platform (such as net zero) primarily aimed at winning high-income inner-city seats. Second, the Labor Party—the party of Ben Chifley and Gough Whitlam—now holds more rich electorates and fewer poor electorates than the Coalition. But this partial realignment in Australia has happened despite, not because of, Coalition strategy. In other words, the Coalition have been passive and often reluctant recipients of a growing working-class vote, and appear to as yet be unaware of the strategic opportunities the shifting political and cultural sands offer.

Support for internationalism erodes Australia’s democratic sovereignty.

A deeper dive into the federal election results in Victoria reveals important lessons for the rest of Australia. The Victorian Labor Party has done more than any other state Labor party to alienate their traditional working-class voting base due to its brutal response to COVID-19. As IPA research demonstrated, lower-income voters were disproportionally impacted by lockdowns. For example, the IPA report Not in this together: An analysis of the economic and social impact of the COVID-19 Lockdowns identified that during lockdowns some 515,000 low-income jobs were destroyed, while 53,000 middle-income and almost 200,000 high-income jobs were created, many of which were in the public service.

Not in This Together

Across Victoria the swing against Labor was eight times the modest primary vote swing against Labor nationally. And the bulk of that swing was concentrated in five Labor heartland outer-suburban seats: namely Scullin, Caldwell, Hotham, Holt, and Bruce. The average swing against Labor in those five seats was eight per cent, and reached as high as 14 per cent in Scullin.

However, voter hostility to Labor did not translate into large swings to the Coalition. The vast majority of voters who deserted Labor gave their preference to one of the minor centre-right parties in One Nation, Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party (UAP), and the Liberal Democrats. There are important differences between each of these parties, but one thing they shared was clear and unambiguous opposition to lockdowns, mandates, and the Victorian and federal governments’ handling of COVID. In each of those five aforementioned seats, One Nation, the UAP, and the Liberal Democrats received at least 15 per cent of the primary vote.

The temptation for the Coalition at the federal level will be to simply look at the two-party preferred margins and conclude it will be easier to win back seats like Kooyong which is on a three per cent margin to the teal Monique Ryan, rather than gain Labor outer-suburban seats such as Holt which Labor holds with an eight per cent margin. This would be a fool’s errand given the Coalition was just comprehensively rejected by those in the inner city, despite having adopted Labor–Greens policy such as net zero. The challenge for Australians seeking change is that it is not immediately apparent whether the avenues through which change was achieved in the US and UK could be replicated in Australia. Change in the US was driven by an outsider in Donald Trump, who took over the Republican Party because of strong support among grassroot conservatives. This translated into political outcomes due to the Republican’s open primary process. Further, Trump won the general election in part because voluntary voting there means the side able to get more of their supporters out to vote usually wins, and so voter enthusiasm is a key determinant of elections.

Change can only happen through the actions of those who want to make it happen.

In the UK, change was also driven from the outside via Nigel Farage’s consistent agitating for a referendum about taking the UK out of the European Union. Then Conservative prime minister David Cameron only reluctantly agreed to holding a referendum because of his concern about losing votes and seats to Farage’s United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), a real possibility given the UK’s first-past-the-post voting system. Under this system, the candidate with the most votes wins and there is no distribution of preferences.

It is unlikely either avenue for change is open to Australia. The preselection process for choosing candidates can, from time to time, throw up individuals who could be considered anti-establishment. But the process for choosing party leaders, especially for the Liberal and National parties, is decided by members of parliament. And the chances of a Farage-style revolt are similarly limited. As already suggested, Australia’s preferential voting system makes it very difficult for a third party to make sustained gains in the lower house. It might be objected that the success of the teals shows it can be done, but this is the exception that proves the rule. The teals were successful because neither the Greens nor Labor were likely to win many of the inner-city seats, and so correctly judged that the easiest way to remove the Liberals was to preference the independents. There is, however, no countervailing force to the right of the Coalition, other than in a handful of seats in North Queensland where the LNP is far more conservative than throughout the rest of the country.

There are three broad options in Australia for how a realignment might take place. The first is building a nationwide conservative party, with the purpose of exerting pressure on the Coalition from the right (in a manner similar to the Greens exerting pressure on the ALP from the left). The second is the National Party splits from the Coalition and, at least in part, challenges the Liberal Party from the right in outer-suburban Liberal-held seats. The third is to achieve reform from within the Coalition, through grassroots members exerting greater control and influence over the party’s parliamentary wing.

But no matter which way change could happen, it will only happen because of the agency and actions of those who want to make it happen. The success of the teals and the Greens has not been a random accident, but the product of years of sustained effort. This is the type of endeavour to which the centre-right must commit itself.

This article from the Winter 2022 edition of the IPA Review is written by Deputy Executive Director Daniel Wild.

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