The 2022 federal election ended eight and a half years of what was, in general, a mediocre Coalition government.
I say ‘in general’ because the two years of Tony Abbott’s prime ministership were the exception. Abbott promised to do three key things – ‘axe the [carbon] tax’, ‘stop the boats’, and ‘fix the budget’. He delivered on the first two. His attempt to deliver on his third promise in the 2014 budget failed, and Abbott’s ministers and MPs took fright at the reaction the public and the media gave after being told the truth about the country’s financial situation. Abbott’s treasurer, Joe Hockey was right when he said ‘the age of entitlement’ must end, but few wanted to hear that message and fewer still were willing to accept the consequences of that message. One of the few measures to survive from the 2014 budget was the ‘deficit levy’ that imposed a 2% surcharge on the income tax of those earning more than $180,000 a year. The levy revealed how ham-fisted the approach of Abbott’s economics ministers were. They were so naïve as to believe that increasing taxes on ‘high income’ earners would somehow make spending cuts more palatable to voters, the Labor Party, and crossbenchers in the senate. Of course, that didn’t happen. The senate happily passed the higher taxes and blocked the spending cuts.
The way Liberal MPs allowed the 2014 budget to fail and their reluctance to prosecute the case for policy reform revealed how the Abbott government was a government of one person – Abbott himself, who was surrounded by non-entities, has-beens, and those whose only aim in politics was to get Abbott’s job. It was the reverse of lions being led by donkeys. It was Abbott’s own cabinet ministers who opposed implementing the Liberals’ election promise to abolish Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, and it was Scott Morrison who led that opposition. In March 2014, Abbott’s attorney-general George Brandis said in defence of the Liberals’ plans to repeal Section 18C, ‘People have the rights to be bigots you know’. Whether it was an act of deliberate sabotage will never be known but five months later, Abbott was forced to abandon his commitment on freedom of speech.
After two years, Abbott was removed as prime minister because, supposedly, he was unpopular. Yet under Abbott, the Coalition won an additional 25 seats over two elections. Under Turnbull and Morrison, the Coalition lost 30 seats over three elections. Under Abbott the Liberals were clearly a political party of the centre-right. What the Liberals were under Turnbull and Morrison is hard to know.
When Liberal MPs are asked to name the achievements of their party’s time in office, one of three responses is usually given. The first is ‘at least we kept Labor out’. The ‘at least’ acknowledgment gives the game away. Certainly between 2013 and 2022 Labor didn’t occupy the treasury benches but they didn’t need to for their agenda to be implemented as the Liberals appointed left-leaning judges to the High Court, increased the size of government, and did nothing to address the dismantling of the country’s public culture, as an ideology of identity politics suffused nearly every one of Australia’s civic institutions. David Hurley, the Liberals’ chosen appointment for Governor-General, had his staff undertake a ‘privilege walk’ because they are white. As The Daily Telegraph editorialised; ‘Woke madness has now reached one of the highest offices in Australia.’, it went on; ‘the rest of us need to take a stand not against themselves but against these increasingly Orwellian practices. We are a free people, and privileged to remain that way.’
It might have taken a while but eventually the Labor Party got its way on net zero – and Labor didn’t need to be in government for its policy to be achieved. In 2015, Labor committed itself to net zero. Labor then lost two elections with a policy of net zero, in fact, the inability of the Shorten-led opposition to explain the costs of net zero to consumers was widely regarded as one of the reasons Morrison won his ‘miracle’ election in 2019. Repeated surveys of public opinion reveal that while Australians might like net zero as a theory, they are unwilling to pay for it. A poll conducted for the IPA asked 1,000 respondents ‘How much would you personally be willing to pay each year for Australia to reduce its emissions to zero by 2025?’ 42% said nothing, 30% said $50, 20% said $100, 5% said $500 a year, and 3% said more than $500.
But the public’s reluctance to embrace net zero didn’t stop Scott Morrison. In October 2021, he revealed the Coalition’s commitment to net zero. This announcement reversed more than a decade of Coalition promises to ensure electricity to Australian households was affordable and reliable. Designed to save Liberal-held seats from the so-called ‘Teal’ candidates, Morrison’s net zero strategy failed utterly. At the 2022 election the Liberals lost six seats to the Teals. It also lost nine seats to Labor and two seats to the Greens. All the seats lost to the Teals, two of the ten seats lost to Labor, and one of the two seats lost to the Greens would have once been considered Liberal ‘heartland’.
The Coalition’s commitment to net zero was much more than a failed ploy to retain a handful of heartland seats. Morrison destroyed the capacity of the Coalition to mount any sort of critique against Labor’s climate change policies because the two parties have the same ultimate objective. The Coalition is left with claiming ‘we agree with Labor’s aim but we want to achieve it a different way’.
The second response of Liberal MPs to the question about their party’s achievements ignores the first six years of it’s time in office and focusses only on its final two and a half years. And that response is ‘we kept Australians safe during Covid’. To which there are in turn two replies. ‘That’s arguable’ and ‘at what cost?’ Under Morrison, the federal Liberals supported the destruction of human rights, the suspension of democracy, and the world’s longest lockdown under Victorian premier Daniel Andrews. Most likely the full toll will not be known for decades. Australia’s response to Covid will eventually come to be the country’s greatest policy failure. The claim from some Liberals that ‘we did it because it was popular’ speaks to how the public was managed and manipulated during the crisis by government and the media.
Scott Morrison claimed his handling of Covid ‘saved 40,000 lives’ and ‘We have so far avoided the many thousands, if not tens of thousands, of cases that may have otherwise occurred by this point across the Australian community – and indeed the many more fatalities that could also have occurred by this point.’ The point has been made that the 40,000 figure seems to be based on a comparison between Australia and developed countries in the northern hemisphere. But Australia is an island with a quite different climate – both relevant factors when making such comparisons. In any case, as we now know any statistics on Covid must be scrutinised. For example, Australia with a population of 26 million has recorded 15,000 Covid fatalities or 595 deaths per one million people. The United States has had 3,200 deaths per one million people. Comparable figures for some other countries are as follows – United Kingdom 2,800, France 2,400, Sweden 2,000, New Zealand 617, and Bangladesh 175.
The final response from Liberal MPs is ‘we did AUKUS’. That’s true. The trilateral security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States that will enable Australia to acquire nuclear submarines is certainly an important development. But according to most observers, the earliest the submarines will come into operation is 2040. As significant as AUKUS is, it is precious little return for eight and a half years in government.
As yet there seems to be scant recognition of just how disastrous the 2022 election was for the Coalition. On one measure it is the worst result in its history. With 58 seats out of the 151 seats in the House of Representatives the Coalition has the lowest proportion of seats in parliament since the Liberal Party was founded in 1944. After Bob Hawke’s victory in 1983 the Coalition had 50 seats out of 125, and after Kevin Rudd’s victory in 2007 it had 65 seats out of 150. By way of comparison, John Howard won in 1996 with 94 Coalition-held seats out of 148, and in 2013 Abbott won with 90 seats out of 150. Over the last ten years, as the Liberal and National parties have drifted to the left, they’ve shed one-third of their lower house seats. Moving to the left hardly looks like an election-winning strategy for the Coalition. Yet that was what Liberal ‘moderates’ continue to urge.
The 2022 election highlighted a trend that had been decades in the making. The Liberal ‘heartland’ was once located in suburbs where the wealthy and well-educated live. Once the wealthy and well-educated voted Liberal, now they vote Teal, or Green, or even Labor. The Liberals have lost their old heartland and they’ve found no new heartland to replace what they’ve lost. The Australia that the Liberals once thought they knew and understood has changed. And the Liberals have not found a way to respond.
After the 2007 election the Liberals held twelve of the fifteen wealthiest seats in Australia defined by family income. After the 2022 election it holds four of the fifteen wealthiest seats, and the Liberals and the National Party hold thirteen out of the fifteen poorest seats. The eighty-year-old stereotype of the Liberals as the party of the rich is now well and truly out-of-date.
An analysis of the 2022 election result against the wealth and educational qualifications of voters in House of Representatives seats, undertaken by the Institute of Public Affairs, reveals what is taking place. On the basis of wealth and education, Coalition and Labor voters are more like each other than are Coalition and Teal voters. The income of a family in a typical Labor seat is 10% higher than for a family in a typical Coalition seat. But the income of a family in a typical ‘elite’ seat (the wealthiest 10% of seats) is on average 60% higher than for a family in a typical Coalition seat. Of those fifteen elite seats as mentioned four are held by the Liberals, six are held by Teals, and four are held by the Labor Party. The educational qualifications of voters in Coalition, Labor, and elite seats shows the same sorts of differences. In an average Coalition seat, 18% of the working age population have a university degree; in Labor seats that figure is 27%; and in an elite seat, it is 46%.
Most of the seats that the Coalition holds sit firmly in the definition of ‘middle Australia’, that is the 80% of seats that sit between the wealthiest seats and the poorest seats. The Coalition has 41 out of those 121 seats. Voters in those other middle Australian seats have more in common with the average Coalition voter than do voters in elite seats.
Increasingly, the values of voters in elite seats, as expressed in how they vote, are not the values of the Liberal Party. The three issues on which the Teals campaigned were climate change, integrity, and gender equity. Not one of those issues would be in the top three concerns of the average Liberal voter. They are all post-material concerns. Whether the Liberals should aim to satisfy the needs of elite voters is one question. Another question is whether the Liberals can meet the demands of elite voters while at the same time maintaining the support of voters from middle Australia.
It would be completely understandable if the Liberals seek to win back the elite electorates they lost in the election. Those seats are where the bulk of the Liberals’ rank-and-file membership live, where the Liberals’ fundraising capacity is, and is the heart of the Liberal Party’s foundational history. Electorates like Wentworth in Sydney and Kooyong in Melbourne were held by Liberal prime ministers. Whether these are the seats where the Liberal Party’s future lies is the question that Peter Dutton faces.
This article is from Volume 1 of Essays for Australia 2023 and is written by John Roskam is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs.. To find out more, head to ipa.org.au/essays.