Fear of change hands election victory to Australia’s governing party
Voters lukewarm over opposition Labour’s climate policies and proposed removal of tax concessions
Sydney — Australia’s conservative government held on to power at national elections thanks to a highly effective negative campaign warning voters against the centre-left Labour Party’s large policy reform agenda, analysts said on Sunday.
Labour led every opinion poll in the two years prior to Saturday’s election but fell well short of a parliamentary majority after the vote, in a surprise result for the governing Liberal-National coalition.
Analysts said opposition leader Bill Shorten’s unpopularity with voters and his struggle to explain the party’s complex tax policies were used by Prime Minister Scott Morrison to devastating effect.
Labour’s failure also reflected a broader trend across western societies of voter cynicism towards bold policy platforms, said Australian National University senior fellow Mark Kenny.
“I think we’re in an age where it is very difficult to communicate big ideas and to sell imagery,” Kenny said, adding that right-wing populists around the world had been successful in invoking nostalgia and anxiety over the future to win elections.
'Surgical scare campaign'
“It’s quite hard to run a change or proposed change and to inspire the imaginations of voters and hold that against a very spirited and surgical scare campaign.”
Morrison successfully cast Labour’s proposals — particularly on removing tax concessions and tackling climate change — as too risky and damaging to household finances at a time when the national economy was slowing down.
“He fought an absolutely masterful negative campaign against Shorten and Labour,” said La Trobe University fellow Tony Walker.
The government’s anti-Shorten slogans focused on hip pocket issues, such as “The Bill Australia Can’t Afford”, which appeared to have resonated with voters while Labour failed to make the case for change.
Morrison’s campaign was particularly effective in Queensland, a battleground state that swung in favour of the government and where Labour’s perceived urban bias rankled with regional and rural voters.
Voters in the state’s mining towns, already angry with delays in the approval of a major India-backed coal mine promising thousands of jobs, did not warm to Labour’s big climate action plans and lukewarm commitment to the project.
“It seemed there was … sometimes mixed messaging about how much they supported it and I think that’s come home to roost,” said University of Queensland politics expert Chris Salisbury.
“The regions in Queensland are desperate for economic and employment opportunities and [voters believed] that the coalition was better placed to secure those opportunities.”
Labour blamed its Queensland collapse on mining magnate Clive Palmer’s estimated A$60m spend on election advertising.
While Palmer himself failed to secure an upper-house senate seat, support for his party and the anti-immigration One Nation boosted the government’s vote thanks to Australia’s complex preferential voting system.
Unlike Labour, the coalition campaigned on almost no new policies. Analysts say the fallout from the shock outcome could lead future political campaigns to shun bold or big ideas.
“It’ll be damaging if parties can only operate in a safe zone that they think isn’t going to offend the electorate,” Salisbury said.