Without question, last Saturday’s election represented the greatest change in the Australian political system since the emergence of the two-party system in the years after Federation in 1901.
It so happens that this could go hand-in-hand with one of the greatest challenges the Australian economy has faced in recent times. Namely, the possibility of a serious economic downturn because of the lingering effects of Covid-19 (especially in China) along with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its impact on world energy supply and prices. There is also the possibility of a world food crisis because of the inability of Ukraine to export wheat and the current heatwave and drought in India.
In the excitement of the election leading to a change of government, much of the Australian media has underestimated the possible impact of international developments on the newly elected Anthony Albanese Labor government.
Take ABC television’s Insiders, for example, which is presented as one of Australia’s leading current affairs programs. On the Sundays immediately before and after the election, I do not recall any discussion on international security and economic developments. Rather, the focus was overwhelmingly on national politics.
However, these matters could well prove to be more important to Australia than the outcome of last Saturday’s election, especially since there was not a large gap in the policies presented by Labor and the Coalition at the election.
Labor’s immediate future will turn on how the party governs in the next three years in what is likely to be a difficult economic and perhaps security environment.
The Labor governments led by Gough Whitlam, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard were afflicted by adverse international conditions that emerged primarily after they were elected. This is not the fate of the Albanese government. It faces an immediate problem with the possibility that the US may lead the world into stagflation – rising prices accompanied by low economic growth leading to unemployment.
The problem facing the new Prime Minister is that maybe Labor has promised too much.
There is Labor’s commitment to alleviate cost-of-living pressures. Then, on ABC TV’s 7.30 program on May 20, Albanese got specific. He promised to deliver “cheaper childcare” and “cheaper energy bills” – a mightily ambitious policy in the current international environment.
It may be that Labor’s victory represents a long-term change in voting habits in Australia. Peter Lewis of Essential Media, which does polling for the avowedly left-wing Guardian Australia, was interviewed by Geraldine Doogue on Saturday Extra on May 21. He described the dilemma facing the Liberal Party this way: “If you’re going after the uneducated vote, in a nation that is increasingly becoming educated, that kind of seems a narrower market.”
So according to Lewis, the current division in Australia is between the educated and the uneducated – not between those with and those without tertiary education. A somewhat elitist view, to be sure. If Lewis is correct, this will prove problematic for Labor as well as the Liberal Party.
Sure, the Liberal Party lost seats to the teal independents in some of the most affluent electorates in Australia in which reside some of the best-educated Australians – namely Kooyong and Goldstein in Melbourne and North Sydney, Mackellar and Wentworth in Sydney. But the Liberal Party did best in two electorates in northern Tasmania that are not affluent and where higher education rates are among the lowest in Australia; namely Braddon (based on Burnie and Devonport) and Bass (based on Launceston).
Moreover the Nationals, which represent some of the lowest socio-economic regions in the country, retained all their seats.
Meanwhile, the Greens hold the affluent inner-city seat of Melbourne, and in Brisbane have won Griffith (from Labor) and Ryan (from the Liberals) and have a chance of winning Brisbane (currently held by the Liberals). None of these seats are in low-socio-economic areas.
This suggests the Greens are taking seats off both the Liberals and Labor in well-heeled, well-educated areas.
The good news from the election is that it appears that Australia will have a government with a majority of members in the House of Representatives. Even in the unlikely scenario that Labor fails to attain 76 seats, it could almost certainly rely on one or more sitting independents such as Rebekha Sharkie, Helen Haines and Bob Katter.
The lot of an independent who does not have, or share, the balance of power can be a frustrating one. On Insiders last Sunday, Zoe Daniel (the teal independent for Goldstein) said Australia should reduce carbon emissions by 60 per cent by 2030. Monique Ryan (the teal independent for Kooyong) said much the same on ABC Radio National Breakfast the following morning.
However, last Tuesday Chris Bowen, who is likely to be climate minister in an Albanese government, said Labor was intending on sticking to its commitment of a 43 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030.
Certainly the Greens are likely to exercise a balance-of-power position in the Senate. But only if the Liberal and Nationals senators vote with the Greens. There is good reason not to do so. It is perfectly feasible for an opposition to vote for legislation it opposes provided the alternative is worse.
It is unlikely that the Liberal Party will win back most of the teal seats unless and until there is a severe economic downturn. After all, affluent Australians can handle increases in power, fuel and food prices relatively well. The opportunities for the Liberal Party lie in the suburbs and regional areas.
The Liberal Party recovered relatively quickly from its dreadful defeats in 1972, 1983 and 2007. Likewise in 1946, when it performed about as badly as last Saturday – led by a dysfunctional NSW division.
Robert Menzies led the Coalition to victory in 1949 – as he had led it to defeat in 1946. In between, Labor’s Ben Chifley made the disastrous decision to nationalise the private banks.
It’s always unwise to make predictions about democratic politics since change is an unpredictable phenomenon.