And so it has come to pass that there will be an election in 2022. This should not have come as any surprise – despite the fact that quite a few commentators predicted an early poll. The truth is that this never made much sense.
Moreover, Scott Morrison has consistently mentioned that his government would serve out a full term.
As former prime minister John Howard once said, Australian elections (with maximum three-year terms enshrined in the Constitution) are difficult enough to win without risking 15 to 30 per cent of potential time in office by calling an early election.
Even if victory is attained by the incumbent, it still reduces time in office since, eventually, an opposition will prevail.
The history of elections in Australia indicates that they favour incumbents. Since the end of WWII, governments have been defeated on only seven occasions: 1949 (Coalition win), 1972 (Labor win), 1975 (Coalition win), 1983 (Labor win), 1996 (Coalition win), 2007 (Labor win) and 2013 (Coalition win).
In 2010, the Labor government under Julia Gillard narrowly survived by forming a minority government with the assistance of two independents – Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, both of whom held traditional Coalition seats and both of whom did not contest the subsequent 2013 election, where their seats returned to the Coalition.
The victories of Robert Menzies (1949), Gough Whitlam (1972), Malcolm Fraser (1975), Bob Hawke (1983), Howard (1996), Kevin Rudd (2007) and Tony Abbott (2013) did not come as any surprise. On all occasions, there was a mood in the nation for change – establishing the tradition that incumbents are more often than not returned to government.
The mood for change that was evident on these seven occasions does not appear to be evident at the beginning of 2022. That’s why there is a prevailing view that the election outcome will be close – as it was in 2010, 2016 and 2019. In this regard, Labor’s Bill Shorten was perhaps the unluckiest opposition leader – losing very narrowly to Malcolm Turnbull in 2016 and also narrowly to Morrison in 2019.
In 2019, Morrison had a path to victory. Namely, wins in Bass, Braddon and Lyons in northern Tasmania from Labor, gains in Victoria and Queensland, and holding ground in NSW, South Australia and Western Australia. The strategy worked, except for Lyons, where the Liberal Party candidate was disendorsed before the election on account of an inappropriate entry on social media.
Watching where the Prime Minister campaigned in 2019, it was evident what the Coalition’s tactics to retain office were, and also that the strategy made sense. But not to some of Australia’s best and brightest journalists.
In late 2020, due primarily to the insistence of Liberal National Party senator James McGrath, the ABC was forced to table its ABC Editorial Review No 19 titled Impartiality of the Federal Election 2019.
The report was conducted by Kerry Blackburn, an experienced journalist who has worked, among other places, at Channel Four and the BBC in Britain. Blackburn found that members of the Insiders panel came to the view that so many issues had “played so well for the Labor campaign” that “the return of the Morrison government was never seriously contemplated”.
Blackburn acknowledged that a few commentators at The Australian and The Spectator were articulating during the campaign “that there was a Coalition path to victory”. But none was invited on to Insiders during the campaign or immediately after the election. Indeed, two Insiders panellists had to change the titles of their (then) forthcoming books since both assumed Turnbull’s removal in August 2018 meant that the Coalition could not win in May 2019. A hopelessly wrong assessment.
It is unlikely that the journalists who made false prophecies three years ago will repeat the error this year. However, it’s fair to say that the Coalition’s task of winning will be perhaps more difficult than last time around. In view of this, it is appropriate to state that Labor under Anthony Albanese has a path to victory. As Morrison had in 2019, and has again in 2022.
For starters, the Coalition is seeking a fourth term. As former Liberal Party operative Michael Kroger pointed out in his Sky News appearances last year, every election victory moves a party closer to an inevitable loss sometime in the future.
Then there is the United Australia Party, led by former Liberal Party member for the Sydney seat of Hughes, Craig Kelly. He falsely claims to be a successor of former prime ministers such as Billy Hughes, Joseph Lyons and Menzies, who once led the original UAP, which became part of the Liberal Party when that party was created by Menzies in 1944-45.
To the extent that Kelly’s party, which is supported by Clive Palmer, succeeds, it will drain votes from the Coalition as preferences drift to Labor.
And then there are the so-called “Voices of” independents who are contesting only relatively safe Coalition seats, held by moderate Liberals in NSW, Victoria and South Australia. If the various well-heeled, so-called independents who have considerable financial support win seats at the election, they will almost certainly do so due to the preferences of the Labor Party and the Greens.
And they would need backing from the left to hold the seats at subsequent elections.
And then there are the Liberal Democrats, formed largely by former Liberal Party figures such as one-time Queensland premier Campbell Newman. Many Liberal Democrats hold the view that Anthony Albanese may as well be prime minister as Morrison.
They conveniently overlook the fact that similar attacks were made against Newman by disillusioned right-of-centre advocates, such as Alan Jones. The LNP lost the Queensland election, and Labor’s Annastacia Palaszczuk has been Premier ever since.
The task of being a national leader of a democracy is never easy, particularly at a time of pandemic or war. Right now, there does not appear to be a movement for political change. But attitudes can change before the election. And, every now and then, an opposition will win an election.