190519 australia poll shock
Image Credit: Ramachandra Babu/©Gulf News

MAIN POINTS

  • The government looks certain to lack a controlling majority of the House. So deals will have to be cut will be with centrist independents and minor parties
  • Some of the biggest swings away from Labor were in coal-mining areas in northern Queensland and north of Sydney
  • A swathe of seats in western Sydney and the greater Brisbane region moved to the government’s side
  • Abbott suffered the biggest loss of the night with a 19 per cent swing to centrist independent Steggall

Australia likes to think that its electoral system is immune to the sort of shock outcomes seen elsewhere in recent years.

Voting is compulsory, so there’s never a surprise driven by turnout. A system that requires voters to nominate multiple candidates means that insurgent third-party campaigns have little purchase, because people can have their protest vote and still choose a mainstream candidate too.

While nearly a quarter of the electorate placed a minor party first on their ballot on Saturday, nearly 90 per cent put either the governing Coalition of Prime Minister Scott Morrison or the opposition Labor Party second. As a result, the Coalition and Labor will account for all but six or seven seats in the 151-member House of Representatives. The government looks certain to lack a controlling majority of the House, but the deals it will have to cut will be with a handful of centrist independents and single-seat minor parties, rather than a powerful populist fringe.

At the same time, Saturday’s election result is a political shock scarcely less expected than the victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 US presidential election, or the triumph of the anti-European vote in the UK’s Brexit referendum earlier that year.

It’s been almost 18 months since any opinion poll showed Morrison’s Liberal-National Coalition [the coalition has been in place since the 1940s, so is a more stable grouping than the name suggests] with a shot at victory. Newspoll — the most closely followed survey, whose poor showings were used as justification for the internal party coups that removed Morrison’s predecessors Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull in recent years — has put the Coalition behind in 56 consecutive polls since 2016.

An exit poll by Nine Entertainment Co news Saturday night had Labor ahead 52 per cent to 48 per cent. [Under Australia’s preferential voting system, minor-party votes get redistributed to the leading candidates in House of Representatives elections, resulting in so-called ‘two-party preferred’ that should always sum to 100 per cent.]

Even the parties’ own polling (which should generally be treated with a health warning) doesn’t appear to have been immune to error. Leaked Liberal polls had indicated heavy losses of as many as 11 seats in the south-eastern state of Victoria; in the event, the only two that are likely to switch sides were more or less handed to Labor thanks to redrawn electoral boundaries. [The predictive failure was probably driven in part by the decline of landline telephones making pollsters’ task in finding a representative sample of voters all but impossible, an issue that’s occurring across the world. In their confusion, polling organisations also seem to have been benchmarking against each other in a way that’s led to herding, producing overconfidence around what’s turned out to be an utterly erroneous result.]

Formidable challenges

Yet while the result is a surprise, it’s hardly a revolution. The Coalition gained seats and drastically outperformed expectations, but owing to by-elections and redistricting it actually ended up with fewer constituencies than it did after the last election in 2016. Governing from a minority will present formidable challenges, too.

That’s particularly the case around the politics of climate, which has claimed the careers of three Australian prime ministers in the past decade. The Coalition seems certain to be dependent on at least three of six minor-party and independent candidates to command a majority. Five of that group have campaigned hard on stepped-up climate action that will alienate much of the government’s heartland vote. Bridging the gap won’t be easy.

That’s no reason for Labor to be feeling comforted. Some of the biggest swings away from it were in coal-mining areas in northern Queensland and north of Sydney which will lose jobs as domestic generators close and exports decline over the coming terms of parliament. That risks creating a soot belt of disillusioned working-class electorates serving a similar role to the US Midwest in the 2016 election.

Indeed, one way in which the result reflects what’s been happening in the US was the growing gulf between increasingly liberal and affluent big cities and more conservative and hard-bitten regional areas.

Despite some claims that the Coalition won on the basis of wealthy and older voters turned off by Labor’s promise to increase taxes on shares and investment property, some of the biggest swings to the Coalition were in lower middle-class suburbs and exurbs that have some of the youngest demographic profiles in the country.

In particular, a swathe of seats in western Sydney and the greater Brisbane region moved heavily to the government’s side, helping it retain power. In his victory speech overnight, Morrison called out apprenticeship — training for mostly low- and medium-skilled jobs — as a key part of an Australian’s path through life. Such programmes account for a larger share of post-school education than university in non-urban areas, in a reversal of the pattern elsewhere.

By contrast, in Sydney’s wealthy northern beaches, the deep-dyed conservative former prime minister Abbott suffered the biggest loss of the night with a 19 per cent swing to centrist independent Zali Steggall. In Melbourne’s affluent inner east, the seat of Kooyong that’s been the Liberals’ safest for more than a century suffered a 5.4 per cent swing towards Julian Burnside, a campaigning refugee lawyer on the Greens party ticket, leaving it just a whisker above marginal status.

The traditional urban-rural maps on which Australia’s major parties have built their majorities are being scrambled. Just as in Texas and west London, right-of-centre slices of its cities are growing more liberal; just as in Ohio and north-east England, left-of-centre regional areas are becoming more conservative. Which side is better able to capitalise on those trends will decide the direction of politics for the coming decade, not just in Australia but across the world.

David Fickling and Daniel Moss are Bloomberg Opinion columnists.