The Quiet Australian Scott Morrison’s Election Victory

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The victory of Scott Morrison in the Australian federal elections in May 2019 will rightly be seen as remarkable. “I have always believed in miracles,” he claimed in his victory speech. But even the victors have little reason to gloat. It was a victory that saw a minimal shift of positions on the battlefront: a mere few seats, in real terms. The contesting Australian Labor Party found itself in a position similar to the elections of 2016. But the impact of such constipated moves was devastating. Having been seen as a shoe-in, opposition leader Bill Shorten found himself conceding in stunned disbelief, resigning as leader of his party.

The anger expressed in the aftermath of the Liberal-National victory from Labor supporters was extreme if understandable. The anointed successor never received his crown. He had failed to overcome the handicap of unpopularity hoping that extensive, and detailed policies would win the day. Instead, the combination of an unpopular candidate and a slew of proposals enabled Prime Minister Scott Morrison to sharpen his campaign.

Those familiar with their Australian electoral history might point to the 1993 victory of Labor’s Paul Keating against the vast, complex package of what then opposition leader John Hewson called Fight Back. With that came an admixture of the various elements that fed into the victories scored by the Liberal Prime Minister John Howard through his time in office from 1996 to 2007. The Howard generation was averse to “the vision thing” so relentlessly promoted by Keating. Abstractions and broad canvas policies were hard to budget; mortgages and basic, everyday living were. In remorseless and shameless fashion, Howard extolled the aspirational “battler” in his political rhetoric and infected the Australian voter with a self-calculating, self-interested cynicism that has been hard to shake.

Morrison’s own touch was a slight adjustment of the same thing: the heralded quiet Australian. Such Australians have dreams “to get a job, to get an apprenticeship, to start a business, to meet someone amazing, to start a family, to buy a home, to work hard and provide the best you can for your kids, to save for your retirement and to ensure that when you are in your retirement you can enjoy it because you have worked hard for it”.

Foremost amongst the lessons of 2019 is that Labor must learn to win in Queensland. Its voters are varied, diverse and, it should be noted, drawn from a good number of the southern retiree class that pricked their ears up with suggestions that their share income, or negative gearing arrangements, might be affected. The Liberal MP Tim Wilson’s insistence that Labor’s franking credit reforms be seen as a “retiree tax” were instrumental. As Fairfax contributor Michael Koziol noted, “The retiree stronghold of Bribie Island was ‘on fire’ over franking credits. The Coalition threw resources into the area and ultimately won it for Labor with a 4 percent swing.”

Forgotten in the swirl of recrimination and despair are those basic if cringe-worthy pursuits Morrison embarked upon in the short time he warmed the Prime Minister’s seat. A specific effort worth mentioning was his trip to Queensland last November, a state now being compared, rather clumsily, to some monster variant of middle, white America. In social media, a brushfire had started, suggesting that Queensland be expelled from the Commonwealth. Certain voters were “so unhappy, in fact,” noted the broadcaster SBS (May 19, 2019), “that many are cheekily proposing #Quexit – a move which would see Queensland cut loose from the rest of Australia.” A lawyer and political commentator Kate Galloway noted in Eureka Street (May 21, 2019), “The disrespecting of regional Queenslanders is [Hillary] Clinton’s ‘basket of deplorable’ all over again.” Queenslanders were accused of being a “low IQ” population. Forgotten were the “vagaries of government policies” and the fears about an economy moving from fossil fuels to renewables.

Labor’s focus on combating climate change and refocusing the policy drive on energy renewables failed to find a voice in the regional seats of Queensland. The delays, and interminable debate on Adani’s proposed Carmichael mine in the Galilee Basin bit hard in high unemployment communities. While the Indian mining giant was promising pie-in-the-sky figures of future employment, Labor’s lack of clarity on the issue of whether it would stand in the way of the development, should it be approved by the Queensland government, caused uncertainty.

At the time, Morrison’s bus journey on the “Scomo Express” seemed fatuous and clownish. When it took place in November last year, it was roundly ridiculed by the Canberra press gallery. That hardly mattered: the new Prime Minister was making an effort to put himself forth as worthy electoral material in a state that would prove significant in any future polls. The message then was made in an electoral register, reassuringly pitched to the sceptical voter: “keeping Australia on the right track – lower taxes, more jobs, lower electricity prices, economy building and congestion busting infrastructure, AAA balanced budgets.”

Seeing the “daggy dad” with baseball cap in action was indigestible, but the populist figure often is. A person who has nothing to lose, not even his dignity, is a dangerous political opponent. He will muck it with the rest of them and unashamedly woo. And so it proved with the advertised platform leading to May 18, streamlined and kept to such slogans and promises as “Building our Economy”, “Backing Small Business”, “Delivering Tax Relief” and the improbable “Creating 1.25 Million Jobs”.

Morrison the man of advertising was always in evidence. When it came to the damaging floods in North Queensland, Morrison seemed gauche in his efforts to win favour by donning military colours on his trip to Townsville. But he was well aware of being in the most marginal seat in Queensland – the seat of Herbert held then by the Labor Party’s Cathy O’Toole – and wanted to let people know he could be buffoonish yet reassuring. Topping that were messages about “standing by the people” and making sure that, “Supporting the flood-affected communities and families in North Queensland [remained] a top priority for our Government”.

Shorten was made out to be the devil incarnate with dangerously ambitious policies, one best avoided for down-to-earth voters. “Don’t roll the dice,” went a series of advertisements from the Coalition campaign machine. Under Labor, voters would receive higher taxes: “Australians to pay billions in new taxes.” (That this was a grand fudge was beside the point.) Question marks were placed under “More Debt” and “Weaker Economy”. “The Bill you can’t afford,” Morrison threatened, “will just keep rising and rising. If you can’t manage money, you can’t run the country.”

Had the election been one of the matched policies, folder to folder, dossier to the dossier, it is hard to have seen the Liberal-National coalition winning. Such a campaign was always geared towards defeating Malcom “Innovation” Turnbull, the previous leader who was removed in circumstances of much acrimony by a group of plotters led by the current Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton. But the ALP machine waivered, stuttered, and struggled against the one-man “Scomo” Show, cheaply pseudo-presidential, and purposely trimmed of substance. There was a failure to capitalise on the record of a Coalition government dysfunctional, suicidal and regicidal. Instead, it proved markedly positive and “dangerously” visionary. “They did have,” reflected the Liberal Party federal president Nick Greiner on Labor, “a very broad vision. We believed our best chance would be to say to people: you don’t want more taxes and more government, you want less taxes and less government.”

Future Australian political campaigns are bound to shun detail. In the long run, the economist John Maynard Keynes famously remarked, we are all dead; in the meantime, test your costings, explain your budget, and seize the day only after a fair appraisal of the accounts.

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Diplomatist Magazine was launched in October of 1996 as the signature magazine of L.B. Associates (Pvt) Ltd, a contract publishing house based in Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, India, the National Capital.

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