Australia’s ruling conservatives have won a “miracle” victory in the nation’s election stunning pollsters and the opposition Labor party, which failed to convince voters they should back its progressive agenda to tackle inequality and climate change.
The surprise win — Labor has led almost all opinion polls for more than two years — at the weekend will provide Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister, with either a minority administration or a slender majority in the nation’s parliament and cement his leadership in the cut-throat world of politics in Canberra. The Liberal-National coalition has won a mandate to deliver sweeping tax cuts — one of only a handful of policy reforms outlined by the party during a campaign that was dominated by attacks on Labor’s agenda.
“I have always believed in miracles,” Mr Morrison, a devout Pentecostal Christian and rugby league fan, told supporters in his victory speech on Saturday.
The 51-year-old Liberal party leader credited his come-from-behind victory to the “quiet Australians”, the millions of ordinary voters who do not follow day-to-day politics but rely on the government to put their interests first. Mr Morrison stoked fears Labor’s high tax and spending polices risked wrecking the economy at a time when Australia’s run of 28 years without recession is threatened by a housing price slump and a slowdown in China, its biggest trading partner.
“The heart of Australian politics beats on the right. It’s a conservative country and I think there was a trend in this election in which voters asked ‘if it isn’t broke, why fix it?’” says Duncan McDonnell, professor of politics at Griffith University in Queensland.
Labor leader Bill Shorten’s unpopularity, concerns about the cost of Labor’s progressive agenda and the success of negative campaigning by the Liberal and smaller parties were likely factors, according to analysts.
“Shorten was a perennially unpopular leader, who wasn’t able to sell Labor’s policy reforms to voters,” said Sarah Maddison, politics professor at University of Melbourne.
Mr Shorten announced his resignation as Labor leader in the wake of the defeat, blaming a “toxic” election campaign. Party strategists blamed a A$80m ($55m) advertising blitz by populist mining magnate Clive Palmer, which targeted Labor’s policies and Mr Shorten, for turning off voters. Labor’s plans to scrap lucrative tax breaks for middle and higher income groups also handed too big a target for Liberal attacks, they said.
“People were worried about their savings at a time when the economy is uncertain,” said Bruce Hawker, who advised former Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd.
Mr Morrison’s success follows a turbulent period for the coalition, which has had three prime ministers since it formed government in 2013 due to bitter internal wrangling between moderates and conservatives. Divisions remain over climate and energy policy, an area that could prove challenging for the government as public concerns about global warming grow, particularly in metropolitan areas.
Tony Abbott, a former Liberal prime minister and key conservative figure, lost his seat on Saturday to Zali Stegall, an independent, who ran on a platform of tackling climate change. But in a sign Australians remains divided over the best way to tackle global warming, the Liberal party made huge gains in Queensland, a coal mining state where it had supported plans by Indian energy company Adani to build a massive mine in the Galilee basin.
“Labor promoted a mixed message on coal, trying to appeal to environmentalists who want to restrict coal mining, while also backing mining jobs. That strategy appears to have backfired,” said Ian McAllister, professor of politics at Australian National University.
With counting continuing on Sunday, it remains unclear if Mr Morrison will secure the 76 seats required to form majority government. If he does not, he will have to rely on independent MPs, many of whom support more action on climate change, to pass legislation. Even if he does win a majority, the Liberal-National coalition will need the support of several independents in the Senate to pass laws.
Political analysts said they were stunned at the divergence between the official results and polls, which had suggested Labor was on course for victory. It marks the biggest electoral upset in Australia since 1993 when Liberal leader John Hewson lost the so called “unlosable election” to Labor’s Paul Keating, at least in part because he proposed ambitious tax reforms.
It follows similar concerns about the accuracy of polling linked to the election of Donald Trump in the US and the 2015 election and Brexit referendum in the UK.
“In some ways Bill Shorten is Australia’s Ed Miliband,” said Mr McDonnell, in a reference to the former British Labour party leader who failed to appeal to voters and lost the 2015 election in UK.
“Shorten always seemed too cardboard and coached to win the trust of voters.”