This article explains the causes of the change of government in Australia last Saturday, and the consequences for the center / right / conservative balance within the party that just lost power.
Australia had a federal election last Saturday (21 May 2022). While the results are not yet 100 percent clear, it is certain that the incumbent Liberal party lost numerous seats, possibly up to twenty. (For any Americans reading this, the word ‘Liberal’ has a completely different meaning in Australia to its use in America. The party that calls itself the Liberal party in Australia is a city-based party which spans policy position from the center-right through to deep conservative. It has traditionally claimed to be a “broad church” capable of holding a membership from the socially liberal (in the American sense) but fiscally conservative, through to the conservative-on-everything under one roof. (The expression “broad church” is not actually a religious expression, although it sounds like it. Think of it as “broad tent”). For historical reasons I won’t go into here, Australia has a separate rural-based conservative party, the Nationals, which is more conservative than the Liberal party.) Historically, the Liberals and the Nationals governed in a coalition.
The political spectrum in Australia looks like this: (text contiues below diagram)
As well as losing seats to the Labour Party, the Liberals also lost 3 or 4 seats to the Greens Party, and likely several to a group of independents collectively known as the Teals: a reference to the pale greenish-bluish color they used on their signage. The Teal independents were all well educated professional women who had substantial careers outside of politics, and in many cases would normally have belonged to the centrist part of the Liberal party (the palest of those blue bits above).
What happened? After Australia suffered a devastating series of climate related disasters (bush fires and floods, whith the same areas sometimes being flooded twice, just after the first cleanups), many voters turned against the Liberals which have, at different times, been climate deniers, or were seen to be obstructionist feet draggers on climate issues, because they were chained in a coalition with the nationals, who hold some coal mining districts. At one point the Prime Minister (Scott Morrison) waved a lump of coal around in the chamber, shouting something like ‘Don’t be afraid, it won’t hurt you.” The Liberal Party had also failed to introduce legislation for an anti-corruption commission, and the Liberals had appeared deaf to an outrage about several sexual issues, including sexual harassment and at least one allegation of rape of a staffer inside parliament house itself.
They also ran a woman candidate (Catherine Deves) with an anti-trans obsession in a centrist, socially progressive district, at the insistence of the Prime Minister. The district was the one directly across the Sydney harbor bridge from where the gay pride festival is held. This decision was simply jaw dropping. (It is generally thought that Morrison insisted on Deves as a sop to religious conservatives who thought that some other candidates weren’t conservative enough.) Deves became a constant distraction for the Liberals during the campaign, as more old deleted tweets of hers were discovered. So, innaction on climate, corruption, and sexual harassment had made many voters turn against the Liberals. In the words of one Teal, Zoe Daniels, “The Liberal Party lost its center. It left people like me with no one to vote for.” So when she was approached by some community groups to run as an independent, she agreed.
Because Australia uses preferential voting (what Americans call “rank choice” voting, what Wikipedia calls “instant runoff elections”) in the House of Representatives, and proportional representation in the senate, it may a week or so before the final results are known. However, the Teals, and in a couple of cases, Greens candidates have won in seats traditionally held by centrist members of the Liberal party.
This leaves the remaining portion of the parliamentary Liberal caucus with a deep problem. Before the election, the Liberal parliamentary caucus was only 25 percent women, compared to 40 percent of the Labor caucus. The Liberals appear to have lost two and perhaps three gay members, one Chinese-Australian, their most prominent Jewish member, and one indigenous member (#). This leaves them with a less diverse party. The next likely leader of the parliamentary Liberal party is Peter Dutton, a man who comes across as humorless, right wing and with zero compassion. Without a complete revamp of the party, I don’t see how they will attract high quality female candidates similar to the Teals, because few professional women will want to stand under their banner. Historically, once in, independents have been hard for the major parties to dislodge.
The irony of this is that the people who have lost their seats are those who are in fact from the socially progressive end of the liberals, but they have suffered from being in the same tent as troglodytes because of the “broad church” doctrine.
When I saw the results come in on election night, and talk turned to who would be the next Liberal Party leader, I literally could not think of a single prominent Liberal Party female. (Their last Deputy Leader, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, left parliament three years ago.) They’ve got women members of parliament, and had some in the Cabinet but they haven’t been in the public eye, and the Prime Minister ran a one-man-band campaign. This turned out to be a disasterous mistake. Morrison , despite being a pentecostal Christian, appears to be a habitual liar. Personally, I wouldn’t believe Scott Morrison if he told me his name was Scott Morrison.
It also means that the incoming labour government will have to deal with a cross bench (*) which may hold the balance of power in the House of Representatives, and certainly will hold the balance of power in the senate, where the Greens will likely have 12 senators and a small non-aligned group, the Jaquie Lambie Network, likely have two. Even if labour get to 76 (a bare majority in the House of Reps) it’s in Labour’s interest for the new Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, to make the Teals look good, and keep them on-side, because if he loses a couple of seats in three year’s time, he’ll need them. Even if labour gets to 76, that’s only a majority of one in a 151 person chamber, and if they then supply the speaker, it’s exactly half of the seats on the floor (75/150) so they would still have to negotiate with the Teals and the Greens.
People are saying this is the end of a two party system in Australia (+), and they may be right.
(#) Re diversity, the Libs have lost gay members Tim Wilson and Trent Zimmerman, and perhaps Trevor Evans, Chinese Australian Gladys Liu, the Treasurer Josh Freidenberg (Jewish) and indigenous member Ken Wyatt (former minister for indigenous affairs). What remains looks rather wasp-ish.
(*) The term “cross-bench” is used for the independents and greens because the chamber is arranged in a U shape, with the government party on the right side of the speaker, the main opposition party on the left, and the independents in the middle or cross section of the U. The new cross bench in the HoR will be heavilly female.
(+) When people use the term “two party system” in Australia, they are effectively counting the Liberals and Nationals as one party, because they govern in coalition, and don’t run against each other if one has a sitting member in a district. The other party they are counting is Labour.