There was a notable lack of mourning, across the centre-right world, for the defeat of Australia’s conservative Government in the federal elections down under this weekend. Scott Morrison, who has been Prime Minister since 2018, saw his Liberal/National coalition tossed unceremoniously out of office in favour of a Labor Party that is politically indistinguishable from standard left parties across the west. Australia will now have a government that talks a lot about climate change, LGBT rights, hate speech, and all the usual hot buttons. It is the first time that the left has gained power in Australia in almost a decade, since Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard tore each other apart over six, long, drama filled years.
The reasons for the left’s victory are varied: The most obvious explanation is simply that the Liberals (in a quirk of terminology, the “Liberals” in Australia are actually conservative) had been in power for a decade, and run out of steam. The election itself was no landslide: It is unclear, as yet, that Labor will even win a majority and the ability to govern alone.
Morrison himself was never very charismatic. In the mould of previous Aussie PMs like John Howard, he is a little bit of a grey man. This made him good foil for the kind of attacks we’re used to seeing from the left at this stage: Pale Male and Stale, and so on.
But the simplest explanation is the one that’s rarely been mentioned in the coverage. Here’s Bloomberg, from August last year:
Australians’ approval of Prime Minister Scott Morrison has fallen to the lowest level since the pandemic began, with voters wearying of virus-induced lockdowns amid his government’s tardy vaccine rollout.
Support for Morrison’s handling of the crisis has fallen from 85% in April last year — when his conservative government imposed strict border controls that helped keep virus fatalities to less than 1,000 — to 48%, according to a Newspoll survey published in the Australian newspaper on Monday.
Australia, famously, had one of the strictest and longest-lasting lockdowns in the world. In the early days – just like everywhere else – this was popular. But as the rest of the world slowly came to its senses, Australia’s nominally conservative Government doubled down on statism and repression. That delivered very questionable public health benefits, but serious impacts to Australian families – particularly those with relatives overseas.
Morrison and the Liberals might have survived this, had they been a Government of the left. One thing we have seen consistently across the world is that the political left was always much more comfortable with restrictions and lockdowns and so on than the right: In the UK and Ireland, it was parties of the left calling for more restrictions, and Boris Johnson’s Tories trying to ease them. In Canada, Justin Trudeau lost no votes to his left with his stomping of the Trucker protests. Joe Biden unseated Donald Trump with a pledge for “more action”. In New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern is doing what her (left leaning) voters want.
But Morrison was never going to benefit from those votes. In short, he forgot (as did his party) that parties of the right are supposed to defend freedom and civil liberties, not restrict them. How many votes it cost them, we do not know – after all, some people will have stuck with the Government out of fear of Labor – but it certainly did cost the Liberals the love and enthusiasm of some activists.
All that aside, ten years is probably long enough for any one party to be in power. Perhaps, for the sake of Australia, and the rest of the world, it’s good that the Liberals can go away and have a think about who, and what, they stand for, exactly. After all, what’s the point of having conservatives in Government if they’re just going to indulge in the very worst excesses of the left on the most important issue of the day?