The World

What the Bloody Hell Just Happened in Australia?

A shocking election upset has confused Australians searching for answers.

Scott Morrison waves to the crowd as he holds his wife's hand.
Australia’s newly elected Prime Minister Scott Morrison arrives to deliver a victory speech with his family in Sydney on Saturday after winning the general election.
Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty Images

The polls were wrong. The pundits were wrong. The party insiders were wrong. The bookies were wrong. I was wrong. Even Burt the psychic croc was wrong.

Australia’s dysfunctional, unpopular, conservative government (the Liberal and National parties, currently in coalition, sit on the right in Australian politics) held onto power for a third term in Saturday’s national election. This happened despite the fact that most analysts expected it to lose a large number of seats; despite being (seemingly) out of step with the nation’s emerging consensus on climate change, marriage equality, religion, and race; despite a chaotic tenure in office that has seen three leaders since 2016; despite a threadbare policy agenda; despite many of its high-profile figures recently retiring in frustration or anticipation of defeat; despite betting agencies paying out Labor backers early; despite losing more than 50 consecutive opinion polls. After all of it, the conservatives won the only poll that mattered, in what reelected Prime Minister Scott Morrison, an evangelical Christian, called “a miracle.”

A Labor Party win had been anticipated for three years, with the opposition winning every single poll of the last term. Despite a narrowing lead, those expectations had only grown stronger in the final days, weeks, and months, with the ousting of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in August; the Christchurch, New Zealand, attack by a far-right Australian terrorist; global environmental alarm bells; and the death of a beloved Labor prime minister two days before the election, all contributing to a sense of inevitability.

With the count ongoing, the Liberal-National Party coalition has won what appears to be a majority of seats in the 150-seat lower house, currently sitting on 75 but projected to make 78, against the Labor Party’s projected 67 (76 seats are required to form government—even if they fall short, the LNP can form a minority government with one of the six independents). Expected swings against the coalition in several regions of the country didn’t materialize, while there was a crucial 4 percent swing against Labor in the state of Queensland (alternately described as Australia’s Alabama or Florida).

Progressive Australians are—to understate things—“hurting,” in scenes reminiscent of the 2016 U.S. presidential election aftermath (only they’re threatening to move to New Zealand instead of Canada). Even Donald Trump sees the parallels, reportedly calling to congratulate the Trump-sympathizing Morrison and comparing his shock win to his own.

But more than anything, Australians on both sides of the aisle are blindsided, wondering—to paraphrase both Hillary Clinton and an infamous Morrison-led Tourism Australia campaign—what the bloody hell happened?

None can dispute defeated Labor leader Bill Shorten’s explanation: “We didn’t get enough votes.” But that’s pretty much where consensus stops. Other than Queensland, no one is quite sure who to blame, but boy are there a lot of candidates—perhaps more than were in the race itself. As one anonymous Labor figure told the Guardian Australia, “at the moment we haven’t got a fucking clue.”

Was it the Labor Party’s “big target” policy agenda, which many inside and outside the party are now saying was too big, too broad, too complex, or too hard to explain to voters in the given time? Many of the disaffected who stood to gain the most from Labor’s big-spending, tax-reforming economic plan voted against it, instead embracing the far right, while the tax reforms opened Labor up to highly effective, though false, “death tax” and “retiree tax” scare campaigns. Labor’s environmental stance, while not actually all that bold, hurt it in coal-friendly Queensland and among voters worried about the costs of acting on climate change, while the fact that its progressive tax changes were only going to affect the top 20 percent didn’t cut through. Shorten used his concession speech to defend the ambitious platform saying, “I’m proud that we argued what was right, not what was easy.” Still, many are declaring this the end of opposition parties going into elections with actual policies.

It could also be that this was about Shorten himself, the record-breakingly unpopular Labor leader and former union boss, who confidently told reporters Saturday morning that his democracy sausage (an important Election Day ritual) tasted like the “mood for change”. He was aware of his unpopularity and cleverly utilized the more trusted female members of his team, as well as his exceptionally popular wife, Chloe, on the campaign trail. Many of us believed voters would get past Shorten’s personal un-appeal—some of us even confidently wrote about it. Queensland, especially, couldn’t: “They saw him as a southern trade unionist with a green agenda,” Griffith University political scientist Paul Williams told SBS News. Hearsay shows that even people who care about climate change and don’t usually vote Liberal still did so because they disliked Shorten so much.

Did the left lose it, or did the right win it? Morrison definitely deserves a lot of credit, with many now calling the eight-month prime minister a Liberal Party legend (“from accidental Prime Minister to homespun hero”). Despite the fact that Australians vote for parties, not prime ministers, the former ad man ran a presidential-style race that pitted him directly against his unpopular Labor counterpart—“the choice between Bill Shorten and myself.” He kept divisive Liberal figures out of the spotlight and himself in it, with the policy conversation trained on Labor’s taxes and spending. And, also, the right lied, shamelessly, sparking new calls for truth in political advertising laws.

Or did Rupert Murdoch win it? Former Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has called him the “elephant in the room.” News Corp controls 70 percent of Australia’s print media and its 2019 campaign coverage was so biased against Labor that one of the Murdoch-owned Australian newspaper’s most respected former journalists called it out, saying he was canceling his subscriptions. Speaking of billionaires: a fair portion of blame/credit is being heaped at the feet of eccentric mining tycoon Clive Palmer—a man John Oliver refers to as an Australian Trump, and the figure behind Titanic II. Palmer spent an unprecedented $60 million in advertising trying to get his independent party back into Parliament, and though he didn’t win a single seat, he ended up diverting votes away from Labor with his “shifty Shorten” ads. (In true Trump style, he is now claiming credit for the coalition win, saying this was his plan all along.)

Or, more bleakly, did Australia lose it? There was so much the left got wrong about this election, but the more important thing we got wrong was the idea that Australia was somehow immune from what was happening in the rest of the world. While right-wing figures like Fraser Anning (who was famously egged after blaming Muslim immigration for Christchurch) and Pauline “swamped by Muslims” Hanson bob in and out of the picture, our electoral system kept them on the fringes, and our democracy still seemed to make sense. And while divisive former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, elected in 2013 and removed by his own party in 2015, was further to the right than Morrison, his election could perhaps have been explained in that it came off the back of six years of exasperating Labor leader dysfunction. No such pretense here—in fact, it’s the Liberal Party that’s been creating the chaos for the past six.

Of course, Morrison is no Trump (although he did once mockingly brandish a piece of coal in Parliament, yelling, “This is coal! Don’t be afraid, don’t be scared!”). Hanson has limited parliamentary power, Palmer won no seats, and Anning, having been unendorsed by Hanson’s One Nation Party, failed to get reelected in his own right, despite a coordinated campaign by the alt-right. But the far right certainly bled votes from Labor in Queensland, while its memes and scare campaigns even filtered up into Liberal-National Party lines.

But it’s not just about the far right. Progressive Australians are reeling because any lingering illusions that we were a “fair” nation have been shattered. Whatever Labor’s political shortcomings, Australians in general voted against a detailed platform that aimed to seriously address climate change, raise wages, increase cancer funding, make child care free or significantly cheaper, close tax loopholes for corporations and the wealthy, fund the arts, fund the underfunded public broadcaster, and begin the serious work needed to improve the lives of Indigenous Australians including electing the nation’s first indigenous affairs minister. Instead, they voted for … not much of anything (other than some tax cuts), even after two dysfunctional terms of it. After this defeat, it’s unlikely Labor will come up with anything this ambitious again. Many believed (or hoped) we were going the way of New Zealand, whose Labour Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern recently topped a list of Australia’s most trusted politicians, but we went in the opposite direction. And while Australians hoping for a more progressive Australia have had their hopes dashed, so too have refugees being kept on Manus Island under our draconian asylum-seeker policies (previously overseen by Morrison).

None of this explains how the polls got it so devastatingly wrong, with one viewer asking the ABC’s election panel: “Should anyone trust an opinion poll ever again?” It follows the poll-bucking trends of Brexit and Trump. Some blame what in British politics is called the “shy Tory factor,” in which voters tell pollsters they plan to vote less conservatively than they really are. One polling company director dismissed this idea, but Morrison seems to agree with it, thanking the “quiet Australians” in his victory speech. Some blame cost cutting and technological change, with robocalls and internet polling leading to inaccuracies. One pollster says there was a late break to the coalition while another dismisses that theory.

Good polls, bad polls, or totally obsolete polls, Liberal Party hero Morrison now looks likely to remain in power for as long as the party does, despite no leader having completed a full term since 2007. Before the election, former Liberal prime ministerial adviser Niki Savva wrote that in the unlikely event Morrison won, he’d have unprecedented authority over the party and government.

The problem is, having run on not much other than how scary Labor is, no one’s quite sure what the deeply religious, coal-clutching prime minister plans to use that authority for.