Three years ago, after Scott Morrison’s unexpected victory in Australia’s federal election, I described it as a “victory for the true unbelievers”:
Morrison is defined by what he does not believe. He disbelieves in climate science; he disbelieves in human rights; he disbelieves in the market; he disbelieves in the liberal world order that is receding before our eyes.
And the man he beat, Labor leader Bill Shorten, shares most of his unbelief.
Three years on, Morrison again faces the electorate. Yesterday I explained some of the numbers associated with the election; today I want to look more at what it all means and why we should care.
My view of the Morrison government is no secret. In addition to the piece mentioned above, you can read my editorial prior to the 2019 election, and my comparison of Morrison and Donald Trump from later the same year. It therefore may not surprise readers that I have been working actively for its defeat, specifically (as mentioned yesterday) by campaigning for independent Monique Ryan, who is running against treasurer and deputy Liberal leader Josh Frydenberg in the seat of Kooyong.
Ryan and other “teal” independents have been the objects of much invective from the Coalition, which mostly takes two forms: firstly, that to elect them risks a “hung” parliament, which would be chaotic due to their wilful refusal to say which side they would back to form government; and secondly, that they are just stooges of the ALP (or, in some renderings, extremists to its left), who would loyally support a Labor government and its destructive policies.
The fact that these two arguments are blatantly contradictory does not seem to worry their proponents. But of course if the “teals” are predictable in who they support, they cannot at the same time be a source of instability. My view is that they would almost certainly support Labor, but would have a good chance of improving some of its policies – which would be a sign (as the experience of most democracies testifies) not of “chaos” but of parliament actually doing its job.
It’s certainly fair to say that in some respects the “teals” would sit to Labor’s left: on climate change, on decent treatment of refugees, and probably on putting teeth into an anti-corruption body. But rather than a sign of being outside the mainstream, that’s more an indication of how far Labor has drifted to the right on those issues.
The argument from instability seems to stem from an unwillingness to admit that people are voting “teal” because they want to change the government, even if their motivating issues are different from those that Labor cares about. Opposition leader Anthony Albanese may not be their preferred champion (nor is he mine, although I think he is an improvement on Shorten), but, as I’ve said many times, the defence of democracy requires as broad a front as we can manage.
Sometimes a third line of argument appears, which ignores their impact on the election itself and argues instead that by defeating a group of relatively moderate Liberal MPs they would be helping to deliver the Liberal Party into the hands of its extremists and therefore endangering Australia’s future.
I think reasoning based on this sort of hypothetical is always risky: it tends to prioritise possible future evils over actual existing ones. None of us knows what the Liberal Party might become, but we know that right now it is a force for doing great harm, so the priority should be to change that. It’s possible that could end up making matters worse, but that can be said about any change; it shouldn’t stop us fighting evils wherever we find them.
In any case, in relation to Kooyong the argument misses the point completely. Frydenberg is no moderate; he has consistently aligned himself with the hard right group in the Victorian Liberal Party and has given no sign of dissatisfaction with Morrison’s Trumpism. In my view he is much guiltier than people like Morrison or Peter Dutton – unlike them, he has the intelligence to know better but chooses not to use it.
I think, as I said yesterday, that there is some chance that the “teals” might form the nucleus of a new party that could occupy the mostly empty space on the spectrum where a liberal party should be. I would not rest very much on such hopes. But I’m quite confident that the Liberal Party will never change until heartland seats like Kooyong are seen to be threatened. Although the mortgage belt is now its strongest area, what happens there still barely registers at head office; only defeat close to home will make it sit up and take notice.
The world is full of bad governments. Some do little harm outside their own borders (and perhaps not much even there); others represent the only viable alternative to something worse. But Australia’s is both influential in world affairs and demonstrably worse than we are entitled to expect. A comparison with the era of Robert Menzies, of Hawke and Keating, or even of Malcolm Fraser will show just how low we have fallen.
Tomorrow is our chance to do something, if only something fairly modest, to start to set things right. We should take it.
Finally, as promised yesterday a quick word about the Senate. Tomorrow’s election is for six senators in each state, plus two in each of the territories. They will join the existing 36 long-term senators who sit until 2025: 17 Coalition, 11 Labor, six Greens, one One Nation and one Jacqui Lambie Network (JLN).
The general rule for Senate elections is that states and territories usually break evenly (3-3 or 1-1) between left and right. Last time around, Queensland was an exception, returning three Coalition plus a One Nation against just one Labor and one Green. Hence the overall 19-17 right-wing majority among the continuing senators – a majority largely negated by the fact that Lambie has taken a (wholly understandable) strong dislike to Morrison and now votes mostly with the opposition.
So if all states and territories split evenly this time, a Labor government supported by the Greens plus JLN will have exactly half the seats in the new Senate – enough to block opposition initiatives but not to guarantee passage of its own. For a majority it needs to pick up an extra seat somewhere*; to not have to rely on JLN it needs to pick up two.
Given the current state of the polls, there’s nowhere that Labor can be confident of an extra seat (either for itself or the Greens). Victoria is probably the best bet; there’s also some chance of a left-leaning independent getting up in the ACT, and of centrist Nick Xenophon returning at the expense of the Liberals in South Australia.
Failing a co-operative Senate, it’s possible that (as Kevin Bonham suggests) an Albanese government would look for triggers for a double dissolution. But the unhappy experience of that for the Turnbull government – the only government that has tried it in the last 30+ years – should counsel caution.
* Or, perhaps, to have one of the three notionally “right” seats in Tasmania won by the JLN; without Lambie herself on the ballot paper that will be difficult, but it is a possibility.