Federal election 2019: What the hell just happened? Five arguments

Over the last few years, and most particularly in the lead up to this election, it has become clear the fate of the planet rests on the success of our social movements rather than our elected officials. The planet is heating up, the ecosystem is falling apart, the far right is growing, and more and millennials are living worse off than their parents. Things have to shift, and soon.

Yet, many of us feeling this way hoped that the federal election would deliver at least a small victory by bringing Shorten’s Labor government to power on the back of some limited promises around worker’s rights, Indigenous rights and climate change; a victory that could have given us some breathing space and confidence.

But here we are, and the result seems much worse than what we were expecting. Many of us are grieving today. There are jokes about moving to New Zealand, and memes about excising Queensland. More seriously, though, here are some initial thoughts to prompt discussion on what lessons there may be in this moment.

1. This was a win for weird, racist minor parties

Based on current counting, there appears to be a tiny swing against the Liberals (0.7%), and a tiny swing against Labor (0.8%) in the House of Representatives. But the most significant thing is the vote for the minor parties, in particular One Nation and the United Australia Party (UAP). One Nation more than doubled their vote nationally, at 3.0% up from 1.3%. Shockingly, One Nation’s primary vote in Queensland was 8.8%, up by 3.3%. Overall, an array of weird, mostly racist minor parties did very well – and their preferences flowed to the LNP, who has now won the election on the back of preferences from this vote. The Greens, meanwhile, secured 10.3% nationally in the Senate, a reasonable increase on the previous election, but seemingly never to recover to their 13.1% in 2010 when they entered the minority government of Labor’s Julia Gillard.

Bemoaning Queenslanders (or Western Australians, or others) as a bunch of irredeemable racists is not what will take us forward. But we also cannot ignore that One Nation has grown their vote on the back of overt Islamophobia as well as a completely bizarre campaign where they were exposed as willing to take donations from the US National Rifle Association (NRA), and Hanson broke down on television in a way that made One Nation look chaotic and broken. Against all received wisdom about this harming them, in the end it did the opposite of damage. Clive Palmer, meanwhile, has been in parliament before, and barely showed up. For this election, he spent millions of dollars on Trumpian style advertising while refusing to pay the workers from his closed down nickel refinery. Both backed climate denialism. This has both an anti-political quality, where voters are rejecting the two major parties and lashing out, but it also suggests that this quality is hardening into a more overt racist backlash. Which brings me to my second point.

2. It is not racism or economics, but both

The mainstream media is awash with analysis decrying Labor’s supposedly big picture reformism as the problem, arguing voters endorsed Scott Morrison’s apparently safe pair of hands for the economy. Sure, voters did not rush away from Morrison, which might tell us that people don’t really care that much about leadership spills and ‘disunity’ in the way the media often assumes they will. But nor did they rush to stability: as already established, Morrison has been returned on the strength of the vote of minor parties. Arguably, it’s not ‘fear of change’ driving voters but maybe an unarticulated desire for some kind of change that is continually unrealised. Labor’s promise for a moderate level of income redistribution was hardly big target: some things were big spending, perhaps, but it was not a significant vision for social democratic reform to undo decades of neoliberalism. The election was not a vote against social democratic principles nor a victory for neoliberal reform.

The missing link here has been any workers’ action to challenge the economic set up. Left entirely in the parliamentary sphere, the promises to ‘change the rules’ fell flat. And if this strategy doesn’t change, we face the real and present danger of racism continuing to fill the void – and those on Manus and Nauru, those fearful to enter mosques, and the Chinese people being cast as the enemy within will be the ones made to pay. In fighting this, and building solidarity, we can neither discount the appeal of racism nor assume it is hardened and impossible to break.

There’s a danger here that we imagine a default racist white male worker to be the person bringing Morrison to power, but the picture is more complicated. Though the rural seats that voted strongly for the far right are more monocultural electorates, Western Sydney shows that even some in migrant areas were willing to discount, ignore, or buy into the racist discourses of the right this election. Multiple types of voters voted against their own interests in multiple ways.

3. It wasn’t ScoMo’s win, but Labor’s loss

Despite what you may have read in some recent obituaries, Hawke only the last great Labor leader because he killed the possibility of another one. Labor has haemorrhaged members and their primary vote since the early years of the Hawke government, primarily, as Elizabeth Humphrys points out in her book How Labour Built Neoliberalism, because the Accord destroyed the base it relied on to implement the Accord. The Ruddslide of 2007 thus appears as the anomaly that proves the rule: Labor is in (possibly terminal) decline. In this big picture view, it matters less what Labor promised, and more that we’re not willing to believe it anymore.

The other side of this is that Liberal National Party (LNP) is also in crisis. Since the end of Howard, the hard right and the wet liberals have both tried to formulate a winning strategy – either by replicating Howard or aiming for a Rudd-style centrism. Both have failed them, and the internal recriminations that eventually brought Scott Morrison to power ended up leaving him running in the election minus a swathe of famous previous ministers, and with other forms of open disunity, like Jim Molan’s self-promotion, plaguing him.

Considering how ‘easy’ a target Morrison and the LNP seemed, perhaps this just confirms that we were aiming at him with the wrong weapon in the ALP and Shorten. The Greens’ push towards the ‘sensible’ centre, and their emphasis on blue-green electorates, means they have been unable to break through outside of circles of the inner city and tree changers. So that leaves us with an urgent question: what is the left alternative? Without a Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders figure, it’s not much use dreaming one up. It will need to be collective.

4. The Change the Rules campaign did not work

For over a year, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) and Secretary Sally McManus have committed all their energy into an electoral strategy based on securing swings to Labor in marginal seats. It simply did not materialise. GetUp, too, spent a year in Peter Dutton’s electorate – and he came back with a swing towards him. Hundreds of committed activists spent hours and hours on this, with great intentions. If nothing else, this was an immense waste of resources and energy.

Labor campaigned against ‘permanent casuals’, but they are a legacy of a trade union movement unwilling to fight for itself. The Australian Centre for Future Work estimated that industrial action has declined ‘97 per cent from the 1970s to the present decade’. Historic low wage growth, the growth in insecure employment (which really expanded in the 1990s, but for various reasons is starting to feel more entrenched): this is the legacy of a movement whose officials seem to have mostly limited their horizons to handing out how to votes.

Instead it has been the school students whose willingness to ‘break the rules’ and march out their school gates that has encapsulated the transformative potential of social action.

5. There’s no easy solution, but there is urgency

If this analysis is true, then it’s not a case of changing Labor leaders or putting more into The Greens, but a question of how we build social movements and a union movement that can fill the political vacuum – and, crucially, challenge racist (and homo/transphobic and sexist) ‘solutions’. Working out how we do that best will be our biggest challenge, and is where our attention needs to turn to now. This column, like others this week, are not the end of the story, but the start of discussion on where we need to go.


Read more perspectives on the 2019 Federal Election 


Image: ‘Bill Shorten, Brisbane 2016’ / David McKelvey

Archie Thomas

Archie Thomas is a casual lecturer and PhD candidate at the University of Technology Sydney. Their research interests are education, language, social movements and Australian history. They are a regular contributor to Overland on Australian politics and history.

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  1. “Bemoaning Queenslanders (or Western Australians, or others) as a bunch of irredeemable racists is not what will take us forward.”

    I’m not sure a reluctance to do so helps much either.

    The fact is that was our last roll of the dice.

    It’s now pretty much game over environment-wise, planet-wise, and species-wise. So protecting the feelings of “irredeemable racists” seems pretty small fry by comparison.

    But let’s face it, the real winners out of this election are the Cayman Islands !

    PS : It might also be a little confronting to find out how women voted in this election.

  2. Just read the following article which backs the conclusions here. There has to be an alternative and that alternative has to be built over a lengthy period of time. Also Mr Shorten did not engaged in negative politicking. Thank God. Fear and aggression unfortunately worked and Mr Morrison used them again and again. There is no point stooping to this and Mr Shorten was right not to, however unless the narrative is clear it will be lost to the fear and aggression. Labor needs to rebuild with the narrative in place immediately. No pork barrelling at the end. A serious alternative, sold for 3 years solidly with big picture views and methods to get there. http://evonomics.com/economic-ideas-change-the-world-keynes-hayek-friedman-reagan/?fbclid=IwAR1pNS9444T-jbVc5R4qBe20I0Qn4jWcndDIu8eqg1iSu1Zr0tZp9botHXs

  3. Oh please! “get up spent a year (and one would assume many $’s) in Greg Hunt’s electorate and the swing was for him”.
    It is because the silent Majority said enough of the “ideas and thought bubbles” of the left at a huge cost to normal hard working Australians, not the minority of lefty elitists.
    Please get out go your isolated bubble and walk amongst the everyday Aussie battlers. Common Sense has prevailed

      1. Umm…kinda thought I had said it, but for the sake of absolute clarity..hard working battlers, non lefty elites.
        I have given my interpretation, over to you please.

  4. I have little love for any of our political parties – I do have some respect for them but not much. This reply may seem like an attack against Labor. It is not, and it is not in anyway an endorsement to any other party. It is a response to the five discussion points raised by Amy Thomas in her article.

    1. This was a win for weird, racist minor parties

    This has nothing to do with the swing towards minor parties, however unsavory they are. This is more about, why do people have such a lack of faith and trust in the major parties that the feel pushed to the minor parties? Lack of trust that the public has in the major parties is the complete fault of the parties and their supporters.
    Let’s argue Mary is an undecided voter, she voted LNP last election, it’s her natural bias. She is concerned about climate change however, so she does some reading up on policies. She thinks Labor and the Green’s policies take the most action after comparison with the LNP policies. But now everyday she sees advertising, media articles, claims by the Labor Leaders that LNP has zero polices on climate change. This a lie – she has read the policy for Snowy 2.0 and others! Originally, she thought that these policies were not as good as Labors, now she is just sick of unashamed lies if you can’t tell the truth about your opposition than don’t ask me to believe any other truths you have for me. – she has been pushed back to her original bias.
    This is how Labor fails to get the swing towards them, people might jump the fence if they feel the other side has vision and is being honest. But rhetoric and lies are only palatable to those already in your “in group”, not to the voters you want to attract. Forget the small parties!! If you are honest with the voters and listen to their issues, then small parties have no base. If you lie to them than the go running to them. Importantly if you can’t be honest about and respect your opposition then you will have a hard time finding new swing voters to respect your position.

    2. It is not racism or economics, but both
    This title sums up what went wrong actually. For all the wrong reasons. Labor, maybe willingly or just as a perception from others interpretation, I’m not entirely sure which. Set up a battle predicated on race, class and wealth. They grouped the “poor good workers” against “evil rich” and for good measure “racist”, “top end of town” If you are going to try divide the country into two groups and then only represent one of those groups you are destined for failure! We need true vision that all can relate too and be part of making this a great country together! Not a divide and conquer strategy.

    3. It wasn’t ScoMo’s win, but Labor’s loss
    This is probably fair, Labor lost for many reasons. But be we should be very careful on how we treat the opposition. They deserve some respect. When one party loses the other do win. If you cannot respect them than you are showing zero respect for all the Australians that voted for them. This is crucial! Because this is the same people that you want to vote for you in 3 years’ time! So maybe start by giving them some respect now. The opposition needs to start now by bringing a better version of politics to this country. Hold the government to account, but also help them govern effectively for all Australians over the next term. The public do not want to see grown men and women calling each other names and acting childish for 3 years. We have had enough Rot! If you attack the government, it better be with good debate on points of policy!

    4. The Change the Rules campaign did not work
    Of course, it failed! It was a dishonest campaign that treated the public that are not union members as fools! At the same time as Labor and the Unions are trying to convince workers that they are their only hope there was ongoing court cases about Unions mistreating contractors on work sites. Unions have done amazing things for Australian workers and the country throughout history alongside the Labor party. However; when the Unions start to become corrupt and dishonest, and neither the Labor party or the good people in the Unions refuse to stamp out this rotten behavior. Then all credibility is lost. Outside of the members, which is not a huge base the Unions are seen as toxic! This poisons the cause not promotes it. The other big lie – when unemployment rates could not be attacked there was these lovely graphs about people being forced into part time work that couldn’t pay the bills. So yes, the employment rate was low, but people couldn’t feed themselves. That was the claim, but the voters aren’t all stupid and don’t like being treated like they are. How many people in part time work are students, or people on government benefits, retiree’s, on member of a family team topping up the full time wage of their partner… any number of other reasons. This over simple and skewed sets of data may whip up emotion in existing supporters, but that’s no help. They are already voting for you. If you want to get people to change their minds you better come armed with better facts, robust data, not story that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

    5. There’s no easy solution, but there is urgency
    No meaningful solution ever is easy. It is true that most obstacles in our path are ones we have put there ourselves though. Maybe step one is a re calibration of one’s perceptions. Do we really think the Unions are free from corruption? And in particular the closeing remarks in Amy’ article are beyond a joke! Anyone that really thinks the entire LNP and all the people that voted for them are racist, homo/transphobic and sexist… Need to start by being less angry and more honest with themselves. No good solution starts from a position of cold hearted resentment.

    1. This is probably the best response here. Honestly, it’s better and more well-reasoned than the article—especially the responses to points 2 & 4.

  5. Thanks for this.

    I think we definitely need to be going to the grassroots and focussing on the municipal level way more. There are some things we can do banded together, to create alternatives without waiting for the political class to catch up. On the jobs level, worker co-ops can be far more lean and flexible than for-profit companies. On the financial level, we need to learn about and begin implementing alternative currencies so that we’re not so beholden to the global system that’s getting ready to burst again.

    On the rental stress level we could begin banding together as large groups and buy houses, contributing $5 or $100 each depending on how many people were a part of the group. The purchased houses could be placed in land trusts and rented for low rental prices to people who can’t afford standard rental prices. Kinda like public housing initiative started by the public because waiting for governments is patently fucking pointless.

    We need to band together. ‘Us’banded together is a distinctly underutilised resource and power. And the more banding together, the more people feel the sense of security without which we all lose our shit, or disengage, or vote against our own interests, etc.

    1. when will people get the mortgage entrapment mentality out of their heads? Or endless suburbs desecrating what little nature is left on the planet. As koale’a are vanishing dramatically. But no one thinks to bother about viable urban alternatives. Like Varnasi in India. In Berlin over 80% want to rent and do. The city govt administers over a quarter of a million buildings. The people have more discretionary income. Better urban planning. Less pollution because no 30kms of suburbia like Sydney. Public housing for all. The rich can do whatever they are a minority. So let us all live together in urban environments that don’t disperse us into vacant empty suburban streets with nothing there except houses far from anywhere.

  6. Another factor that’s being overlooked is the swing to conservative parties of migrant communities in Western Sydney, many of whom are religiously and socially conservative and small-business owners…

  7. I have read the comments on The Guardian website, and wanted to find some more to find out what people think about the election results. The comment about the hard working normal people who are not elitist lefties, what is that about? Elitist intellectually? Or elitist materially, having a lot of money? Where is logic in this? Is it I am not going to vote for the Labor leaders who are well educated and smart, or because their policies are so sophisticated and I don’t understand them? That’s why I am going to vote for liberals because they get me, and they represent my interests? And they are also hard working as me, while those elitists lefties are lazy and not hard working. And another commenter who is worried about the corruption in the unions. You can find corruption everywhere, in segment of every society. In companies, governments, etc. During the election campaign the liberals have been attacking Labor through the media using really ugly methods. The already mentioned commenter is asking to be nice and show respect to the winning party. Being nice and apologetic is not going to make you win the elections. The method that works, as we have just seen, is never stop attacking the enemy.

    1. “The comment about the hard working normal people who are not elitist lefties, what is that about? Elitist intellectually? Or elitist materially, having a lot of money? Where is logic in this?”

      Isn’t there a general confusion going around about the difference between ‘elite’ and ‘elitist’?

      You can belong to an elite without being elitist… people are ‘born into’ privilege just as people are ‘born into’ disadvantage – which is neither’s fault and neither should be treated as some sort of a 2d stereotype… (and yes, people can climb up and fall down too, irrespective of where they started—but where you start generally has everything to do with where you end up).

      Are politicians in Australia (from both ‘sides’) an elite AND elitist – and is this the main source of the general distress and anger flying around?

      1. Working class Australians generally feel betrayed by the Labor party. The ALP proposed economic policies which would have helped working Australia, but are seen as somewhere between unreliable and outright hostile to the cultural values by many working people.
        We’re witnessing the same phenomena that Joe Bageant described a decade ago in the US. Workers voting against their own economic interests because the conservatives seem closer (emphasis on seem) to the traditions of Australian culture than progressives, who appear focused on a socially liberal, globalist agenda. This is why a good chunk of the ex-ALP vote goes to One Nation.

  8. I am not convinced of the explanatory value of the anti-politics thesis. Despite its proponents attempts to revive it in response to any event. Nor will racism do as an explanation for the One Nation vote, who made a point of running on climate denial in Queensland and Hunter mining communities rather than on racism. This loss lays at the door of the trade union leadership and their refusal to mobilise their membership. The split in the CFMEU over how to respond to Adani specifically and climate change in general delivered union members into the hands of One Nation. If union leaders attempt to explain away the election result as workers being racist we need to challenge them.

  9. The PM summed up for the majority that they are interested in jobs, money, a house and that’s the it. Medicare now that it’s there. The horizon in suburbia is about as far as reality TV. This obsession with even wanting a half million dollar mortgage to do what but sleep in there since one must work for ever to get a roof over one’s head is well and truly insane. But they believe Australia is the ‘best country in the world’. It is good but not that good. However this mewing about racism is pathetic. Read some Asian newspapers. Malaysia, Indonesia for example and how they look at the Chinese for instance, in India the southern Dravidians, Arabs vs Iranians, you get the picture – this is humanity – though by polling numbers a minority. So don’t deflect from the country’s barren vison of nothing but suburbia. While brains are drained on social media willingly. The vision is within us. It is we who must cultivate our visions in many diverse pluralities so we can enhance our horizons accordingly. But academics fail by their endless sermonizing how we must think of this and that. Which only encourages the mentally bereft following blindly into socially divisive ideologies. Forgetting what unites us is our intelligence not the colour of our skin or our origins.

  10. “But here we are, and the result seems much worse than what we were expecting”. Not me, the whole world seems to be swinging right. I don’t usually like to make claims about people ‘living in bubbles’ but I have to do it here. Go bush, I live in Barnaby Joyce country, all the young blokes are alt-right (at the very least).

  11. Thanks for an insightful article. For me this statement of yours hits the nail on the head:
    “Arguably, it’s not ‘fear of change’ driving voters but maybe an unarticulated desire for some kind of change that is continually unrealised.”

    This and the fact that all of the best people have no interest in politics means that egomaniacs fill the hole. Are we marching 1930’s like towards something sinister? I don’t want to tempt fate and say it in more specific terms.

    Thanks again.

  12. I know I’m not the first to raise this in the wake of the Sports Rorts and Community Grants Rorts and Random Donation to Coalition Seats Rorts, but a HELLUVA lot of staff in the APS must have been aware of what was going on prior to election day and did nothing about it.

    It’s not just faith in politicians that is dead, but faith in the institutions of government (and them that work there) too.

  13. The nonconformists are probably not going to win lion’s share, same with the preservationists. I anticipate the PPC shows improvement over anticipated.

    I figure numerous past liberal voters will go with the NDP, a couple to traditionalist or PPC. I don’t see a lot of occurring for the Green Party.

  14. I agree that social movements can produce much more positive results for our public. I’m incredibly disappointed with our political parties in general. They make false promises during the election campaigns and do not care much about the people. I’m hoping for better people to fill the political vacuum existing in our country

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