The unsettled election

He had a go and he got a go and now, thank Christ, he’s gone.

For many of us, this was an election campaign in which hope and fear chased each other’s tails. For months, the polls revealed a visceral loathing for Morrison but would that, we wondered, prove sufficient?  

Could the consistently anti-Liberal trend be trusted, what with the experience of 2019 and the unresolved methodological problems bedevilling the pollsters? And what about the pandemic? After two years of lockdown, would a hidden anti-vax demographic reveal itself in the outer suburbs of Victoria? Or how about Katherine Deves, the transphobic obsessive whom Morrison backed for the seat Warringah: would she, perhaps, shepherd a hitherto undetected contingent of TERFs, crackpots and other hatemongers into the Liberal fold?

Most of all, what about Labor, a party that never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity?

On the hustings, Anthony Albanese became the Incredible Shrinking Man. In 2012, Albo liked fighting Tories; in 2022, he simply liked Tories, lining up behind many of the Liberal policies that the Labor Left once vehemently opposed. Could such a figure really get the job done? Fortunately, the Australian people proved themselves far, far better than their leaders.

No-one bought the Liberal depiction of Albanese as a wild-eyed radical, a loose unit punching a hole in the bucket of the Australian economy. Morrison’s bigoted dog whistle attracted only bigoted dogs, with the enthusiasm for Deves displayed by Tony Abbott, Sky News and sundry other weirdos (all of them Tremendously Concerned, don’t you know, about equity in women’s sport!) failing to resonate in the population more generally.

The Morrison strategy flopped, utterly and comprehensively, with Scomo’s ‘captain’s pick’ in Warringah not only contributing to the Coalition’s defeat but also poisoning Liberal hopes of political renewal. Deves, after all, probably helped dislodge the ambitious former IPAer Tim Wilson, blasted out of his Goldstein office by the water cannon of popular disdain. Together, Deves and Morrison certainly contributed to the undoing of Josh Frydenberg, the treasurer fancied by many (not least himself) as a leadership chance in the post-Scomo era.

With Frydenberg out of the way, the Coalition must, god help them, regroup behind Peter Dutton. Expect, in the short term, a very public exposure of the party’s grubbiest linen, as the remaining Liberal moderates and the party’s hard right temporarily unite to dish dirt on Scott Morrison, whom both will blame (albeit for different reasons) for their current woeful predicament.

After that, though, the conservatives must somehow convince themselves that they can flourish under a man so universally perceived as a dead-eyed sadist that his wife thought an article entitled ‘My Pete’s no monster’ would assist his public image. A Coalition with Dutton at the helm will tack only one way, sailing off into the deep and strange waters of antipodean Trumpism. Yet, if the Liberals lost, the ALP didn’t win——or, at least, not in the way winning might once have been understood.

Labor looks to be forming government with a decline in its primary vote, which now sits at just over thirty percent. That’s an extraordinarily low figure by historical standards—for most of the twentieth century, the ALP could count on about 40 per cent of the electorate backing it on a class basis.

We’re all familiar with the worldwide erosion of traditional political loyalties. In 1975, for instance, Whitlam received 49 per cent of the total votes cast, a figure replicated by Bob Hawke’s in 1983. Those numbers—every second person in the country actively seeking an ALP administration—reflected the institutional stability of a mass labour movement.

Back then, Labor could rely on trade unions that represented most of the population, an organisational structure of union leaders, delegates and members who carried arguments and slogans with their workmates.

In 2022, however, Albanese scarcely referred to the unions. Instead, like most modern ALP leaders, he barely raised distinctively social democratic arguments, instead gambling the election would be won by neutralising controversies and campaigning in the centre.

The Libs are out and Labor’s in, and so Albanese might claim, with some justification, that his method delivered the goods. Yet consider the fate of Kristina Kenneally, the very model of a modern Labor candidate. Parachuted into Fowler on the basis of her celebrity cred, she dutifully countered any suggestion she might be—whisper the words!—‘soft on borders’ by outbidding the Liberals on anti-refugee bastardy.

‘Labor supports cost recovery from people in immigration detention,’ she explained in a particularly notorious tweet. ‘The vast majority of people in detention are criminal or have violated their visa Mr Morrison has been in office for nearly a decade including as immigration minister. Why has he left it to now to announce this?’ After an 18 per cent swing against her, Keneally might wonder whether it’s still a Faustian bargain if you trade your soul but don’t get anything in return.

An extreme example, perhaps. Still, it’s striking how much the anti-Liberal swing seemed to correlate with the issue on which Labor sought not to campaign: that is, climate change. Where Morrison’s carbon targets aligned with planetary heating of 3 degrees, Albanese offered 2 degrees—a result that would expose Australia to Black Saturday-style bushfires and deadly floods on a regular basis.

By adopting a climate platform only marginally better than that of the conservatives, the ALP managed, just as they hoped, to avoid any really debate about global warming. Yet if climate didn’t feature in the campaign, it certainly dominated the results.


In the next weeks, a debate will rage about what the success of the teal candidates means, with insider pundits celebrating the victory of girl-boss feminism. Yet the remarkable swing to the Greens, particularly in Brisbane, represents something far more interesting.

Let’s not forget the involvement of the Brisbane Greens in the Extinction Rebellion protests, demonstrations met by an insane campaign (by Peter Dutton and others) for mandatory sentences to criminalise civil disobedience. In response, the charismatic Greens councillor Jonathan Sri defended his radicalism, writing:

 Right now, a lot of people are fed up with the political status quo, and love seeing someone who stands up to the political establishment. Although conservative media commentators criticise me relentlessly for supporting and co-organising protests, it seems there’s a silent majority out in the community who completely agree that the system is messed up. Even though a lot of those voters would never personally attend or directly endorse controversial protests, my well-publicised support of groups like Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance and Extinction Rebellion certainly didn’t turn them off voting Greens. In fact, it all helped reinforce that I was standing up against the political establishment, rather than being part of it.

That seems right—and, in a funny way, might explain something of the teal vote, too.

The teal candidates are not in any way left-wing. As they are the first to say, they’re centrists, whom, in a different era, might have found a home in the moderate wing of the Liberal party. Yet, in the context of the 2022 election, the issues with which they were most associated—climate action and an independent commission against corruption—could appeal to voters disgusted with the status quo. A burning planet and Canberra politicians feathering their own nests: together, those two issues could foster a pretty significant alienation from politics as usual.

To put it another way, you can read the election result as signifying a distinct opening, creating opportunities for a very different political conversation.

Certainly, we should not think that anything has been settled. It’s satisfying to repeat the words ‘ex-PM Scott Morrison’. It’s even more satisfying to see the crooks, shonks and spivs associated with Morrison in such disarray. Yet the Albanese government will be intensely unstable, particularly since the ALP small target campaign leaves it without any obvious mandate as it stares down the barrel of a global recession.

Expect the Liberals to be absolutely feral, as Dutton and his Newscorp enablers double down on the most insane versions of culture war.

Meanwhile, voters might have signalled they want climate action but Labor has pledged explicitly not to set more ambitious targets. So what will the Greens and the teals do? Will the candidates elected on a groundswell of environmental rage, find a place for themselves inside the tent? Or will they continue to tap into the opposition to the political establishment?

With the base for the majors continuing to decline and the public rightfully enraged about ongoing climate inaction, we’re teetering on the cusp of something new, a period in which all kinds of fresh possibilities might manifest.

Let’s not fuck it up.


Image: Eric E Castro


Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

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