A fight to the death? Australia’s federal election

A fight to the death? Australia’s federal election

New party rules should ensure the next prime minister serves a full term for the first time since 2007.

WHAT’S HAPPENING?

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has called a federal election for May 18, with his Coalition government, composed of the Liberal Party and the Nationals, expected to be defeated.

KEY INSIGHTS

– Morrison’s Coalition has suffered in recent years due to factional tension, culminating in two leadership changes during its six years in power
– The opposition Labor Party, led by Bill Shorten, looks set to win power with a socially democratic policy agenda after years of rebuilding the party’s internal stability and image
– Labor’s policy agenda, especially on climate change and border protection, may encounter public and parliamentary opposition, while theCoalition’s internal tensions and public perception means it faces an existential crisis that puts the Coalition’s future at risk

On April 11, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that a federal election would be held on May 18, ending the tumultuous 45th Parliament. The governing conservative coalition of the Liberal and National Parties are seeking a third term in power despite being plagued by a series of high-profile controversies, byelection defeats and internal leadership tensions that have reduced what was once a slim parliamentary majority into a minority government.

The main opposition party, the centre-left Labor Party led by Bill Shorten, leads in opinion polls and is expected to defeat the Coalition. However, that gap between the two major parties is narrowing as the campaign progresses. The election may also bring successes to smaller parties like the environmentalist Greens and the nationalist One Nation, both of which seek to increase their representation and hold the balance of power. Prominent independent candidates are mounting aggressive challenges to unseat long-serving local members like former prime minister Tony Abbott and Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton.

BACKROOM TENSION AND BYELECTION DISASTERS

We’re backing our farming and rural communities in, particularly those that are impacted by drought. / 2019 Australian federal election

Photo: @ScottMorrisonMP / Twitter

The 45th Parliament was widely considered to be one of the most chaotic periods of Australian political history, with crises ranging from the dual citizenship fiasco — where many parliamentarians were unaware they held dual citizenship that made them ineligible to sit in the parliament — to controversy surrounding environmental policy. Infighting between incumbent Liberal’s conservative and moderate factions also led to significant instability, culminating in three different leaders during its six years in power.

Current Prime Minister Scott Morrison, chosen as the bridge between the two sides, has been in his position for a little over six months and has struggled to rebuild the Liberals’ internal stability and public perception. Many of his moderate colleagues, including Defence Minister Christopher Pyne and former foreign minister Julie Bishop, have resigned or are retiring from parliament, while others like former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce have been at the centre of major scandals. Further, while Morrison was the ‘compromise candidate’ between the Liberal’s factions during the 2018 leadership challenge, the party’s conservative wing has grown in power and influence. Despite attempting to use his personality to woo voters, Morrison’s socially conservative values have isolated many young voters and he has suffered from a number of gaffes on the international stage due to his inexperience and that of his cabinet.

The Coalition has already suffered several electoral woes. It failed to win any of the five seats during the July 2018 ‘Super Saturday’ series of byelections, while the loss of the seat of Wentworth — formerly held by ex-prime minister Malcolm Turnbull until his ousting in August 2018 — forced the Coalition into minority government. Subnation elections have also gone poorly. Despite the Liberal victory in the New South Wales state election in March 2019, the result was disastrous for their National colleagues with the loss of four seats, including traditional party strongholds like the seat of Murray, which it had held on a margin of over 20%. Come May 18, the Coalition looks set to suffer national setbacks.

ANOTHER PRIME MINISTER?

The Labor Party, led by Bill Shorten, is expected to win the federal election, with Shorten to become the seventh individual to hold the office of prime minister since 2007. While Shorten has languished behind Liberal leaders in opinion polling for preferred prime minister, Labor has consistently beaten the Liberals in two-party preferred polls and in some key marginal seats.

After Labor’s own bout of leadership problems, leading to the party’s resounding defeated in 2013, party leaders have worked to rebuild the party’s internal stability and public image. New rules preventing party room leadership spill motions have ensured that Shorten has remained opposition leader while party and ministerial positions are divided between the two main party factions according to their representation in caucus. Labor has pursued a progressive domestic policy agenda, championing causes such as climate change, indigenous issues and same-sex marriage, with some likely changes to foreign policy including a more critical approach to the Trump administration, increasing aid and development funding and reversing Morrison’s decision to recognise West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Labor still faces significant challenges. Shorten always struggled to appear ‘likeable,’ especially after his prominent role in the leadership challenges and subsequent downfall of the Rudd and Gillard governments. Support for Labor, especially in inner-city electorates in Sydney and Melbourne, has suffered amid growing support for the left-wing environmentalist Greens, which is vocal on issues where Labor is seen as weak, namely refugee policy and the controversial Carmichael coal mine in Queensland. While Labor will still likely rely on the sizeable Greens contingent in the Senate to pass legislation after the election, Labor’s broader national momentum appears unfazed.

WHITHER AFTER MAY 18?

Taking in Tassie's best at Agfest / 2019 Australian federal election

Photo: @billshortenmp / Twitter

With less than two weeks to go, most polls suggest Labor is a few points ahead of the Coalition. However, some Labor’s agenda — especially those relating to the environment and border protection — may encounter difficulties gaining public support and passing through the parliament. In a nation heavily reliant on fossil fuels and where strict border control measures have become entrenched, such reforms may be a hard sell, especially in electorates heavily dependent on mining and in the Senate where far-right parties like One Nation will yield significant crossbench influence. However, while these policies may face some backlash from conservatives, Labor’s agenda has remained relatively centrist to appease internal factional tensions and remain electorally viable in closely contested seats.

Labor’s foreign policy may encounter far more resistance. Its traditional pro-China slant, coolness towards the US-Australia alliance and the Trump administration and its moves to embrace Palestinian statehood will crash against a political climate that is increasingly hostile to Beijing and a regional environment that is reliant on maintaining strong security ties with Washington.

The Coalition faces a potential existential risk. Without a major shift in the coming weeks, the country’s two major conservative parties may be forced into the political wilderness for at least the next three years. Its internal factional tensions have dramatically reduced its voter base, with disillusioned supporters shifting to One Nation as well as centrist parties like the Centre Alliance and high-profile independent candidates. The growing dominance of Liberal’s conservative wing has also led to internal concerns from moderates that party members are widely regarded as “homophobic, anti-women, climate-change deniers”. This problem is also echoed within the Nationals, highlighted by the party’s disastrous result in the New South Wales state election —  its own internal tensions could cost the party its traditional rural voter base. Without substantial party reform, the Coalition risks being seen as increasingly out of touch and casting the future of the Liberal-National alliance itself in doubt.

Shorten’s projected victory will come after six years of painstakingly rebuilding the Labor Party’s public image and dealing with internal factional tensions. After the election, it is likely that the Coalition will be in a similar place to Labor after its wipeout in 2013 — should he remain leader, Morrison will face a lengthy, uphill battle to rebuild the Coalition. How much rebuilding will need to be done, however, depends on its electoral performance on May 18.