23 May 2022

The realignment has finally reached Australia

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Australia has very, very unusual voting arrangements. That’s why the realignment that political historian Stephen Davies has documented throughout Western Europe, the UK, Brazil, and the US hadn’t happened there — until last Saturday’s Federal election. And even though it’s now possible to see familiar parts moving into place, Australia’s realignment has taken a somewhat different form compared to realignments elsewhere.

The headline result seems consistent with previous Australian experience, for example, and not out of the ordinary. Centre-left Labor (led by Anthony Albanese) was victorious over the centre-right Liberal-National Coalition (led by outgoing Prime Minister Scott Morrison) and will form – albeit narrowly – a majority government. Unlike Boris with his 80-seat buffer, PM Albanese is likely to have a majority of only one or two seats in a chamber of 151. ‘So, it was close, then’, I hear my putative British reader saying. 

Yes, it was close.

But it wasn’t just close. The Australian Labor Party received a little under 33% of the primary vote. In Brit-speak, that means less than a third of the electorate did the equivalent of placing a cross (the number ‘1’) beside a Labor candidate’s name. Imagine the fate of a major political party receiving 33% of the vote in these Islands. The leader would be out on his or her ear, for starters — forget about moving into No 10. Remember what happened to Jeremy Corbyn after Labour only won 32.1% of the vote in 2019?

The reason a party can take power with such a small share of the vote is that voting in Australia is not just compulsory, but preferential. In the single-member House of Representatives, which like the House of Commons confers government on the party that commands a majority, Australians must number all the boxes. Meanwhile, the 76-member Senate (elected, unlike the Lords) blends STV with a modified form of the preferential system described above (you must number six or 12 boxes, depending on how you choose to vote).

The quota (a characteristic of proportional representation systems) for election is, however, relatively high. This keeps out single issue kooks but permits the expression of a very wide range of opinion. The Senate is traditionally home to a decent number of minor party representatives, called the ‘crossbench’ – I used to work for one. 

With its compulsory, preferential voting + single member lower house and proportional representation + quotas upper house, the Australian electoral system was designed (largely before Federation in 1901) to produce stable, responsive politics. This year is no exception, and Australia will continue to run much as it did before. 

However, these voting arrangements make it difficult for voters to punish their own side of politics. At some point down your House of Representatives ballot paper you must choose to rank one of the two major parties before or after the other. You can’t number your ballot 1, 2, 3, 4, 4, preferring minor parties and marking the majors equal last – your ballot will be invalid (‘informal’) if you do

This means disillusioned Labor voters tried to punish their own party, and succeeded up to a point, but it still managed to win office.

Scott Morrison’s Coalition, meanwhile, received a higher primary vote — just under 36% — but was starved of preferences as people who didn’t vote 1 for it opted to give Labor, the Greens, or a wave of independents (eight at latest count) their number 2 vote. In several seats, when a member of one of the major parties was beaten into third place, their preferences served to elect a Green (the majors do not preference each other) or an independent. If nothing else, the preference flows provided an accurate picture of those whom the voters disliked as much as those they liked. And for plenty of voters, indicating those they wanted to lose was as important as selecting a preferred candidate.

Labor thus won seats thanks to preferences rather than genuine popularity. The Coalition, meanwhile, lost heartland seats to a group of ‘aligned independents’ (known as ‘the Teals’ due to their choice of campaign colour) in wealthy constituencies throughout New South Wales and Victoria. Thanks also to a major party candidate running third, the Greens managed to grab two seats in Queensland, one from the Coalition, and one from Labor. It’s telling, I think, that Labor’s lost Queensland seat was once held by former PM Kevin Rudd.

The Greens, and now the Teals, won in places where climate change enables maximum piety display and incurs minimum personal costs. Historically, the Greens had the richest voter base in the country. I am confident the Teals have pipped them. The Teals — all professional, educated women from well-heeled suburbs — are your classic posh types who always land on their feet. It’s no exaggeration to say they’ve ripped the heart out of the Coalition, winning seats that have been deepest blue since Federation. Take Kooyong in Melbourne, for example. Monique Ryan, a medical specialist, defeated outgoing Treasurer (Chancellor) Josh Frydenberg. Kooyong was once held by Liberal Party founder Robert Menzies, the nation’s longest-serving PM.

The Teals are, however, not Greens. Commentators who’ve collapsed their support into that of the Greens because of shared concerns about climate change are mistaken to do so. Instead, they present almost perfect elite politics in 2022: market economics plus Woke social policy. Teal Zoe Daniel, who won Goldstein, another blue-ribbon Coalition seat, self-describes as ‘social progressive, economic conservative’.

Such a combination has no chance in working-class seats but is catnip for posh voters. Had Albanese needed them to govern, the ALP would have been wedged up against its unionised electoral base. Indeed, the politics of smug entitlement lost Labor the 2019 election: during that campaign, renewables boosters ostentatiously went after jobs in Australia’s booming resource sector. And, because we are dealing with Australia here, those mineworkers all vote. Not screwing over the working class has been a strength of Australian politics over many decades, and both Coalition and ALP rely on working-class votes to at least some degree. The Teals and the Greens, not so much.

Mind you, Scott Morrison’s cack-handed attempt to deal with the Teals should not go unmentioned. He personally endorsed a working-class, gender-critical feminist to stand in Warringah, a wealthy Northern Beaches Sydney seat once held by former PM Tony Abbott (yes, there’s a bit of a former PM vibe going on here, I realise). In Australian politics, this is referred to as ‘a captain’s pick’.

Labor is nowhere in Warringah, and never has been (its candidates have traditionally ‘run dead’, they’re such sacrificial lambs). This meant the Coalition’s Katherine Deves was facing off against the only Teal elected in 2019, Olympic slalom bronze medallist and barrister Zali Steggall. As the campaign progressed, it became clear that Morrison had not stood Deves in Warringah to win it back for the Coalition, but to attract the ‘women’s vote’ in culturally conservative outer suburban seats.

In doing this, he assumed two things: first, that the trans issue is sufficiently deranging in Australia to produce a large pool of single-issue voters. Second, he thought those voters would flock to him for stating, on the eve of an election, that women’s sport should be protected from trans competitors. Remembering, in all this, the Australian electoral system is designed to produce moderate, responsive politics and has no history of the sort of monomaniacal single-issue campaigning that plagues the US, while compulsory voting makes for an informed, perceptive electorate.

Women are not mugs. Voters in seats the Coalition lost were not fooled. Deves, meanwhile – entirely unsuited to the electorate for which she had been endorsed – was sacrificed on the altar of public opinion. 

For its part, Labor mirrored Morrison’s ‘captain’s pick’ error when it parachuted Kristina Keneally (former NSW Premier, the rough equivalent of someone like Alex Salmond) into a safe Labor seat in South-Western Sydney. Keneally, too, was trounced by a local (but non-Teal) independent. 

On this point, it’s worth noting that the Teals may be new in the context of Australian politics, but are familiar over here: they’re Australia’s Lib Dems, aka the Prosecco Party. That’s where disgruntled Home Counties and Shire Tories have long parked their votes when the Conservative Party annoys them, while, as in Warringah, Labour is a poor relation. See, for example, last year’s North Shropshire by-election and this month’s local elections. 

Australia now has a Senate-sized crossbench in the House of Representatives. It has two deeply unpopular major parties, and a new PM who is no more popular than the man he defeated. The realignment – albeit moderated by the country’s unusual electoral system – has arrived.

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Helen Dale read Law at Oxford and won the Miles Franklin Award for her first novel, 'The Hand that Signed the Paper'. Her latest novel is 'Kingdom of the Wicked'; it was shortlisted for the Prometheus Prize for science fiction.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.