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The cities strike back



Governments lose elections, but Oppositions still must demonstrate that they are a capable alternative. Both the Morrison Coalition government and the Albanese Labor Opposition played their part last Saturday. There were many sub-plots in the pattern of voting, but this election was primarily lost and won in the four biggest mainland cities. 

While the Coalition led by Scott Morrison was messing around with misplaced scare campaigns about religious discrimination and gender identity it was deaf to the issues about integrity in government, cost of living, equality for women and action on climate change raised by the teal Independents, the Greens and Labor. These latter concerns were the ones which resonated most strongly with the community. 

The focus of the Prime Minister condemned to extinction his own urban colleagues, largely party moderates, by pandering to his rural Coalition partner, the Nationals, on climate change and other issues. Effectively the theme ‘A Vote for Josh Frydenberg is a vote for Barnaby Joyce’ resonated across metropolitan Australia. That is not, however, to excuse the Liberals themselves. Morrison bargained that the Liberals would benefit from his focus in the suburbs, but that proved to be mistaken. There was no benefit from his misplaced priorities. 

The Nationals manipulated the Liberals by imposing its anti-climate action stance on the Morrison government, and ultimately denied themselves a continuing place in government. Joyce also denied any responsibility for the loss because the Nationals held their seats. He showed no empathy for the lost Liberals. ‘The Liberals fight Liberal battles and the Nationals fight Nationals battles’. But he was mistaken in his complacent view that Labor could not win without the regions. That is exactly what has happened. 

Most attention has been given to the outstanding feat of the six female teal independents who built on the foundation laid by Cathy McGowan, Helen Haines, Zali Steggall and Rebekha Sharkie to cut a swathe through safe Liberal seats. This outcome transforms the Parliament and has long term consequences for gender equality and for the party system. 


'Labor is back in office with a new Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, who is a break from the Whitlam-Hawke-Rudd Labor leadership model. His lower personal profile may turn out to suit the times if he can show he is a good listener, a genuine collaborator and a consensus-builder.' 


Equally important has been the breakthrough by the Greens in Brisbane and the further strengthening of their role in the Senate because of a national swing. The traditional third voice has been magnified beyond expectation. Adam Bandt was justified in terming it a ‘greenslide’ in both the narrow party and the broader community sense of that term. 

However, it is Labor which looks like it has won majority government under our preferential voting system, proving the opinion polls right on this occasion. It won seats in Melbourne, Adelaide, Sydney and, of course, Perth. The latter state’s slaughter of the Liberals was the decisive icing on Labor’s cake. The ‘Red West’, as one friend emailed me, also partly came about because of the insensitivity and incompetence of the Coalition government, led by Morrison himself (stuck in ‘gold-standard’ New South Wales), in dealing with Western Australians. 

The defeat of the government and the remarkable fact that about one-third of Australians voted for other than the two major parties took place despite the enormous structural advantages that benefit the major political parties. The media presentation of all Australian election campaigns  gives the old parties enormous privileges. The major election debates are reserved for the two leaders. Many media programs are built around equal time for the chosen representatives of the major parties and little else. No wonder the community is disgruntled. 

Added to that was the unbridled, almost manic, support by the largest media company, News Corporation, for the government, plus its constant denigration of the challenges by the Independents and the Greens, not to mention its attacks on Labor. The big tabloids were one-eyed once again. 

The challengers were met not just with deafness but with complacency and hostility by the major parties. The holders of the erstwhile safe Liberal seats, shocked by the threat, were in some cases angry and pompous. Their case that working within the party for moderate policies was preferable to going Independent had clearly proved impotent. In defeat, some like Trent Zimmerman in North Sydney and Senator Simon Birmingham from South Australia argued persuasively, however, for a return to a ‘broad church’ Liberal Party. 

There was also a Labor version of Morrison’s jibe that the well-off could afford to be critical of his government. On election-night Labor front-bencher Bill Shorten told his media audience that ‘very affluent people tend to vote Green because they don’t have a worry in the world’. That is a narrow-minded and self-interested view which is equally deaf to community concerns. 

Labor is back in office with a new Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, who is a break from the Whitlam-Hawke-Rudd Labor leadership model. His lower personal profile may turn out to suit the times if he can show he is a good listener, a genuine collaborator and a consensus-builder. 





John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University.

Main image: A voter walks past election advertising outside a polling centre in Fitzroy, Melbourne on May 21, 2022. (Naomi Rahim / Getty Images) 

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Election, AusPol, AustraliaVotes2022, Independents, Cities



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Existing comments

Australian politics has changed, yes, really changed with the election of the Labor government led by Anthony Albanese, who seems to be a good, normal man close to his roots and not consumed by hubris, as so many of his recent predecessors in the position were. If Labor have an absolute majority in the Lower House, they will still need cross bench support in the Senate, which they should easily obtain. The Teals and Greens are the progressives in Australian politics and should have a real, beneficial effect on government. The Teals were pilloried by the usual suspects for 'not having an agenda'. They do: it is commonsense and decency in governance in relation to a number of issues, including accountabilty and human survival on this planet. Denigrating intelligent, professional women like them is stupid: they are amongst the most able people in the country. Australians are now too sophisticated to fall for 'gotcha' moments from the media such as the one the late Mike Willesee pulled on John Hewson. The Liberals need to go back to being the Broad Church for 'the forgotten people' of the great Sir Robert Menzies. Currently I do not think they have it in them. Much soul searching is needed there.

Edward Fido | 25 May 2022  

‘messing around with misplaced scare campaigns about religious discrimination and gender identity it was deaf to the issues about integrity in government, cost of living, equality for women and action on climate change raised by’

An applicable principle is that man does not live on bread alone, which means, as the Church, being the means of transmitting every word from the mouth of God, teaches, that there are some evils which Revelation teaches to be intrinsically so and should always be opposed while others are imperfect outcomes in life in which diagnosing the causes, or the means to prevent or cure, is afflicted with uncertainty, and for which, therefore, disagreement as to how to deal with them is valid because the finite state at any moment of human knowledge, Revelation or supernatural knowledge being silent for the time being on the topic, makes it inevitable.

The so-called scare campaign about religious discrimination and gender identity is to ring the alarm about the intrinsic evil of using nesting cuckoos in students and staff to prevent the Faith from reliably transmitting itself in its usual vehicles of transmission, such as schools and, eventually, the pulpit, between one of its generations to the next. That this is so is clear because the political parties have specifically exempted themselves from hosting nesting cuckoos in their staffing. The only basis for doing so has to be pragmatic because where is the philosophical basis under the concept of the atheistic or value-neutral State for exempting some value-transmitting agencies in society but not others?

Another applicable principle is that to state that man does not live on bread alone is to state that man also needs bread, and we see that in Christ who healed after he preached. In fact, the temporal logistics of his work would have meant that he spent more time healing than preaching, although it could be said that to heal as an individual activity is also to minister or preach (not necessarily with words) to the individual. However, not to attend to both the spiritual and material halves of humans as individuals and groups is discontiguous and unscriptural.

As Mother Teresa says, Christ has no hands. It is the delegated duty of the State to defend the Faith because of the injunction to Simon, even in defence of Christ, to put his sword back in its scabbard. It is specifically the duty of the Monarch to symbolise in one person the state’s delegated duty to defend the Faith, which makes the concepts of the value-neutral state, or a state without a monarch (where there had been one), somewhat like the flaw of gender dysphoria, the expressing of something meant to be in the image and likeness of God as something else. If one believes in the concept of a holy creator, one must accept that creations must serve the holy ends of that creator. States and monarchs, as mere creations, are obliged to serve those ends or there is, for those who believe in the concept of a holy creator, a logical incoherence. The claim of value-neutrality is therefore a Luciferian declaration of independence. What else could it be?

roy chen yee | 25 May 2022  

John rather than Labor winning it, the Coalition lost it as for years they have congealed in their own grease.

However it is to be hoped Labor take the Chinese threat to this region seriously and don't scotch the AUKUS agreement.

Francis Armstrong | 25 May 2022  

Astute observations by John on the current political landscape. It is a landscape littered with the corpses of prefabricated outlooks and phrases. There has been a Greenslide, a willingness to listen carefully to well-educated, coherent independents who demand a better future. And a turning away from political parties whose dated worldview has been shown for what it is: a relic of divisive politics. We can hope that voters continue with an uncompromising, imaginative plan for this nation.

Pam | 25 May 2022  

Phew... that was close, Australians nearly had to deal with policy politics rather than select leaders on their "likeability" at the election. Now Albo just has to focus on surrounding himself with a caucus and ministry of unpopular, underachieving nobodies to fend off any chance of leadership challenges... which shouldn't be a problem for him. It would be nice to have a full term PM without the disturbance and distraction to governing that leadership challenges bring. No doubt the political pundits will find a niche issue, apply some media focus to magnify the crack for wedge politics to produce a divide, ... it keeps them in a job. Thanks for the article.

ray | 25 May 2022  

The ALP need the Greens to pass any progessive legislation so the likes of Shorten and their cheap jibes need to be a little humble.

Marilyn Shepherd | 25 May 2022  

Ray, you have completely missed the points of John's article. In trying to score a political point, you have resorted to the very thing that led to the Morrison Government and its gutless 'middle of the road' MP's being turfed out by the female 'teal 'independents. Both major parties lost votes to the smaller parties and independents. One hopes that the new Government takes notice of the massive thump. that voters administered to the two 'big boys' of Australian politics.

Gavin O'Brien | 26 May 2022  
Show Responses

Gavin, I acknowledge your observations but perhaps I read things differently to yourself. There was no attempt at political point scoring; I can assure you I'd have been equally disappointed with any number of election outcomes... but simply address the "Labour" result on which my comments were based. When you can tell me a collective "Teal" policy other than agreement on the color of their blazer I'll only too pleased to reassess how well they fit in a cross-bench which won't have much say in a lower house of 76 Labour seats. Australia's government for the next 3 years has been decided but the mechanics of how the deliberations would be reviewed was left to pure chance of the distribution of votes. Without the dramas of hung parliament our media will need to revert to party factional "runkling" to generate anything to get public opinion. It's somewhat like when Trump made the media irrelevant by making press release by twitter rather than conference; his mistake was because they had no politics to report they directed their pens to him. Usefully, there may be a Greens balance of power in the Senate... we shall see how "green" Labour is when live exports are stopped and steak is back to $10 per kilogram.

ray | 29 May 2022  

‘very affluent people tend to vote Green because they don’t have a worry in the world’.

Not wholly untrue. The same applies to the Christian working class who have to choose between a faction which nominally looks after their economic interests but will insist that they, in return, buy policies of intrinsic evil, and a faction which is less reliable in looking after their interests but, nominally at least, do not advocate policies which are intrinsically evil.

Anyway, across the water, the same applies to a Republican who wants to do something about guns that isn't window-dressing without buying the Democratic Party's 'culture of death'.

roy chen yee | 27 May 2022  

An excellent appraisal of the election outcome, thanks, John. Whether Albanese gets a Labor majority in its own right or not, he has a mandate and a demand in the election of the cross bench for bolder and better policies on climate change, integrity, tax, and support for the vulnerable and for gender equality and condemnation of gender/sex discrimination - time to dispense with small target tactics. This unusual election outcome seems to say that Australia is ready for a real commitment to social justice and integrity.

Peter Johnstone | 27 May 2022  

Thanks John for your usual clear analysis of the outcome.

Today (30 May) Labor is one seat away from a majority. Looks like they will get it, but they must be kicking themselves over Kristina Keneally when they had a good local candidate in Fowler already. I thought Parramatta might also be at risk, but that one turned out okay for Labor, this time.

Interesting to see if the major parties start to do something about their falling primary votes. They can’t expect the preferential system to work for one or the other any more. That changed with the election of Teals and Greens who, with other Independents, now occupy around 10 percent of seats in the House of Reps. It’s hard to see the primary vote for the majors picking up again in 2025, so the trend to independent populist candidates might continue if the current lot acquit themselves well.

The Senate vote that interests me is the ACT, where Zed Seselja looks like losing to the independent David Pocock. A lot of local issues there, so maybe the result is not such a surprise after all.

A little bit of trivia I picked up over the weekend. There is hardly a seat previously held by a former Liberal Prime Minister that is now in the hands of the Liberals. The seats formerly held by Menzies, Holt, Gorton, Howard, Abbott and Turnbull are now occupied by Independent MPs. Throw in Rudd’s former seat for Labor as well. Not sure if this is just coincidence, or whether a safe seat just ain't what it used to be.

Brett | 30 May 2022  

I suspect one aspect of the results is escaping notice.

Labor's success was a result of using a feature of our preferential (and compulsory) voting system. Where the winner of a seat in a first past the post system is the most popular candidate, the preferential winner is the least unpopular. Labor's "small target" campaigning meant that people ended up with no reason not to vote against them. On the other hand, first preference votes show that fewer people than ever thought that they had a reason to vote for them. The Liberals, on the other hand, gave people lots of reasons to vote against the Liberals.

Small target is a valid strategy for an opposition party, but it won't work in government. In government, deciding to do or say nothing counts as a decision and will upset some voters. They aren't saying anything, of course, but I suspect that just quietly Labor is a bit worried about the 2025 election.

Ray H | 02 June 2022  
Show Responses

That is an important point to make Ray. I suspect that few people actually recognise that excellent feature of our preferential voting system; that the least liked candidate is never elected. It has a similar effect to the ancient Athenians' ostracising process, where a poll determined the least-liked person who was the expelled for a period of ten years and one can quite easily see this recent election as an ostracising process. Quite a few of us will be hoping that the ten-year period also applies this time, but that will depend a lot on how the new government performs and, perhaps more importantly, is seen to perform.

Ginger Meggs | 03 June 2022  

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