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When victory for the silent is defeat for the silenced

  • 18 May 2022
I was invited to a party the night of the 2019 election. The night’s entertainment was invite-only, with long tables of bread and wine, and I stepped back from the sounds of celebration to hear the political coverage on my phone. Standing at the far window, I looked up to see people in the night below, out in the dark, silent. Behind me a party guest shouted over the noise ‘what happened?’ I looked away from those outside and answered: a loss.

The question was being asked outside the party too, where friends watched the ALP’s shock defeat alongside refugees on Temporary Protection Visas. The ALP had promised pathways to permanency and the election result of that night decided whether or not these refugees would remain safe or see their families again. The loss wasn’t just political for them.

Scott Morrison soon appeared to shout over the noise of his party and declared the election to be a ‘great victory’ for the ‘quiet Australians’, a vindication for listening to the apolitical and the aspirational. I asked my friend how it felt to hear that speech alongside refugees with a lived experience of displacement and torture. The room was quiet.

I heard similar stories from advocates, pastors, campaigners, friends. The ALP had invited a policy conversation that sought some progress on refugee justice, inequality, housing affordability, disability support, the climate crisis, and a First Nations voice to Parliament and Treaty. Many saw the 2019 election as a victory or a loss for a political party, but the question ‘what happened?’ depended on who you were asking. What was lost that night depends on who was being heard.

The noise grew louder in the aftermath, with parties and the media rushing to answer the question. Former Prime Minister John Howard claimed that Australians had rejected ‘envy driven politics’. Centre-right newspapers declared it ‘ScoMo’s Miracle’, that the quiet Australians had rejected Bill Shorten’s ‘big government and low growth agenda’, but this narrative reflected manufactured consent more than a majority consensus. Rather than a vindication of a centre-right ideology, Scott Morrison’s campaign had only added one seat to Malcolm Turnbull’s 2016 paper-thin majority of 76. The incumbent’s win was neither a miracle nor a mandate, barely claimed from an electorate expressing a level of disillusionment with democracy not seen since the Whitlam dismissal.

'Regardless of the election result, the story of what is lost can’t just be decided by