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Winner-take-all election narrative doesn't wash



The show goes on. The federal election seems long ago as Parliament resumes. Tax cuts, virtually the government's only policy promise, are front and centre. Winner takes all unless the Senate intervenes.

Scott Morrison claims victory in the 2019 Australian federal election (Photo by Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images)But we should remember that the six week period since the election is not an adequate time to fully reflect on just what caused the surprise result. Strong evidence, as distinct from anecdotes and personal theories, is not yet available. We should be beware of early over-reactions.

Both the winners and the losers are guilty of this.  The government is jubilant, claiming a mandate, while Labor is humiliated and in retreat, despite the election being closely contested. Nothing much actually changed in terms of seats. The final count in the 151-seat House of Representatives is government 77 seats, opposition 68 seats and independents and minor parties six seats, which is just two seats removed from minority government status.

Election commentary has concentrated disproportionately on Labor failure and Coalition victory, largely the former. Labor luminaries have taken the same approach. Headlines tell some of the story, such as 'Labor's climate policies hurt its chances in mining seats' and 'Massive swings against Labor in franking credit seats'.

Chris Bowen warned his party it had lost support from religious voters, claiming that 'People of faith no longer feel that progressive politics cares about them.' Anthony Albanese, now Labor leader, called on Labor to reconnect with 'aspirational Australians' who, he claimed, had rejected the party at the election.

Senior Labor leaders opened debate on every major party policy, which is a reasonable thing to do, but only in a measured way. The policies mentioned particularly were franking credits, negative gearing and whether to propose a market mechanism to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. To that could be added the many recriminations against Bill Shorten's much-maligned leadership.

While the losers have engaged in a massive blame game, the winners have declared a mandate for every policy they took to the election, including only limited action on climate change and long-term tax cuts for high-income earners. That is a seriously unbalanced reaction, especially as many of its decisive votes were second preferences passed on from minor parties like the United Australia Party and One Nation. Winner-take-all in a policy sense is not a sensible approach.


"Thinking this way would not only produce more balanced conclusions about the election result on both sides, but it would mean better policies and better government in the future."


Yet we are expected to believe that all those perceived Labor failures, plus the massive anti-Labor Clive Palmer campaign and the attraction of some positive Coalition policies, only shifted a little over one Australian in every hundred, though more in some states like Queensland and some individual seats. That analysis can't be right.

The better way to visualise the dynamics of the election outcome is to assume that the quite small two party preferred swing was a net swing made up of many voters who swung towards Labor and away from the Coalition as well as an even greater number who swung against Labor and towards the Coalition.

We don't know yet or even seem to care what aspects of the government campaign electors found negative and unattractive. Conversely, we don't know or seem to care what aspects of Labor's policies the electorate found appealing and worthwhile. Yet there were surely some positives, and we should reflect upon them.

Both sides should now look at their positives and negatives, assuming there are more of the latter in Labor's case. The Labor strengths might include its concern for low income and unemployed Australians on benefits, criticism of the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees, younger Australians worried about the impact of negative gearing, minorities worried about discrimination, and climate change policies outside of mining seats. Labor should look at where it succeeded, while the Coalition should look at where it failed.

Thinking this way would not only produce more balanced conclusions about the election result on both sides, but it would mean better policies and better government in the future.  Winner-take-all may be the prevailing culture, but it is not a sensible way to proceed.



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

Main image: Scott Morrison claims victory in the 2019 Australian federal election (Photo by Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images)

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Election 2019, Anthony Albanese, Scott Morrison, Labor Party, Coalition, climate change



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Existing comments

Thanks for the thoughtful words, John. 'Winner-take-all' does indeed seem to be part of the prevailing culture, and it is clearly not a sensible way to proceed. Your article challenges each of us to play our part in transcending the many dimensions of polarisation that are presented today, of US v China, church v state, rich v poor, etc.

Denis Fitzgerald | 26 June 2019  

Shouldn't we be looking at the playbook in place globally which has seen similar results for USA, Brexit, Brazil and others. Cambridge Analytica: fake derogatory news, control of media in Australia, Palmer spending $$$$$ (not for nothing and possibly with some behind the scenes help), buying personal data in social media targeting the less educated.

Ellen White | 27 June 2019  

John Warhurst's view on the recent election result calls for measured reactions and prudent inference taking . But politics is a brutally frank business: you win or you lose. During the last twenty three years the ALP has won ONE election and lost eight. (Minority Govt was achieved on one occasion. Unless, the ALP looks squarely at its liability ledger - it will continue to lose elections and lose traction as a major party.

Carey Burke | 27 June 2019  

Thank u for ur finely nuanced argument re last election. I couldn't agree more. Not to focus on close scrutiny on what was on election offer is throwing the baby out with the bath water. Knee jerk reactions don't serve us well from either side. A careful evaluation of what was on offer and what wasn't from either parter is crucial for understanding what transpired pre-election and for sensible forward planning by both sides.

Helga Jones | 01 July 2019  

While I agree with most comments to date, especially that of Carey Burke, to me the situation is simpler than John Warhurst puts it. Whoever "wins" should be there to govern for the benefit of all Australians, not just those who voted for them. Given that we have a preferential voting system, no party can claim anything a clear mandate for its policies if it gains around a third of the primary votes (or even less for Labor); that means twice as many people voted against them as voted for them as their first preference, and the final distribution of preferences means that in this case the "winner" was actually the THIRD preference, and even then only in an overall sense. The prevalence of spin these days would have us believe otherwise, and we can see through it, but it does not stop the spin.

Dennis | 01 July 2019  

There are 2.3M on Temporary visas and 676,084 persons from NZ not voting. A large percentage did not vote and 700,000 votes were duds. What does that say about stateless persons representation? The term " mandate" does not mean much.

Ted Fensom | 01 July 2019  

I'm so pleased to see articles such as these that emphasize that democracy is not enhanced by tribalism and extreme partisan views. Well done Eureka Street!

Mike Westerman | 01 July 2019  

I have just a few minor points to make. The Coalition Government doesn’t want to legislate anything that they didn’t go hard for in the campaign. If no Palmer to what party would his few votes have gone? Hardly to the ALP. Like most PHON votes without Pauline most of her votes would have gone to the National Party seeing her strength in Queensland and the ALP drubbing there. The ALP suffered a catastrophic defeat in its primary vote. Like in the previous election where Shorten acted like he had won the election from the election onward it seems that the ALP and fellow travellers assume that “we would have won the election except for the voters” this time round. To prove they are bereft of ideas it now seems they are going to take their lead from the Cross Bench. Thank God for miracles.

Peter Stokes | 01 July 2019  

A very useful commentary. Thank you, John. It seems as though the LNP is joyfully exaggerating the meaning of its victory (‘Australians overwhelmingly agree with our policies on everything’. Meanwhile Labor is gloomily exaggerating the meaning of its loss ‘No-one loves us or our policies, let’s change all our policies’. For goodness sake. Doesn’t anyone really care why we voted as we did? Huge numbers voted for Labor. Doesn’t it matter why? Huge numbers voted for the LNP - does this mean they all agree with everything the LNP puts forward? I doubt much serious reflection is going on now on either side. Now that parliament is back on the field, the coaches will be too busy with tactics to worry about strategy.

Joan Seymour | 06 July 2019  

John Warhurst makes more sense than so many of the commentators giving their versions of what happened in the recent elections. What is obvious in the aftermath is that there is a vacuum;no genuine long term inspiring vision, no notion of where Australia is other than an island between London and New York and perhaps Beijing. For my money Clive Hamilton nailed it better than most pundits and his response is not superficial. https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2019/jun/23/culture-shock-politics-upended-in-era-of-identity

Michael D. Breen | 06 July 2019  

All this gets overthought. In reality it is simpler than it seems. Most people are unaffected by the campaigns, the endless baby kissing and Palmer. They just know, more or less when and where they are better off. I'm in an electorate where the experts told us the independent was going to win. The Nats were dead meat, they said. The bookies had it $1.50 to $7. Strangely the Nat outpolled the independent 2 to 1 and is in Canberra with an 8% margin. Analysis like John Black and Analytica do is handy for identifying which voters are where and tailoring campaigns to those voters. Ultimately it is finessing. The voters in Pennsylvania and Michigan were no more influenced by Russian interference than the voters in Australia were influenced by Palmer. They want policy that they see is pro them. This election was about reading the country outside the bubble, those who don't watch The Drum and Insiders and Sky after dark and don't read The Guardian. These are the people who don't care about Turnbull's sacking or climate change. The insiders can navel gaze from here on as long as they want. Australians are a fairly uncomplicated lot and as Richardson says, 'They work you out.' Labor should reflect on this: If it had not been for Hawke they would be a total irrelevancy in the 70 years since WWII. Whitlam and Rudd were reactionary blips - look sees to check if anything had really changed - before normal service was resumed. It's not winner take all, it's sensible politics rules.

Stephen Lusher | 06 July 2019  

Sorry, Denis, you're wrong. Labor got more primary votes than Coal-ition.

Pat Mahony | 06 July 2019  

The results showed there was an 18% swing against the major parties towards micro and independents so consequently with so few of these having numbers in parliament, could there be political interference from the USA?. Trump said he knew SKOMO would win!

Wrace Boomaker | 07 July 2019  

At last a sane and measured voice in the election aftermath! The way towards sound policy-making cannot lie in populist sloganizing and vote-buying, but in educating the electorate in ways that enhance leadership abilities in politicians. A reactive politics that discourages critical thinking in voters does nobody any favours and debases the noble reputation that politicians should have for contributing to the common good. Great Thanks to John Warhurst and Eureka Street for reminding us of this!

Michael Furtado | 07 July 2019  

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