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Surprise: the status quo election

May 27, 2019 • 15m 32sec

Scott Morrison’s win should not have been a surprise - Australia has been stuck on the same voting divide since 2010. We fractured first, before Trump or Brexit.

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Surprise: the status quo election

01 • May 27, 2019

Surprise: the status quo election

[Theme music]

ELIZABETH:

From Schwartz Media, I'm Elizabeth Kulas. This is 7am.

At the election last weekend, even Scott Morrison seemed shocked by the result. But it was a repeat of the same outcome we’ve seen in every election since 2010. The country has been split and it’s been voting along that divide for almost a decade.

George Megalogenis on how Australia was fractured and what we might do next.

ELIZABETH:

Hi George, we met once a long time ago.

GEORGE:

Yes! Yes ahhh … I’ve had a mad few weeks ...

ELIZABETH:

I bet.

GEORGE:

I can imagine everybody does ...

ELIZABETH:

So this might not be a great first question to open with but here goes: how was this campaign for you, George?

GEORGE:

I think every journalist in Australia and every commentator in Australia and every.. the mea culpa that I would offer is that I underestimated how soon Scott Morrison could learn from his mistakes. It's actually fascinating to watch the guy evolve so quickly. And what I underestimated was his ability to learn from the particular series of mistakes that he made through the Wentworth by-election, through trying to start border protection again, through his sort of.. on again, off again nativist policy lines, the argument he got into with Waleed Aly after Christchurch. All those things told me that this guys is not going to make it. But of course what he did was he realised that he wasn't going to make it being that bloke and he reverted to a thing that has worked in the past for a number of people and I think he learnt this lesson from Keating. You have to make yourself, especially when you don't have a good story to tell, The Opposition Leader.

ELIZABETH:

You’ve been watching elections for a long time, does this one have similarities with any in the recent past?

GEORGE:

It's almost as if we've been having the same election across the entire decade 2010 and 2019 have basically followed the same pattern.

ARCHIVED RECORDING – Scott Morrison

[Applause]

"I have always believed in miracles ... "

[Applause]

"How good, is Australia?"

[Applause]

GEORGE:

So the way the people voted in 2009 is almost identical to the way they voted in 2010. 2010 obviously being the reference point because it's the hung parliament election. And that was the one for me where it all went wrong for the country.

ARCHIVED RECORDING – Unidentified journalists

"It's not a great night for the Labor Party. They've lost their majority, they're probably unlikely to get it back."

"Mr Howard did you think three years after you lost government that this was possible? What happened tonight?"

ARCHIVED RECORDING – John Howard

"Only in my dreams. What happened tonight is an extraordinary tribute to Tony Abbott."

ARCHIVED RECORDING – Scott Morrison

"The coalition is back in business."

[Music starts]

GEORGE:

It was running like a soap opera the television stations gave up scrutinising policy, print couldn't handle it. We were we were obsessed with polls. The Internet began to disrupt politics so one in 10 voters in that election were getting their information from the Internet. It felt to me that we weren't going to have another normal election again. And I felt that the parties themselves couldn't handle the disturbance.

ELIZABETH:

So you’re saying the vote is stuck along the same lines it has been 2010, we’ve essentially replayed the same election and each time it’s surprised us – what is that disturbance that the parties can’t handle?

GEORGE:

It turns out it didn't matter who you had in charge of the party once you reframe a national election about identity then you discover a country fractures and it fractures in a way that main party politics can't handle because the incentives for the parties at that point is then to double down on the base and try to hang on to what remains your base which reinforces the polarisation.

The split is essentially between older voters and younger voters between Queenslanders and Victorians. That is the fundamental split in Australia.

So Labor win comfortably in Victoria. Once you split a country along tribal lines like that, neither side accepts the mandate of the winner. Now for the Labor people this starts to mess with their head.

So it starts to mess with Labor's thinking about where their next majority will come from they think their next majority is going to come from traditional Liberal seats in Melbourne. So they then doubled down on a cosmopolitan supermajority to offset a regional supermajority that the Coalition has. The Coalition looks at this and says holy moly.

There are a whole lot of lower income Labor people who voted Labor all their lives. Now they're getting older they're getting close to retirement. They're going to switch to us. And so again both sides are looking to pinch the voter at the extreme of the other side's base.

ELIZABETH:

So very briefly where did Morrison win?

GEORGE:

Where did Morrison win? So he won ... well the word win is is a bit problematic to me. I would argue that the country is polarised so no one wins in the sense that nobody won over anybody else. So he wins because he stops Labor from collecting the spoils that Labor has been waiting to collect for years. Now of course you could rephrase the question to where did Labor lose it. Labor lost it, because it thought it could get to power without Queensland. Morrison thought he could only get to power with Queensland and it turns out the flip of a coin this one – Morrison had the better strategy.

ELIZABETH:

We'll be right back.

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ELIZABETH:

A lot of Australians maybe even most Australians have been dumbstruck over the last week. They're walking around saying this is a result out of left field. We didn't see this coming what a shock. What a surprise. Morrison himself though has said he's pulled off a miracle win. In your mind. He did this because he had the right strategy. He had a strategy as Labor did and he's turned out to be more possible.

GEORGE:

Probably even simpler than that. Labor didn't fight in the territory where it needed to fight which was regional Queensland. Labor are the majority party in the capitals, coalition of the majority party in the regions. I mean good luck to him for winning but I would hate to be in the shoes of somebody who gets the miracle, looks at the country and then decides the country agrees with me. The country does not agree with Scott Morrison anymore than it agreed with Bill Shorten.

Half the country is thinking one way and the other half is thinking the other way.

ELIZABETH:

[laughs] and what are you thinking?

GEORGE:

What am I thinking? I'm thinking because we've had the same election for three times out of four this decade that the country is split and until one or other party figures out that you need to reunite young and old city and region until they figure that out we're stuffed as a country.

You can't have results like this each time. If you were actually running a political system where both parties are competing for swinging voters, they're not competing for swinging voters the Middle is somewhere else now. This is one of those weird elections where there's a lot of action but the way it all shook out only a few seats change hands.

This is the status quo election that surprises all. But what underlines this status quo election is not surprising. Nothing has changed in the last 10 years. The country remains polarized.

ELIZABETH:

You talk about that middle moving around. Where are they now. Where is that middle?

GEORGE:

Well there isn't a single middle in Australia so it used to be the case when you had a the you know and John Howard used to describe the sort of political formula as lifetime Coalition vote of 40 lifetime Labor voter 40. The middle is the other 20. The parties are closer to 30 30 40. 30 per cent lifetime Coalition voters 30 per cent lifetime Labor voters and 40 per cent unaligned. Now in that unaligned group they can move quite dramatically from from election to election.

The parties are terrified by the collapse in their primary vote. So they double down on what remains of their base. Australia, whatever the middle is, is a completely different place now because you have to think about a voter and the voters location. So there are two things I'd take out: one, the parties themselves are terrified about the decline in their primary vote. Two the answer is a lot simpler than what they're making it out to be. What they're making it out to be is that somehow I'm going to pinch an election on what remains of my base when there's actually not only a big victory out there if you can reconnect with the disengaged, but also you've unified the country just by having listened to them. And once you unify the country that way you are permitted to do stuff. What's the other thing that we look back on this past decade that is familiar to us now coming out of this election. No policy reform agenda. So Morrison has been re-elected on no agenda at all.

ELIZABETH:

And so what happens to a government like Morrisons that might be able to snatch themselves an extra term but the foundations of that ... are questionable?

GEORGE:

Yeah, So the foundations are shaky because he wins on a scare campaign doesn't he. I mean the thing that stops people from punishing a coalition government for having sacked itself twice on ready – having disposed of two prime ministers – is the scare campaign against Bill Shorten and that kept older voters in the coalition column.

ELIZABETH:

So is that a failure of Shorten's or is that a lucky break for Morrison?

GEORGE:

No no I mean full marks Morrison for having been able to frame the election campaign as a referendum on Bill Shorten and a referendum on the idea of Bill Shorten coming after you. But unfortunately I'm old enough to remember the other couple of times when a party has been able to squeeze out an extra term. And that's Howard in 2004 and Keating for Labor in 1993. A monumental scare campaign was basically the last thing the government had left when it was asking for another term. What could go wrong for Morrison? Well a global recession straight off the bat. The other thing and this is something he knows he should worry about because he's been Treasurer for three years the budget isn't, hasn't been fixed yet. Morrison is going to need to have the budget fit for purpose and it's going to have to be in a position where it can respond to the next global crisis and it's not in that position now.

But look the American economy has been growing for 10 years since the last since their last recession. They came out of the global financial crisis as we call it but the Great Recession in 2009. Europe's a mess of course because Britain wants to get out but doesn't know how to get out. And. And we've now grown without the interruption recession for 28 years. Look, gravity starts to assert itself at some point but the odds are there is going to be an economic shock and a government that got re-elected on a scare campaign is going to have a very difficult conversation with the Australian people when that shock comes.

ELIZABETH:

Let's go back to that split if we can. We know this stubborn split has taken us through almost a decade. It's endured through three elections. Very few people are reckoning with it, if they've even acknowledged it. What do we do now?

GEORGE:

To be able to prevent a thrashing the next time because your history tells you that a thrashing is coming from the next time having just dodged the bullet. They're going to need to figure out a way to bring themselves back to the center as a governing party, which for them actually in a practical sense means pinching some of Labor's policies.

To stop making themselves scary to the rest of the country, because the rest of the country, unfortunately for them is actually growing faster than the bit they've got the majority in so regional Queensland is still growing. But the regions themselves, other things being equal, are growing slower than the capitals. And if all the labor energies in the capital sooner or later demography starts to click over for the Labor Party.

And that's the worst thing that can happen to Labor that Labor just sort of sneaks into office again on demography alone. That finally they figure out a way to make a a capital city majority to cancel the Queensland Regional supermajority.

So the challenge really for both parties is is to figure out how to get a decent majority again, a decent majority that crosses both location and class and race.

ELIZABETH:

It feels like you're saying in a way not that the election result was irrelevant but that the challenges would have faced both parties regardless of who takes government.

GEORGE:

That's actually a really good way of putting it because Labor's path to power even though they had more cities they were shooting for was as narrow as the Coalition's path of power.

ELIZABETH:

Just in the opposite direction ...

GEORGE:

Just in the opposite direction Labor thought that there was more low hanging fruit for them in the cities it turned out that there wasn't because the Coalition won. But the coalition and they know this because the first conversation is how do you reckon you did it? Okay. I don't know. But what do we do next is the question they they're asking it out aloud.

ELIZABETH:

Does Morrison seem like the person who can figure that out?

GEORGE:

Morrison is a Sydneysider. He's a bit, I would say he's a bit, I wouldn't call him a cosmopolitan but I also wouldn't call him a troglodyte. A lot of labor people I think underestimate how how much he wants to be liked. And how much he even a bit more than how much it wants to be liked. I think he understands his part where his party went wrong in the last five years. I think he understands that he will never say that publicly but I think he understands where they went wrong.

ELIZABETH:

And where did they go wrong?

GEORGE:

[laughs] Where do you want to begin?

ELIZABETH:

We can go way back.

GEORGE:

They've been the most disorganised least effective government since Jim Scullin's. And I think they would admit that themselves. For the next three years they need to learn how to govern again. They haven't governed yet.

ELIZABETH:

But they also haven't lost government as a result.

GEORGE:

Yeh but ...

ELIZABETH:

Time is running out.

GEORGE:

I know you're playing devil's advocate but when you ask a question like that you seem to think that the election is what government is about. Government is about governing in the long run. It's not about how many wins you strike up. It's going to be very difficult for them to win again having won the way they did so they're going to need to govern one way or the other.

The other thing is on the Labor side they they're not going to make this mistake again. They're gonna go for the throat next time.

ELIZABETH:

George thank you so much for being here.

GEORGE:

Thank you very much.

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ELIZABETH:

Elsewhere in the news:

In America, Donald Trump has given Attorney-General William Barr significant authority to investigate the handling of the Mueller Report. The US president has declassified millions of documents for the investigation ... and specifically asked that Barr investigate the involvement of Australia, the UK and the Ukraine.

And in Britain, Theresa May has announced she will resign as prime minister. May's resignation is an acknowledgement of her failure to negotiate a Brexit deal. Her last day in the job will be June 7.

This is 7am.

See you Tuesday.

Scott Morrison’s surprise win last weekend was the status quo election no one saw coming. The vote was actually a repeat of 2010, and the country has been stuck on that divide ever since. George Megalogenis on how Australia was fractured and what to do next.

Guest: Author and journalist George Megalogenis.

Background reading:

2019 election: The shock of the new normal in The Monthly
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Elizabeth Kulas. The show is produced by Emile Klein and Ruby Schwartz. Our editor is Erik Jensen. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Equate Studio.

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01: Surprise: the status quo election