Before his career in politics, Scott Morrison was a marketing executive, and his unexpected victory against all expectations in Saturday’s (May 18) Australian election was without doubt the most successful marketing campaign of his life.
The Labor opposition had been leading by a large margin in all opinion polls since Morrison replaced Malcolm Turnbull as Prime Minister last August. But Morrison had incrementally narrowed that gap to a knife edge and has defied the popular view that his Liberal-National Coalition was facing electoral wipeout.
Instead, Morrison – almost single-handedly – took the Coalition to a shock third consecutive electoral victory and consigned his opponent, Labor leader Bill Shorten to political oblivion.
Shorten stood down last night after his party’s crushing defeat in an election it was always expected to win. Some bookmakers paid out to punters who had backed Labor on Friday (May 17) in the belief that the result was beyond doubt.
“I have always believed in miracles and tonight we’ve delivered another one,” Morrison said as he was mobbed by Liberal faithful as the preliminary results rolled in.
The final electoral result may not be known for several days, as counting in key seats goes down to the wire. As of Sunday (May 19) the picture which has emerged is that the Liberal-National government has been returned, winning at least 74 seats in the 151 seat House of Representatives.
Labor won 66 seats and independents and minor parties 6, leaving 5 seats undecided.
This means that the Coalition could still be on track to win an absolute majority in its own right, but if not it is expected to form a minority government with the support of independent members.
The result was not without its shocks for the government, as controversial former prime minister Tony Abbott was turfed from Parliament after 25 years in his blue ribbon inner Sydney seat of Warringah.
Abbott lost his seat to Independent and former Olympian Zali Steggal, who campaigned vigorously against Abbott on the issue of climate change with the support of left-wing activist group GetUp.
Abbott has long been considered a climate change denier and his policies have obstructed the development of renewable energy and carbon trading in Australia.
Other campaigns aligned with GetUp, however, were not so successful. The group targeted hardline Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton in his Queensland seat of Dickson, but in an election surprise Dutton hung on to win.
In another high profile race, Independent Kerryn Phelps faces a tough battle to hold onto her Sydney seat of Wentworth, previously held by former premier Malcolm Turnbull. As of Sunday, she was leading the Liberal candidate by only a handful of votes.
In the result’s immediate post-mortem, Labor’s loss was attributed to the personal unpopularity of Bill Shorten, who was always behind Morrison as preferred prime minister in the polls despite his party being in front.
Labor also released a full and ambitious program of reform built on big spending initiatives, but also on tax reforms which targeted self-funded retirees and higher income earners.
It was this program in particular which Morrison was able to turn against Labor in his campaign, preying on electoral fears that a change of government would impact on retirement and higher incomes and economic growth.
Morrison, in contrast, promised very little and ran a negative campaign which clearly cut through to voters. His government represents more of the same policies on tax, climate change and economic management.
The election split Australians by generations, with older people favoring the Coalition and younger people concerned with climate change more inclined to Labor.
There was also a geographical split with Queensland, which is dependent on jobs in the coal and mining industry, backing the Coalition. Inner urban areas of the large cities in the southern states backed Labor and the Greens.
Government could prove to be a poisoned chalice for the Coalition, however, although in the midst of their current celebrations this would not be top of mind.
The economy is showing worrying signs of a slowdown and the property market is in the worst slump in decades.
If the economy turns sour, it will be difficult for Morrison and his team to claim the higher ground on economic management, and will leave them vulnerable at the next election.
The makeup of the upper house, the Senate, is also an unknown at this point, but it is sure that the government will not have a majority there, and will have to wrangle a host of minor parties across the political spectrum to pass key legislation.
For Labor, the defeat will be a bitter pill to swallow. This was characterized as an unlosable election and the party will go into a period of deep introspection on the reasons of its defeat.
There will be a change of leader, with current deputy Tanya Plibersek already reportedly pondering a tilt. But the next election is a long way away, with Labor now facing at least three years in the political wilderness.