The opposition Labor party was widely expected to emerge victorious in Australia’s general election. But a combination of economic fears, misinformation and a growing urban-rural divide delivered a narrow win for the ruling Coalition, as Mark Bennister and Simon Obendorf report.

In 1993, the Australian Labor Party won an unexpected fifth term of office. The election was billed as ‘unlosable’ for the opposition Liberal-National Coalition under John Hewson. Paul Keating’s Labor had been languishing in the polls for a full year. In victory, the incumbent prime minister celebrated the ‘sweetest victory of all’.

Over a quarter of a century later the parallels were obvious. This time the opposition Labor party led by Bill Shorten went into the general election having led the polls for 56 consecutive weeks. But on May 18, Liberal and National Coalition Prime Minister Scott Morrison defied polls and predictions to win. Morrison hailed ‘quiet Australians’ for delivering his ‘miracle’ win.

Labor had lost supposedly ‘unlosable’ elections from opposition before. In 2004 Mark Latham with a bold and detailed policy platform in opposition failed to prevent John Howard’s third successive victory. So why did the governing Coalition win their surprise victory in 2019?

The Coalition’s poor poll showing ahead of the election was blamed on a series of scandals and a chaotic leadership ‘spill’. Morrison had ousted Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in August 2018. Turnbull had himself overthrown Tony Abbott in 2015 and then scraped a win in the 2016 election. Such leadership churn prior to elections is common in Australian politics, though it used to be a Labor phenomenon. For Morrison, it had the advantage of pitting a relatively new candidate for the governing party against a Labor leader in Shorten who was well known – but unpopular – in opposition. Morrison could be both the change and continuity leader. Though polling showed Labor consistently ahead, Shorten trailed behind Morrison as preferred prime minister.

Chaos had not been confined to leadership battles in the Liberal party. A series of Turnbull government ministers were forced to resign when it emerged that several parliamentarians in both Houses were dual nationals and thus ineligible to sit in parliament under section 44 of Australia’s Constitution. The scandal also caught up Labor parliamentarians and smaller-party Senators. Seven byelections occurred for the lower House of Representatives.

Turmoil was exacerbated when Turnbull himself resigned from parliament after his defenestration, triggering another byelection. This was won by an Independent, reducing the Coalition to 73 seats: a net loss of three seats in the lower house. The Senate, after the double dissolution election of 2016 and the section 44 resignations, was also unpredictable. A record number of crossbenchers and a significant number of Greens were elected in 2016, placing the government in a minority prior to the 2019 half-Senate election.

The Coalition approached the election with a shaky economic record. Having survived the global financial crisis relatively unscathed, the economy was beginning to creak. Although unemployment had fallen, growth had markedly slowed, wages were stagnant and households were saddled with record debt. All in all, the political and economic outlook for the governing Liberal and National Coalition was not good.

The 2019 campaign was initially shaped by the terrorist killings carried out by a white-nationalist Australian citizen at a mosque in Christchurch New Zealand on 15 March 2019. Prior to the attacks, the Coalition had (following a well-established playbook of Australian politics) mounted strong criticisms of the Labor Party and Australian Greens for being weak on border protection. Prior to that, Prime Minister Morrison had posed before barbed wire fences at what he characterised as the ‘hardened facility’ on the Australian territory of Christmas Island. The Coalition leader attacked the ‘open door’ offered by Labor’s Bill Shorten. However, in the aftermath of the Christchurch attacks, an election campaign based on border security scare tactics was very quickly seen as politically risky.

Thus, the 2019 campaign took new directions. The Coalition, somewhat disingenuously given its revolving-door leadership, claimed the mantle of political stability, touted its economic stewardship, promised both tax cuts and a streamlining of income tax brackets. Capitalising on Shorten’s relative unpopularity, the Coalition sought to present Morrison as a relatable, church-going, sports-loving family man, or even, in Australian parlance, a ‘daggy dad’. However, firm details of the Coalition policy platform – especially on key areas such as climate change and emissions – remained elusive.

By contrast Labor provided policy detail in abundance, laying out an ambitious programme of taxation reforms, rebates and moves to tackle income inequality. The platform included plans to raise the minimum wage and wind back preferential tax arrangements. Focused firmly on what it saw as Coalition weakness on climate change, renewable energy and environmental protection, Labor promoted policies that it claimed would lead to significant emissions cuts through the promotion of electric vehicles and funding for renewable energy. The Coalition, on the other hand, were seen as stout defenders of the coal industry. As treasurer, Morrison once brandished a lump of coal around the House of Representatives during question time and his party supported Adani coal mine development in Queensland. These policy differences between the two parties saw the 2019 campaign become ‘the climate change election’.

The breadth of detail of the Labor manifesto – the National Platform document itself ran to 309 pages – provided many openings for Coalition lines of attack. The Coalition were ruthless in raising the (false) prospect of Australian traders being required to buy electric vehicles, claiming threats to retirees’ incomes and lifestyles, and presenting the opposition as attacking ‘mum and dad investors’. Even more damaging were rumours circulated on social media by senior Coalition politicians that Labor had secret plans to introduce inheritance duties or a ‘death tax’ of up to 40 per cent. In the absence of an over-arching message about its plans and with a level of policy detail beyond the grasp of most voters, Labor struggled to articulate a clear counter-narrative.

A significant number of nominees either resigned or were disendorsed after the close of nominations, lending a chaotic air to much of the campaign. The majority of these cases involved questionable past social media or internet postings that were variously anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, racist, misogynist, homophobic or conspiracist. The candidacy of a One Nation Senate candidate for Queensland, Steve Dickson, spectacularly imploded when he was filmed undercover groping women and using misogynist and racist language at a Washington DC strip club. In total, four Liberal, two Labor, two Green, one UAP and one One Nation candidate were forced to abandon their candidacies during the campaign, though their names and party affiliations still appeared on ballot papers.

The campaign was also notable for the extensive involvement of grassroots and third-party activist groups. With a budget of AUD$4 million (£2.2m), progressive campaigners from the left-wing GetUp! lobby group targeted ten conservative-held seats – including those of former Prime Minister Abbott and Home Affairs Minister Dutton. With some exceptions, these initiatives proved unsuccessful.

The campaign was rocked by the death, two days before the poll, of Labor hero former Prime Minister Bob Hawke. Hawke, who had been too unwell to attend the Labor campaign launch, was emotionally memorialised by Bill Shorten who pledged to ‘do it for Bob’ by winning the election. Many opined that the electorate being reminded of the economically reformist credentials of the Hawke/Keating era could prove electorally beneficial for Labor in 2019.

With around 16.4 million Australians on the electoral roll, representing 97 per cent of eligible Australians, this was the largest electorate in Australian history. Under Australia’s compulsory voting system, over 91 per cent turned out to vote (though this represented a small fall in turnout). The roll had been boosted by the same-sex marriage postal vote in November 2017, which saw a significant increase in the enrolment of 18-to 24-year-olds.

In the final wash up, the Coalition won 77 seats in the lower House, a net gain of four with a 41 per cent vote share. Both main parties had falls in vote share, while the Greens won 10 per cent of the vote with a small vote share rise, but only returned a single seat. Ahead of the vote, polls showed a 51-49 split in Labor’s favour. This was reversed on election day, with the Coalition triumphing.

Much of the post-election narrative concentrated on Labor’s performance in the state of Queensland, where Labor had always struggled, but where it needed to pick up seats. Attempts to unseat Coalition Minister Peter Dutton in Dickson proved unsuccessful. The constituency was flooded with campaigners, many from outside the state. Even Paul Keating waded in, calling for ‘voters to drive a stake through his dark heart,’ yet Dutton had the last laugh calling his win his ‘sweetest victory’.

The backlash was not confined to Dickson, as Labor lost out elsewhere in the state. The vote share for the right-wing mining magnate, Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party (UAP) – with his ‘Make Australia Great’ slogan – and Pauline Hanson’s One Nation (PHON) rose to a combined 13 per cent in Queensland, significantly damaging Labor’s chances in the state. The flow of preferences, under the Australian electoral system, from such parties to the Coalition boosted the two party vote and proved particularly important in Queensland. The Coalition won 23 of the 30 state seats, crucially taking two from Labor. Elsewhere, the swing to Liberal-National MPs epitomised the failure of the Labor party to articulate a climate change policy that would not impact on jobs, particularly the Adani coal mining project in central Queensland.

Largely rural Tasmania also played a disproportionate role. Of the four seats picked up by the Coalition overall, two were in Tasmania. The result could have been even worse for Labor had the Liberal in Lyons not been disendorsed. Indicative of a consolidating rural-urban divide over issues of climate change and the environment, in Sydney former Prime Minister Tony Abbott lost his seat to an independent. Zali Steggall, a former Olympian Alpine skier and barrister, stood against Abbott’s sceptical climate change position. Her campaign drew grassroots support from across the political spectrum, including disillusioned Liberals. This proved to be GetUp!’s only political scalp of the campaign.

Labor failed to assuage voters’ fears – stoked by a relentless barrage of negative campaigning from the Coalition – that environmental policies would not be at the expense of jobs in the agricultural, construction, primary production and resource sectors. Outperformed in blue collar and regional areas, Labor was unable to convince a sceptical workforce that the economy was safe with them. This was in spite of an expansive tax and spend plan. Counterintuitively, some analysis shows that Labor failed to penetrate areas that stood to gain most from its policy platform.

In the aftermath, Labor swiftly selected a new leader in veteran Anthony Albanese. On the left of the party, Albanese had served in both the Rudd and Gillard governments. Much of the introspection concentrated on how and why Labor lost and also on why the polls got it so wrong. Though polls failed to successfully predict the Coalition win, they were still within the margin of error, with the exception of Queensland. Less attention was focused on Morrison and the Coalition. Morrison had fought a strong election, placing his own leadership up front and focusing negative attacks on Labor policy, with less emphasis on what the Coalition may do if re-elected. Furthermore, swathes of misinformation seeped into national consciousness such as Labor’s ‘death tax’. Such social media activity meant the narrative of fear of change showed itself online, rather than in the more visible opinion polls.

While issues of protectionism, religious freedom and national identity do have resonance within some parts of the electorate, Australian politics thus far has not followed recent global trends towards mainstream populism. However, the 2019 result indicates significant future challenges for the Coalition. Despite its victory, nationally the government suffered a -0.6 per cent swing against it. The four seats gained were all from electorates in regional areas, creating a dependence on smaller right-wing parties. Simultaneously, the Coalition experienced significant swings against it in wealthy urban areas. As populist parties gain support and visibility, this could threaten the Coalition’s future electoral performance in crucial inner-city seats.

Perhaps the only positive note for Labor can be drawn from historical parallels. In 1993, Keating may have won, but three years later he was beaten by John Howard, who then won three more elections for the Coalition. In 2004, Latham may have lost, but in the next election Kevin Rudd soundly beat a tired Howard, returning Labor to power. Presented as a shock win, 2019’s slender majority, swing against the government and reliance on a rag bag of conservatives does not amount to a resounding endorsement of Morrison’s Coalition. The lesson may be that, with three-year electoral terms, the next election is never too far away. In Australia the margins are very small and eventually governing parties run out of steam.

Mark Bennister and Simon Obendorf are lecturers at the University of Lincoln.