Trouble for the Bubble Down Under


In a remarkable and most unexpected outcome, Australia’s conservative Prime Minister Scott Morrison has retained the country’s leadership at the recent Australian Federal Parliamentary election (18 May, 2019). Morrison’s victory confounded a wide array of commentators, academics, advocacy groups, industry groups, all of the opinion polls, most of the media and a host of fringe political groups who not only predicted victory for the Labor opposition but an emphatic one.

The outcome was a stark reverse of expectations. The Labor Party recorded a swing against it and rather than winning seats, lost them. Their primary vote collapsed in many areas. In the resource rich state of Queensland, only one in four voters gave Labor their first preference vote. Nationally, the figure was just one in three.

The result has dumbfounded the inner urban elites of government, the bureaucracy, media and industry, many of whom are in denial or seeking therapy. Most important, it has helped draw a new geography of political boundaries based not on long standing ideologies of labour or capital, or of class, but of location and privilege. A more complete reversal of traditional party allegiances would have been impossible to imagine before last weekend. As observed by The Sydney Morning Herald, “The Queensland seat of Capricornia is a perfect illustration. It has many coal-mining workers and was held almost steadily by Labor from the 1960s until 2013, yet as of today it is a much safer Coalition seat than Josh Frydenberg’s well-heeled Kooyong, which was (conservative Prime Minister Robert Menzies' old electorate.”

Prime Minister Morrison only last year had toppled the previous PM, the nominally conservative but left-leaning climate conscious inner-city Malcolm Turnbull. He campaigned on basic economic management, tax cuts and moderation. In contrast, the Labor Party campaigned on the cause célèbres of any number of inner urban hipster coffee shops, bistros or university campuses.

Labor sought a 50% target of renewable energy by 2030 (yes, within the next 12 years!) and adopted much of the climate agenda favored by inner urban interests with the financial means to afford higher electricity costs – much more so than their suburban middle or working class counterparts. (The left wing Greens Party demanded a 100% renewable target). Labor also promised a future where half the new cars in Australia would be electrically powered by 2030 (but couldn’t describe how these would be charged or how these would work across the remotely populated Australian landscape).

Labor were aligned with The Greens, who tend to poll strongest in inner urban seats or in the wealthiest suburbs, on being ‘anti coal.’ A proposed major Queensland coal mine became the focus of a “green convoy” (all driving petrol powered vehicles mind) from inner city Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane to the coalfields of Central Queensland – where job hungry communities turned their backs on the convoy and many refused to serve the protesters. The green anti-coal pro-renewables protest convoy proved such an irritant that it cost Labor seats in working class communities.

“This is the climate change election” both Labor and the Greens promised. Coal miners facing lost jobs and failed communities reliant on those jobs in regional areas were blithely told “you’ll have to retrain.”

Other policy items on the Labor menu included a tax on retiree savings, removal of tax breaks on housing (with a market already falling), looser borders and being more forgiving on illegal immigration. Labor also proposed an un-costed fantasy in the form of a very fast train between Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. Perhaps they planned to recruit the genius minds behind the Californian experiment?

“If you don’t like our policies, don’t vote for us” anxious retirees were told. They didn’t.

The truly remarkable thing about the days prior to the election was the utter confidence of the inner urban cabal. They were going to win and there would be little left of the governing Liberal National Party. Breakfast TV through to evening current affairs shows – all of them hosted in well to do inner urban areas – expressed complete faith in a Labor win. One gambler was so confident he placed an AUD $1 million bet on Labor winning. To say the least, he lost big.

The denizens of trendy inner city secondhand bookshops may have been filled with confidence, but not of suburban and regional voters. Struggling with flat real wage growth and having borne the brunt of a changing employment landscape, rising electricity bills and falling confidence in their future, this was not the time to tell them it was their duty to sacrifice even more to ‘save the planet’ by paying ever higher electricity bills, or buying an electric car they can’t afford. Especially when that message comes from smug sounding public servants or wealthy, entitled inner city residents who have been the beneficiaries of economic change, as well as overseas investors, rather than its victims.

The conservative vote which returned Prime Minister Morrison came from working and middle class people, living in the suburbs and regions of the country. It did not come from traditionally affluent inner urban seats – many of which were once held by conservatives but which are now marginal or in the hands of Labor or left leaning independents. (The Greens hold only one Federal Parliament seat – based on the hipster inner north of Melbourne).

Saturday the 18th May 2019 proved an “inconvenient truth” for the inner city agitators and climate warriors. It was also a reality check for many in industry who have adopted fashionable positions on religion, marriage, immigration, diversity, economic and green causes. Being surrounded inside the bubble with so many echoing the same things, the fact that these views aren’t widely shared outside the bubble may have come as a shock.

And much like the denial, dismay and denigration from Democrats in the US following Trump’s election, the commentariat of the Australian left haven’t coped too well.

“Australians are dumb, mean-spirited and greedy. Accept it,” said nightly TV host and comedian Meshel Laurie in response to the result.

“We may have to declare war on Queensland,” said Mike Carlton – a former high profile national political journalist. (He was blaming the result on Queensland voters who resoundingly abandoned Labor and the climate agenda).

Former media columnist Clementine Ford was “crying over the climate destroyed, bullshit world Australian voters are determined to leave (to her children).”

Another former journalist - Margo Kingston - who led an alliance of left leaning independent candidates campaigning on climate change declared “It is over. My idea of Australia is over. So be it. I’m retiring and having a life while it’s left.”

And Jane Caro – a feminist green social commentator, writer and lecturer – said “If the LNP wins we have decided to be a backward looking country in a backwater. I wish I was a New Zealander.” Much like many US Democrats who reportedly wanted to escape to Canada in the aftermath of Trump’s win?

The sentiments echo the now notoriously derisive 2013 comments from noted Sydney Morning Herald urban affairs writer Elizabeth Farrelly (who lives in trendy inner city Redfern in Sydney), who once described the suburbs of Australia in the following terms:

“The suburbs are about boredom, and obviously some people like being bored and plain and predictable, I'm happy for them … even if their suburbs are destroying the world.”

The Australian election proved the suburbs are anything but predictable, and political destruction awaits those who treat them with contempt.

Ross Elliott has more than twenty years experience in property and public policy. His past roles have included stints in urban economics, national and state roles with the Property Council, and in destination marketing. He has written extensively on a range of public policy issues centering around urban issues, and continues to maintain his recreational interest in public policy through ongoing contributions such as this or via his monthly blog, The Pulse.

Photo: Via Scott Morrison Twitter.