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Why Reactionaries Won in Australia

On 18th of May, a slim majority of Australians elected the arch-conservative Christian fundamentalist and marketing manager Scott Morrison as prime minister. In the picture above and sitting next to coal-carrying Morrison is Peter Dutton. Dutton is Australia’s strong man when it comes to tormenting refugees in camps where people are concentrated on distant islands. Dutton is also the man who loves to spend billions of dollars to keep a few thousand refugees out of Australia and out of sight. Like in many other countries, tormenting the weak gets you elected – never mind the cost. Together these two men make a formidable pair. Dutton’s boss is Scott Morrison. Scomo, as he is known, is also the man who took a lump of coal into Australia’s federal parliament to say, look, coal isn’t dangerous. His message was: global warming is no threat at all. Scomo is set to continue his party’s inaction on global warming.

In Australia’s electoral first-past-the-post system, a political party needs to win 76 seats to govern. The conservatives are predicted to gain 77 seats while the opposing Labor party is set to receive 67 seats. Labor is set to lose three seats while Scomo’s party is set to gain three seats. The Green party will have one seat. It won the seat of Melbourne with a stunning 73.3%. There will be three independent candidates. Scomo’s reactionary coalition itself won 44 seats while its junior partners – the Liberal National Party (Queensland) and the Nationals – won 23 and 10 respectively. While Scomo’s conservatives are strong is cities, the Nationals are rural parties. They remain strong in Australia’s hinterland which is somewhat similar to what Americans call flyover states or Trump-Land.

In addition to Australia’s house of representatives, Australia also has a Senate which follows the proportional representation system. The senate has 76 seats. 39 seats make a majority. In the senate, conservatives will have 33 seats – hence not the majority. Labor will have 26 seats, the Greens nine seats and the socially liberal centrist Centre Alliance will have two seats. The crypto-racist One Nation party and the extremely conservative Australian Conservatives will have one seat each. In other words, the progressive group – Labor, the Greens and the Centre Alliance – hold the majority. This means that Scomo’s legislative power is severely tamed.

Next to Scomo’s slim majority in the house of representatives and being forced to seek agreement with the Senate on any future legislation going forward, the only other upset of the election came in a Sydney suburb called Warringah where Scomo’s ideological running mate and former prime minister, Tony Abbott (Scomo was a minister under Abbott) lost his seat in a social movement campaign to oust Abbott. Tony Abbott – known as the Mad Monk because of his fundamental Catholicism – lost 18.8% to an independent on a 58% to 42% margin. As prime minister, Tony Abbott gave a knighthood to Prince Philip, the husband of the Queen. Since many regard Tony Abbott as a rather destructive force, the untimely demise of Tony Abbott may even be good for Scomo because a potential leadership challenger has been eliminated.

Still, the overall election result is a stunning turn-around after months of polls predicting a solid Labor win. At times, it was even forecasted to be the federal election that Labor simply couldn’t lose. As a consequence, Scomo’s win came at a surprise. Nearly all previous polls predicted Labor’s top man, Bill Shorten, would have an easy win. But rather than Scomo winning it was Shorten losing. For months, Labor’s Shorten had a 51:49 lead over Scomo. In August 2018 for example, polling suggested that the gap was 56:44 for Labor. Devastatingly, over the entire span of the last two years, almost all polling suggested that Labor would take government. It did not happen.

Like the USA’s key swing states, Australia has key marginal seats. These are seats that tend to swing between Labor and the conservatives. At times, it is down to a handful of these seats. They make or break a government. Scomo’s party managed successfully to win most of these so-called swing seats.

One seat hotly contested is Sydney’s seat of Wentworth. It is located in one of Australia’s most affluent postcodes. For decades, the seat has been conservative until Scomo knifed the sitting prime minister Malcolm Turnbull in the back in an internal party coup d’état. Turnbull left politics and his seat of Wentworth. In the subsequent by-election, an independent narrowly won the seat. In September 2018, the seat switched to an independent. With the help of the Murdoch press, by May 2019, voters had forgotten how Scomo finished off their local man, the much liked Malcolm Turnbull. Scomo’s new man in Wentworth won on a 51.7% to 48.3% margin.

How Scomo Won

Overall however, three things explain Scomo’s narrow win of 77 seats – which means that he has a one man (mostly men) majority. Scomo’s three winning factors are: a) the Murdoch press, b) Labor’s big mistake and c) Scomo’s political marketing ability. First to the Murdoch press. Australia is where Murdoch came from. It is here where he sharpened his teeth. As a consequence of Murdoch’s dominance over the Australian media landscape, journalist John Pilger called Australia a Murdochracy – a democracy run by Murdoch’s media empire.

There are vast geographical areas in this vast continent in which the only paper read is a Murdoch paper. But Murdoch’s ideological arm also reaches deep into cities. In Sydney for example, traditional working class areas such as the western suburbs are almost completely covered by Murdoch’s tabloid press. Unsurprisingly, most of those seats are held by Scomo’s people. Aiding that are conservative commercial TV stations such as channel Seven, Nine and Ten. Scomo also receives generous help from right-wing radio hosts. In other words, Labor faces not only Scomo but a media landscape run by Murdoch, etc.

But there are a few exceptions to that as well. Some geographical areas – like Sydney’s Inner West – are populated by the pro-democracy, environmental conscious, and enlightened citoyens who tend to read Australia’s liberal newspaper (“liberal” in the American understanding), the only not staunchly pro-neoliberalism newspaper in Sydney, called Sydney Morning Herald. People in the Inner West are also more likely to watch Australia’s public broadcasters such as ABC and SBS. Unlike their commercial counterparts of Seven, Nine, and Ten, the two public broadcasters of ABC and SBS show a more balanced picture of Australian politics – to the great annoyance of Scomo and his entourage.

While Murdoch’s VOX covers the Midwest of the USA, Murdoch’s Australian outfit covers rural Australia to such a degree that there has been talk of Quexit, the exiting of redneck Queensland from Australia. In general, Murdochracy – whether it is Murdoch’s flagship tabloid the Daily Telegraph or News.Com – means a daily barrage of anti-Labor messaging while simultaneously being highly favourable to Scomo’s conservatives.

Just one example explains this. The Murdoch press made sure that nobody forgot the 2010 leadership issue between two Labor leaders, Gillard and Rudd whilst the fact that Scomo stabbed a much liked sitting prime minister in the back in a ruthless coup d’état in 2018 was hardly ever mentioned during the recent election campaign. Murdoch’s press made sure that during the election nobody thought about Scomo’s cold-bloodedness. As they say, the media cannot tell people what to think but it can tell people what to think about. Murdoch is a master of this. But his media dominance is by no means all there is to the downfall of Labor.

Together with Murdoch’s media dominance, Scomo was also able to exploit Labor’s big mistake in the campaign. In hindsight, it was a huge mistake to focus on taxes during the election campaign. Taxes are not Labor territory. The issue of taxation has been given such a bad press through decades of neoliberal media conditioning that the word taxes alone has been turned into a synonym to something bad, e.g. more and higher taxes, for example.

Ever since Hayek’s ideological catechism of neoliberalism, the media-engineered myth holds that taxes no longer pay for schools and hospitals. They are no longer a good thing. Instead, taxes need to be reduced. What also isn’t told is that reducing tax usually means they are reduced for the rich and for corporations rather than for the middle- and working class. Murdoch’s media empire has also ensured that the man who has introduced the most significant tax in many people’s lifetime –the conservative John Howard gave Australia the unfair GST – is no longer associated with cranking up taxes. Instead, Murdoch has made Australians believe that Labor is the party of high taxes.

All of this meant that Labor faced an uphill fight. It had to convince Australians that its proposed tax changes are fair and that it will not raise taxes. In its electoral battle, Labor faced two enemies: the conservatives and Murdoch’s reactionary press. It was a two-against-one fight that Labor could not possibly win – a battle that Labor has hardly ever won. Additionally, Scomo was able to exploit Labor’s weakness of campaigning on a conservative issue – taxes – rather than, for example, on health, education, and global warming.

Global warming is an issue of growing concern to Australians given the dying Barrier Reef, the increased prevalence of heat waves, drought and bush fires. Scomo’s coal-over-environmental politics comes not because of jobs but because of corporate profits. Today, about 8,000 people work in mining while 70,000 people work in tourism linked to the Great Barrier Reef – a geographical area that is predicted to be dead by 2050.

Scomo was able to hammer his ideological message of Labor-means-higher-taxes every day of the campaign. A typical example occurred when Labor said it will make taxation fair. Labor announced, everyone should pay a fair share in taxes. Scomo converted the “sharing” into “dividing”. He argued that Labor will divide the pie while he (Scomo) would grow the pie for everyone’s benefit. It was simple and effective. That he will give the pie to Australia’s upper class was never mentioned, of course.

In conclusion, Labor could not win the election by battling it out on their opponent’s home territory. It could not win by outlining the fine and often highly technical details of an entire taxation system even after they had studied Australia’s entire tax system for six years, locating every single inefficiency and unfairness in the system. Labor comprehensively failed to explain this to Australians. Meanwhile, Scomo claimed that Labor has a tax-everything-that-moves platform.

In his seminal book Democracy in America (1835), Alexis de Tocqueville skilfully outlined how democracy works by saying, it is not the most intelligent who win in democracy, it is the one with the biggest mouth. Donald Trump is the case in point. In Australia, it was a religious fundamentalist marketing manager who –aided by the Murdoch press– had the biggest mouth. What worked in the end was what always works: scaring people. Before, it was the threat of a few refugees in tiny wooden boats, not it was taxes. Scomo, like his conservative predecessors, is a master in this. He will continue a conservative rule that started with Tony Abbott in 2013, was followed by Malcolm Turnbull (2015-2018), and then Scomo himself (2018 onwards). And so, coal-carrying Scomo will make sure that Australia’s conservatives will conclude another decade of non-action of global warming. In fact, he will do the opposite.

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Thomas Klikauer is the author of Managerialism (Palgrave, 2013).

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