Why Labor Won in Australia

Widely ridiculed for this secret Hawaiian holiday escape during the 2019 bushfires, former Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison – also known as Scomo or Scotty from Marketing (he is a failed marketing manager) – suffered a resounding election defeat. Labor’s Anthony Albanese had won the 21st May 2022 election.

Yet, in a country with a North Korean style media dominance of Fox News owner and Australian-born Rupert Murdoch, the country’s Independent Australia news network saw Labor’s win as Anthony Albanese defeats Rupert Murdoch to become 31st PM of Australia.

Despite years of media support by Murdoch for the unloved and self-appointed bulldozer Scomo and Murdoch’s daily attacks on Labor, Labor still won. Worse, Australia is a country that is known not as a democracy but as Murdochracy. Yet, Labor still won. And, it won against its two formidable adversaries:

1) The incumbent prime minister Scomo and his conservatives, fired up financially by Australia’s all powerful coal, gas & oillobby; and

2) the ultra-conservative and reactionary Murdoch Press and its media dominance.

Decades ago Rupert Murdoch’s daddy – Keith Murdoch – made it very clear who holds the real power in politics when saying about an Australian Prime Minister, I put him there and I’ll put him out!

Yet, Keith’s son Rupert Murdoch’s deeply ideological media power had failed in 2022 – for once. Yes, it “can” happen and very occasionally it indeed does happen – as in May 2022. It also happened despite the overwhelming spending power (Scomo is backed by the coal industry) as well as very serious pork-barrelling of Scomo’s conservatives.

With 27 million people, Australia is roughly the size of Texas in terms of population. And with compulsory voting, 17.3 million Australians were required to vote – up 5% from three years ago. Australia votes every three years in 151 local constituencies. This means that the party winning 76 seats will govern. By 30th May 2022, Labor had reached that goal, winning 77 seats – an absolute majority.

Since Australian voters and political parties can issue preferences – if you vote Green for example, and the Green Party does not get the most votes, your preference (i.e. your vote) can go, for example, to Labor. In counting all these preferences, Australians call this two party preferences: Labor vs. Conservatives.

On that base, Labor won about 5.7 million votes or 52%. Australia’s Labor party is a kind of social-democratic party with many policies somewhat similar to Elizabeth Warren, superstar AOC, Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, and perhaps the most sensible of the lot: Bernie Sanders.

On the conservative side is Scomo’s neoliberal coalition. It consists of the Liberal Party and the National Party – known as the Coalition. Despite bitter fights between the nationals (it is strong in regional Australia representing farmers) and the conservatives(voters are city-based urban elites), the “not-at-all-harmonious” Coalition received 5.3 million votes or 48%. Scomo’s party had lost 3.2% since the last election in 2019.

Even though its electoral system favors two parties, among Australia’s parties are also the called “minor parties”. Mostly, these are the environmentalist The Greens receiving 12% of the popular vote while holding four seats in Australia’s parliament. Yet, there are also the even more important independents with 5.4% while holding ten seats. The independents are mostly disaffected ex-Liberals who managed to take moderate liberal voters with them.

Many independents were also able to collect female voters who were extremely angry with the constant mistreatment of women by the Liberal Party, the culture of sustained bullying, outright misogyny, frequently reoccurring sexual harassment, and a rape case only a few offices away from Scomo.

It remains imperative to understand that Scomo’s “Liberal” Party is not at all a liberal party in US understanding. Perhaps, Australia’s Liberal Party is not even a liberal party in the liberal understanding. Rather, it is a staunchly conservative, if not deeply reactionary party.

The party also features several – and often very deep and spiteful – internal factions. For once, it has a Christian fundamentalist wing represented by, for example, the former prime minister and Catholic fundamentalist Tony Abbott – known as the Mad Monk. This wing also has the Pentecostal Christian Scomo who seriously believes that The Lord called him to become prime minister.

The Christian fundamentalist wing fights against the hardcore neoliberal wing represented by former Prime Minister and war monger John Howard as well as free-marketer Malcolm Turnbull. Beyond that, there is also the deep hate between the Victorian Liberals (Melbourne), the New South Wales Liberals (Sydney), and the Western Australian Liberals at the “other side of Australia”.

On top of all that is the fight inside the conservative/national coalition. At this level, the fight is between the Nationals that are strong in regional Australia among farmers and Scomo’s city-based conservatives. This is also just a fight between global warming skepticism (conservatives) and global warming denial (nationals). Yet, it is also a fight between two ideologies.

On the one hand, there is the ideology of neoliberalism (conservatives) and on the other hand there is the authoritarian populist nationalism (nationals). Over the past decades, the conservatives had a solution to all these factions, cruel in-fights, back-stabbing, animosities, ideological cleavages, and at times outright hate. Murdoch’s newspaper empire has assured that the coalition appears, as former PM John Howard likes to pretend, as a broad church.

Yet, the power of Murdoch seemed to have worn a bit thin lately. In 2022, Howard’s so-called broad church lost 18 seats while Labor won 8. The Greens gained three to arrive at four seats. As one might expect, all four Green seats are affluent inner city seats (the educational elite). The Greens won one seat in inner Melbourne and a whopping three in the city of Brisbane located in the flood and drought affected state of Queensland – now called Greensland.

Most surprisingly and rather devastatingly, Australia’s conservatives lost plenty of seats in very rich areas in Melbourne, Sydney, and the Western Australian city of Perth. These seats did not go to Labor or the Greens but to so-called independents. In many cases, they are the so-called small-L-liberals. In other words, these voters did not betray their class. They remain somewhat conservatives. They are supportive of neoliberalism but with a dash of an environmental and social touch.

Independents have successfully given themselves the exterior of a socially and environmentally progressive appearance. These small-L liberals are also known as moderates or modern liberals. They are economically conservative, sticking to Hayek’s catechism of neoliberalism. Simultaneously, they are somewhat progressive on social and environmental issues.

One might like to argue that some urban conservative voters have somewhat “parked” their vote away from Scomo’s Liberal Partythat rejects global warming, has an anti-women orientation, and is social conservative representing Christian family values rather than modern professional women in employment. Some of these voters might return to the party once the conservatives have done one of the following two things:

Option 1: the party has learned even better than in previous years to pretend to be environmentally and socially conscious – usually, this occurs with the kind assistance of the Murdoch press; or

Option 2: the party has truly modified their policies on women and the environment. Yet, option 2 incurs two problems.

Firstly, the party’s new leaderPeter Dutton, successor of Scomo and already ridiculed as potato head and as Prime Minister for Potatoes – is an arch-conservative. He is likely to continue the party’s misogynistic stance on women as well as its rejection of the overwhelming scientific evidence of global warming.

Secondly and potentially worse for the party is the split between global warming skeptics (Scomo/Dutton’s conservatives) and outright global warming deniers (the nationals). For potato-head Dutton this means that if the conservatives accept the fact of global warming, they will re-gain votes in Australia’s cities.

But it also means that getting serious about global warming will alienate their global warming denying coalition partner, the Nationals. It is a true Catch-22 situation for Australia’s conservatives – whatever they does, they cannot win! Because of this, some optimists suggest that Labor might govern for more than the usual three years.

This might happen, unless the Murdoch press can shift the emphasis away from two key issues: women as well as global warming. Yet, bushfires, flooding, and the ever increasing impact of global warming on Australia is ever harder to camouflage with Murdoch’s tabloid gossip, sex, crime, sport, and celebrity news. Overall, it does not look too good for Australia’s conservatives. Time is working against them as the negative – if not ever more devastating – impact of global warming is growing in Australia.

Meanwhile, on the other side of Australian politics, there are two political parties – Labor and the Greens. To different degrees, both political parties take global warming seriously. Labor takes global warming somewhat serious, while the Greens take it very serious.

Sadly, an absolute majority of 77 seats in Australia’s parliament means that Labor can govern without the need to enter into a coalition government with the Greens. This diminishes the environmental voice when it comes to global warming. Yet, the Greens remain strong in Australia’s senate.

Unlike the US senate that, for example, gives a senator from an inconsequential state like West Virginia with 1.8 million people disproportional power compared to a senator from California (population: 40 million), Australia has a more representative senate. In the Australian senate, Labor will need a majority to pass legislation. In the recent election, 40 out of the 76 senators were newly elected.

Australia’s senate is elected via proportional representation. This not only gives a fairer representation of the “will of the people”, it also favours diversity and the plurality of minor parties. In the senate, Labor did not win an outright majority in the May 2022 election and will have to depend on the Greens and a few other parties to pass legislation.

All in all, Labor has achieved a stunning victory over Australia’s conservatives. The Liberal Party even lost former PM John Howard’s old seat of Bennelong to Labor with a 7.8% swing to Labor.

Most devastatingly, the designated successor of Scomo and rising star in the Liberal Party – Josh Frydenberg – was also defeated by an independent with a 9.5% swing against the conservatives. This marked an extremely bitter beating for the talent-starved conservatives.

In the end, Labor can govern in its won right with a slim majority of just two, surpassing the 75 mark by gaining an overall number of 77 parliamentarians. Yet, the task for the next three years will largely be a repair job restoring the damage done by Scomo’s conservatives.

Over the coming three years, Labor will also need to remain watchful of the all powerful Murdoch press as well as the cashed-up coal, oil, and gas industry, its adjacent PR apparatus, and its skillful lobbying. Worse, the Murdoch press is not alone. The vast majority of Australia’s newspapers, tabloids, as well as TV stations remain conservative.

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