Voters shock the media in a result that echoes the victories of Brexit and Donald Trump in 2016.
There’s nothing like a shock election result to force media sophisticates to eat their words. The triumph of the center-right Liberal-National Coalition government in Australia has caused plenty of verbal indigestion.
A few days ago, polls and betting markets pointed to a Labor victory. Journalists and intellectuals insisted that ordinary Aussies wanted government to fight climate change and soak the rich. Prime Minister Scott Morrison couldn’t possibly win. The 51-year-old evangelical coal-cuddler was the wrong man for his times.
But on Saturday the government, which has had three leaders in six years, tightened its hold on Parliament while a humiliated Labor Party lost crucial marginal seats in the eastern states of Queensland, Tasmania and New South Wales. The election will go down as the most dramatic failure of discernment in the history of Australian punditry. Sound familiar?
In 2016 U.S. pollsters had to deal with the “shy Trump” factor. People feared admitting they’d vote for the Republican nominee because he was socially unacceptable. The same dynamic was at work in Britain during the 2016 referendum on whether to leave the European Union. Polls pointed to a Remain victory, but millions of shy Brexiteers crept into the polling booths and voted Leave. By depicting its opponents as backward and deplorable, the left intimidated them into going underground, making it impossible to gauge their strength before an election.
Shy voters now shape Australian politics. During the past three years, television and social-media outlets created a climate of opinion in which it was politically incorrect to oppose identity politics, high taxes, wealth redistribution and costly climate-mitigation policies. In the privacy of the voting booth, “quiet Australians,” as Mr. Morrison calls them, decided that their interests lay in a low-tax and resource-rich market economy.
Mr. Morrison’s path to victory was about as narrow as Donald Trump’s road to the White House. But he was helped by his opponents’ lurch to the left. The Labor Party, which did much to deregulate the Australian economy in the 1980s, was now pledging high taxes on property investors, self-funded retirees and high-earning wealth creators.
In the name of reducing inequality, Labor wanted to raise government obstacles to the kind of risk-taking and hard work that allowed many Australians to climb the income ladder so rapidly. Since the mid-1980s, Australia has pursued market reforms that improve incentives to work and save. The result has been nearly three decades of sustainable economic growth—a record for longest uninterrupted economic expansion in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. On Saturday Labor learned that class warfare no longer appeals to the middle class, who aspire to become rich and who understand the perverse incentives of high taxes.
Labor’s energy policy, meanwhile, pledged a 45% emissions reductions target and 50% renewables by 2030. The green agenda resonated in a few metropolitan seats in Victoria, Australia’s most liberal state, but fizzled elsewhere. Australia is a coal-producing powerhouse where command-and-control mechanisms lack broad public support. Mr. Morrison, famous for posing in Parliament holding a lump of coal, reminded voters that no renewable energy source is as efficient as carbon and that China’s annual emissions rise is greater than Australia’s total emissions each year.
The opposition to Australia’s conservatives went all-in, with a concerted, well-organized left-wing campaign that culminated in former conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s loss of his formerly safe suburban Sydney seat. The danger is that Mr. Morrison might let those same opponents interpret his mandate for him.
An effort is already under way to diminish his victory by demanding that he “move to the center,” which is media code for giving up the tax-cutting economic growth agenda the electorate just endorsed. “To those quiet Australians who are out there, now is not the time to turn back,” Mr. Morrison observed late in the campaign. Will he listen to his own words?
Tom Switzer is executive director of the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney and a presenter at the Australian Broadcasting Corp.’s Radio National.
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