Votes were cast across Australia; Courtesy EPA

Labor’s opposition to Adani coalmine project, fear of rising costs following their proposed economic reforms and Shorten’s low popularity were a few of the key factors responsible for the Party’s defeat, writes Rabindra Mukherji

Pollsters in Australia had to cut a sorry figure again, as their predictions went horribly wrong, and they were unable to gauge the popular sentiments in this year’s Australian elections. There is an underlying lesson to it for all subsequent elections in the country and elsewhere, where healthy and vibrant democracies thrive. In a democracy, voters can spin a surprise, like it or not, sometimes if not often, against the run of play. This time around in Australia, the opinion polls had depicted a scenario repeatedly where the Labor Party was in the driver’s seat at the expense of the Liberal-National coalition.

But the voters had other ideas as they brushed aside the predictions and reposed their faith in the ruling Coalition. This was, indeed, a stunning victory for Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his Coalition as they waded through uncertainty by dint of a well-thought-out strategy in positioning themselves as a party that empathizes with the real concerns of the voters.

However, the pertinent question is has the Liberal-National Coalition won the election or has the Labor lost it under its own weight of policy proposals that have dissuaded voters from voting in their favour. Now that the dust has settled post the results, it is time to sit back and do the inevitable postmortem of what transpired in these elections.

Prime Minister Morrison’s position on Adani mine may have resonated with the working-class voters who apparently are more concerned about job creation by the Adani Group; Courtesy endcoal.org

Queensland’s Adani Factor Proves Decisive

Defying poll predictions suggesting a victory for the Opposition’s left-leaning Labor Party in Queensland, the voters in the state voted for the Liberal-National Coalition. The media had all along been suggesting a Labor victory as the party was expected to grab marginal seats in an election that was increasingly dubbed the “unloseable” battle of Queensland. This prediction stemmed from the Labor Party’s relentless opposition to Adani Australia’s AUD$21 billion Carmichael Coal Project in Central Queensland.

It was a contentious issue and needed the party’s stand to be in consonance with popular sentiment. It is here that the Labor Party was unable to gauge the direction the wind was blowing. As the election results showed, the Labor Party strived but failed to have an impact in the state, though the opportunity had presented itself for both the parties with a slew of marginal seats waiting to be grabbed. No wonder both the Labor Party and the Liberal-National Coalition focused on heavy campaigning in the state. Where the Labor Party misread the script and the ruling Coalition managed to position itself prudently was on the issue of the controversial Adani coal mine project.

Prime Minister Morrison was treading cautiously on the issue of climate change, as he argued that the current policy was enough and did not need tweaking. This may have resonated with the working-class voters who apparently are more concerned about job creation, cost of living and economic stability in their state, where the proposed Carmichael coal mine would be among the largest in the world if it is approved. The Adani Group, the Indian conglomerate behind the mine project, has promised thousands of jobs in nearby towns where unemployment is rampant.

However, in other parts of Australia, particularly among the urban educated left, this project faces fierce opposition. Organizations like Greenpeace have been exceedingly vocal against the project citing its potential devastating effects on the environment. In fact, the Carmichael mine project divided the nation between environmentalists and pro-coal supporters and an ugly protest was witnessed only about a month back when activists from both the camps confronted each other. While the Labor Party was ambivalent on the issue, the ruling Coalition chose to play it safe and clear and focused on the economic front instead.

Leader of the Opposition and Leader of the Labor Party Bill Shorten

Voters Snub Labor’s Proposals

Besides the Adani factor, the Labor Party seems to have miscalculated on several fronts. Shorten presented before the electorate a raft of reforms ranging from taxation to healthcare, but they cut no ice with the voters. Proposed reforms on issues such as Franking credits, negative gearing, top bracket tax, and climate change look promising and ambitious but have only succeeded in creating a perception that it would hurt the voters badly in the short run, in terms of raising their economic costs. Shorten’s Labor Party could not justify to the voters why the country needed to embark on some of these bold initiatives.

Moreover, the ruling Coalition had succeeded in painting these proposed reforms as a burden on taxpayers. As Prime Minister Morrison summed up the Opposition’s proposals saying “Labor’s plan will cost $387 billion in new taxes.” Unable to address the current pressing concerns of the people, such as unemployment, cost of living and other economic issues, the Labor Party, as some sections of the media reported, lost in “the minds and hearts of the people”. The voters chose to ignore the anti-incumbency factor facing the Morrison government, even overlooking the bitter infighting the Coalition witnessed which resulted in the ouster of the then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull last year.

The voters have for the next three years given their mandate to a government that is unlikely to undertake sweeping reforms at the cost of economic hardships for the people. Experts now believe that following Shorten’s step down, the new Labor leader will have to address all the short-term concerns of the electorate, even as they have to balance between the demands of the left-leaning educated elite and the working-class. In other words, the Labor Party has to reconnect with the aspirations of the working class, which is their primary voter base. The alienation has already proved costly for the party in terms of losing an election they should have won, given a strong anti-incumbency facing the ruling Coalition.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and the ruling Coalition positioned themselves as a party that empathizes with the real concerns of the voters; Courtesy SBS

Shorten’s unpopularity a key factor

After six years as Opposition Leader, Shorten’s unpopularity continues to remain a talking point in the country and may have also hit hard his party’s chances of winning this election. In modern democratic elections, popularity of key leaders matters and voters have been found to vote for leaders whom they consider likeable. Shorten lagged behind even former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, as he remained the preferred PM in successive opinion polls. Thereafter, Morrison outpolled Shorten after he replaced Turnbull as the country’s Prime Minister.

Media reports suggest that the majority of voters disliked Shorten for a host of reasons such as his role in the ouster of two Labor leaders Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard which gave him the dubious distinction of being seen as a backroom dealer and factional plotter. Moreover, his often-stilted demeanour added to his dislike among the public. This factor, along with the unpopular proposals to usher in an era of reforms, may have led to a voter swing away from the Labor Party.

What Lies Ahead for Labor

This loss has shook the Labor Party for sure, especially in the light of the fact that it has spent six years planning carefully its strategies, and attempting to position itself as a party characterized by big ideas and a firm leadership, prepared to take bold and unpopular policy initiatives for the betterment of the country. But in a bid to do so, it has apparently alienated itself from the working-class population, which is its primary voter base. Now the Party has to win them back, if it aspires for a victory in the 2022 General election. As for the exit poll predictions going utterly wrong, that is another story for another day.