Osmond Chiu looks at the challenges facing the incoming Labour government
After a shattering loss in 2019, Australian Labor’s victory in 2022 was greeted with both joy and relief. It was a historic victory, the Liberal National Coalition experiencing its biggest defeat in 70 years, driven by a visceral dislike of Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
Labor is set to form a narrow majority government with the most diverse Parliament ever, however, the electoral landscape has become far more complex. It was an election decided in metropolitan areas, but results varied from state to state.
Labor won suburban seats in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth but its vote was the lowest ever for a party winning government. The alternative vote system and a big increase Labor’s vote in Western Australia, masked declines, especially in Tasmania. It also lost a safe, working-class multicultural seat after installing the white Deputy Senate leader who lived in an affluent part of Sydney.
While the agrarian National Party held onto its rural seats, the Liberals were decimated in its wealthy heartlands in Sydney and Melbourne. Educated, socially liberal voters abandoned them for well-funded “teal” independents because of the Coalition’s stances on climate change, its treatment of women and government integrity.
Chinese-Australian voters, who traditionally voted Liberal, also swung hard in the suburbs because of the inflammatory rhetoric of right-wing Defence Minister Peter Dutton who repeatedly talked up the prospect of war with China. Dutton is now set to become the new Liberal Party leader as the Deputy Leader of the Liberals was defeated by a “teal” independent. Whether the Liberals moderate to win back social liberals or adopt a more populist right strategy remains to be seen.
The biggest surprise was the Greens breaking through in the Queensland capital of Brisbane, traditionally seen as a conservative state, winning seats in the House of Representatives. Running on a left-populist platform, their vote increased nationally, and they are likely to double down on this strategy, targeting Labor seats in Victoria and New South Wales in 2025.
The election challenged the traditional assumption that Labor gets elected federally only with a charismatic centrist and a big vision in a landslide. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is a veteran left-wing Labor powerbroker from a working-class background who shifted towards ‘the centre’ after becoming leader. Unlike previous Labor victors, his public popularity has never been stratospheric, nor did he win in a landslide like Labor’s last two victories from Opposition. The reception from the media was also quite hostile during the election campaign.
Criticised as being ‘small target’, Labor’s election policies focused on fixing aged care, reducing the costs of childcare, reducing power bills through upgrading the electricity grid for renewables and reducing insecure working arrangements. Labor also made commitments to legislate for emissions reduction targets and a constitutionally enshrined First Nations ‘voice’ to Parliament.
Labor’s low vote and the growth of minor parties should be of concern. However, the result will still be seen as vindicating a strategy of making the election a referendum on the Prime Minister, streamlining the party platform and dropping tax policies after the 2019 loss.
The challenges facing the incoming Albanese Labor Government will be immense. The mood of disillusionment with politics creates a very different environment to 2007 when Labor last won federally. The loss of once safe seats by both major parties shows voters will consider a viable third option if they feel taken for granted.
Australia has not been immune from global inflationary pressures, growing government debt and wage stagnation. Already Labor has sought to temper expectations by warning about the dire fiscal situation and that it cannot afford more commitments. At the same time, geopolitical tensions with China are creating pressure to increase defence and aid spending.
There will also be pressures from the Greens and the “teal” independents for more ambitious commitments on climate change if there is a progressive majority in both Houses of Parliament. Given the Greens will be key to passing legislation in the Senate, how both parties navigate disagreements will be important to the success of the Albanese Labor Government.
Unlike the last time Labor won from Opposition, there is significant ministerial experience which strengthens the Government. The experience and humility will make it easier to learn from the mistakes of the last Labor Government, especially as Labor now appreciates how hard it is to regain power even with years of conservative chaos and division.
There are, however, no guarantees in politics as the last two years has shown. Labor will need to balance intense pressures from the left and right and expectations beyond its control. There is a genuine risk of being forced into minority government in 2025 if the voters are dissatisfied about Labor’s response to cost-of-living pressures or if they are not ambitious enough on climate. Labor will need to stay united and focused, delivering tangible change if it wants to be re-elected with a majority.
Osmond Chiu is a Research Fellow at the Per Capita thinktank and a member of the New South Wales Labor Policy Forum. He is on twitter at @redrabbleroz
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