Asia Pacific / Politics

Scott Morrison's ruling conservative coalition looks set to retain power in Australia election surprise

AFP-JIJI, Reuters

Australia’s ruling conservative coalition appeared to secure a shock election win Saturday, with the party predicted to have defied expectations and retained power.

National broadcaster ABC called the election for Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s coalition, although it was not clear if he will lead a minority or majority government.

The result is a monumental upset and a failure of pollsters, who put the opposition Labor Party under Bill Shorten in pole position.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten said late Saturday evening that Labor will not be able to form government and he has called Morrison to congratulate him on the election result.

“And without wanting to hold out any false hope, while there are still millions of votes to count and important seats yet to be finalized, it is obvious that Labor will not be able to form the next government,” Shorten told disappointed Labor supporters at a function in Melbourne.

He said he will resign as party leader.

Some bookies had paid out early, expecting a coalition defeat, and all but the most ardent partisans had thrown in the towel.

Early results appeared to show a fractured electorate with minor populist and right-wing parties playing an outsize role, but it will be a while before the dust settles.

They include Pauline Hanson, whose party shrugged off revelations her party solicited money from the U.S. gun lobby, and Clive Palmer — dubbed Australia’s Donald Trump — who splashed out tens of millions of dollars on a populist campaign.

Australia has compulsory voting and a complex system of ballots ranked by voter preference, with big political, economic and cultural differences from state to state on the vast island-continent.

Liberal supporter Anthony Ching said the projected result was “unbelievable.”

“Everybody was expecting that we were not going to win,” he said.

Many of the laurels for victory will go to Morrison, who came to power last August after a party-room coup by hard-liners in his Liberal Party ousted the more moderate Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Weeks ago, Morrison looked set for an electoral drubbing, fated to enter the history books as one of the most short-lived prime ministers in Australian history.

But he closed the gap with a negative campaign and backing from the country’s biggest media organization — owned by Rupert Murdoch — mainly targeting older, wealthier voters concerned over Labor plans to cut various tax loopholes in order to fund spending on education, health care and climate initiatives.

He campaigned almost single-handedly, with many of his Cabinet resigning or being too unpopular to be trotted out on the national stage.

As results from northeastern Queensland state began to trickle in, it became clear the Liberals had done better than expected and disbelief set in among Labor’s ranks.

“It’s heartbreaking,” said Jango Rust, a 19-year-old at the Labor Party campaign HQ in Melbourne.

Sixty-seven-year-old Labor support Julie Nelson said, “I think Morrison campaigned on fear, and people have fallen for it.”

Former union leader Shorten, voting in Melbourne, was bullish about forming a majority government after a final poll before the election showed the lead for his party increasing.

“In the event that the people of Australia voted to stop the chaos and voted for action on climate change, we will be ready to hit the ground from tomorrow.”

And after casting his vote in the Sydney suburbs, Morrison acknowledged the challenge his coalition faced, saying, “I don’t take anyone’s support in this country for granted.”

Climate change had featured prominently throughout the campaign.

Australia is one of the most vulnerable of all developed nations to climate change and a season of record floods, wildfires and droughts has brought the issue from the political fringes to front and center of the campaign.

In traditionally more conservative rural areas, climate-hit farmers are increasingly demanding action, while in several rich suburbs, a generational shift has seen eco-minded candidates running Liberal Party luminaries close.

In northern Sydney, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott — who once described climate change as “crap” — lost a seat he has held for a quarter century to independent challenger Zali Steggall, a lawyer and Olympic medalist in Alpine skiing.

While admitting his own defeat, mainly over the climate issue, Abbott claimed there had been a “realignment” in Australian politics with Liberals winning more of the working class vote, adding, “I’m not going to let one bad day spoil 25 years.”

The national campaign has been an often ill-tempered pitched-battle.

Candidates have been egged and abused, and a slew have resigned for racist, sexist and otherwise jaw-dropping social media posts.

In Abbott’s battleground seat, a 62-year-old man was arrested and charged with thrusting a corkscrew into the stomach of someone putting up campaign banners on the eve of the election.