Asia Pacific / Politics

Australia's conservative coalition defies polls, wins surprise third term

Reuters, AP

Australia’s conservative government celebrated on Sunday its surprise election victory that defied years of unfavorable opinion polls, with U.S. and Israeli leaders welcoming Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s return to office.

Australia’s Liberal-led coalition has won or is leading in 74 seats in its quest for a 76-seat majority, according to the Australian Electoral Commission, with three-quarters of votes counted.

The opposition Labor party has conceded defeat and Bill Shorten stepped down as its leader.

“Congratulations to Scott on a GREAT WIN,” U.S. President Donald Trump said on Twitter.

The White House said Trump and Morrison spoke by phone and “pledged to continue their close cooperation on shared priorities”.

Morrison told raucously cheering supporters late on Saturday, who just hours earlier had seemed resigned to defeat, that he had “always believed in miracles.”

He compared his Liberal Party’s victory for a third three-year term to the births of his daughters, Abbey, 11, and Lily, 9, who were conceived naturally after 14 years of in vitro fertilization had failed. His wife, Jenny Morrison, suffered endometriosis.

“I’m standing with the three biggest miracles in my life here tonight, and tonight we’ve been delivered another one,” he said, embraced by his wife and daughters.

The result drew comparisons with Republican Trump’s victory in 2016, when the real estate mogul defied polls to defeat Democratic rival Hillary Clinton by winning over the so-called silent majority.

Opinion polls in Australia had all pointed to a Labor victory ahead of Saturday’s vote. So strong was the expectation the government would fall that one betting agency even paid out bets on a Labor win days before the election.

Morrison, however, cast himself as the candidate who would work for aspirational voters and the tactic seemed to strike a chord.

A Pentecostal churchgoer, Morrison took over as prime minister last year when he emerged as the unexpected winner of infighting within the Liberal party, the senior partner within the Liberal-National coalition.

It is still unclear whether the coalition can govern with an outright majority or will need to negotiate support from independents, with millions of early votes cast before polling day still to be counted.

Several seats in the 151-seat House of Representatives are still too close to call.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, who fended off a tough contest from independent and Greens candidates in his Melbourne electorate, told Australian Broadcasting Corp. television on Sunday that Morrison had led with energy and conviction.

“From the minute the starter’s gun was fired in this campaign, we knew we were behind, but we also knew we were in it,” Frydenberg said.

The government campaigned on a platform of tax cuts and stability, while Labor promised to reduce inequality through tax reform, higher wages, better public infrastructure and faster action on climate change.

Fitch Ratings said in a note the result would bring policy continuity, including the coalition’s pledge to start delivering budget surpluses next financial year.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also congratulated Morrison on Sunday.

“I know that under your leadership the great friendship between Australia and Israel will grow even stronger,” Netanyahu said on Twitter.

Australia formally recognized west Jerusalem as Israel’s capital late last year, reversing decades of Middle East policy and following Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.

Morrison, who was widely criticized for the decision, said at the time Australia would not move its embassy to Jerusalem immediately.

The tight race has raised the prospect of the coalition forming a minority government. The conservatives became a rare minority government after they dumped Malcolm Turnbull as prime minister for Morrison in an internal power struggle last August. The government then lost two seats and its single-seat majority as part of the blood-letting that followed.

An unpopular single-term Labor government that was voted out in 2013 had been the only previous minority government since World War II.

Opinion polls prior to Saturday’s election had suggested that the coalition would lose and that Morrison would have had one of the shortest tenures as prime minister in the 118-year history of the Australian federation.

Morrison had focused his campaigning on polling that showed while Labor was more popular than the government, the prime minister was more popular than Shorten.

There was so much public confidence of a Labor victory that Australian online bookmaker Sportsbet paid out 1.3 million Australian dollars ($900,000) to bettors who backed Labor two days before the election. Sportsbet said 70 percent of wagers had been placed on Labor at odds of $1.16.

Another betting agency, Ladbrokes, said it had accepted a record AU$1 million wager on Labor.

Shorten, who campaigned heavily on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, said Saturday morning that he was confident Labor would win, but Morrison would not be drawn on a prediction.

Morrison is the conservatives’ third prime minister since they were elected in 2013.

Tony Abbott, who became the first of those three prime ministers in the 2013 election, conceded defeat in the Sydney seat he has held since 1994.

Polling suggests climate change was a major issue in that seat for voters, who instead elected an independent candidate, Zali Steggall. As prime minister in 2014, Abbott repealed a carbon tax introduced by a Labor government. Abbott was replaced by Turnbull the next year because of poor opinion polling, but he remained a government lawmaker.

A maverick senator who blamed the slaughter of 51 worshippers in two New Zealand mosques on the country’s immigration policies also lost his bid for election.

Fraser Anning was the target of widespread condemnation for railing against Muslim immigration within hours of the mass shootings in the New Zealand city of Christchurch in March. He faced more criticism later for physically striking a teenage protester who cracked a raw egg on his head and was censured by the Senate.

Senior Labor lawmaker Chris Bowen said his party may have suffered from what he conceded was an unusual strategy of pushing a detailed policy agenda through the election campaign.

Shorten campaigned hard on more ambitious targets to reduce Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The government has committed Australia to reduce its emissions by 26 percent to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. Labor has promised a 45 percent reduction in the same time frame.

Shorten, a 52-year-old former labor union leader, has also promised a range of reforms, including the government paying all of a patients’ costs for cancer treatment and a reduction of tax breaks for landlords.

Morrison, a former tourism marketer, promised lower taxes and better economic management than Labor.

Both major parties promised that whoever won the election would remain prime minister until he next faces the voters’ judgment. The parties have changed their rules to make the process of lawmakers replacing a prime minister more difficult.

During Labor’s last six years in office, the party replaced Prime Minister Kevin Rudd with his deputy Julia Gillard, then dumped her for Rudd.

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