Asia Pacific / Politics

Ecstatic Australian conservatives bask in glory of 'miracle' election win

AFP-JIJI, Reuters

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Sunday basked in the glow of a “miracle” election victory that sparked praise from U.S. President Donald Trump, soul-searching on the left and speculation about what policies he will pursue.

Morrison’s Liberal-National coalition bucked the polls to secure a victory for the ages, but it remains unclear if he will garner enough votes to have a parliamentary majority or need to govern with the help of independents.

The 51-year-old Morrison may yet have to depend on ecologically minded independents to pass legislation and manage deep divisions within his fractious coalition, with no room for defections.

Still, it was a stunning personal victory for Morrison, who largely flew solo during the campaign as senior ministers stayed close to home to defend seats thought to be at risk.

By winning what was seen as an unwinnable election, the unexpected leader has cemented his authority over the Liberal Party, giving him the muscle to end a decade of instability that has seen a revolving door of prime ministers.

“It was a one-man show. There will be much written about this in the years to come,” said Haydon Manning, a professor of political science at Flinders University. “He delivered the victory against the odds.”

Morrison became prime minister as a compromise candidate after a right-wing faction ousted Malcolm Turnbull as Liberal Party leader last August.

The resulting Liberal-National coalition was behind in every opinion poll since Morrison took over, with voters angry at Turnbull’s ouster and frustrated by a perceived lack of action over climate change and a dearth of fresh polices.

After a decade of political turmoil that saw both Labor, the main opposition party, and the coalition depose several prime ministers, changes Morrison introduced last year mean that it is now very difficult for his party to remove him now that he has won an election.

The secret of Morrison’s success, lawmakers, election strategists and analysts say, was twofold.

First, he could see a path to victory through target areas such as the urban fringes of Queensland state, where he won enough seats to offset expected swings against the government in city-based seats.

And he was able to frame the ballot as a contest between him and Labor leader Bill Shorten, a former trade union leader whose reform agenda was portrayed by the government as at odds with Australian aspirations.

“Morrison’s biggest asset was Bill Shorten. He made the election a personal contest and in the end, the people never liked or trusted Shorten,” said John Hewson, former leader of Australia’s Liberal Party.

Hewson now shares a connection with Shorten. As Liberal leader in opposition in 1993, he similarly lost what was considered an election impossible to lose after releasing a detailed and comprehensive tax reform policy well ahead of the vote.

In this weekend’s election, Labor proposed removing two generous tax concessions enjoyed primarily by older, wealthy Australians. But rather than winning favor with younger voters, the policies become the target of Morrison’s campaign, fostering suspicion of Labor.

Morrison — who centered his campaign on his government’s economic credentials — used Labor’s tax proposals as evidence that the opposition was “coming after your money.”

A Labor strategist said the government successfully cobbled together a coalition of support among voters in urban fringes and rural townships.

“They won a lot of voters from older Australians with its attacks about a retirement tax. But we lost votes from younger people that we didn’t expect,” said the strategist, who declined to be named as he is not authorized to talk to the media. “We didn’t do enough to talk about jobs for these people in these regions.”

As awed Australian pundits declared Morrison a campaigning “legend,” Trump got in on the act by sending a congratulatory tweet.

The two men spoke by phone after the results came in, vowing “close cooperation on shared priorities,” according to a White House account of the call.

Trump’s allies will be quick to claim Morrison’s win as another victory in the global march of populism.

But the results showed a more mixed message from an electorate that appears increasingly split on the significant issues of the day.

Brash billionaire Clive Palmer — who explicitly styled himself on Trump in a free-spending countrywide campaign that promised to “Make Australia Great” — appears to have failed to win a single parliamentary seat.

Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott — the poster boy for the right wing of the Liberal Party — was unceremoniously turfed out of office after 25 years holding the same seat, with voters opting for a green independent.

Despite his high political stock, Morrison may face a rocky three-year term.

First, he will have to contend with a challenging economic outlook and figure out how to pay for a budget based on improbable growth forecasts.

After almost three decades of robust economic growth, Australia’s economy is showing signs of stalling.

The central bank is widely expected to cut interest rates when it meets next month, in a bid to counter a housing market dip, stagnant wages and a weakening labor market.

Morrison finds himself in the unusual position of having made few promises to the electorate beyond extending tax cuts.

In coal-rich Queensland, voters backed new mining projects that would bring jobs but are fiercely opposed in much of the rest of the country.

The divisions within Morrison’s Liberals were already clear to see Sunday, with right and centrist factions racing to fill the policy void.

Some demanded an immediate loosening of rules on exploration for fossil fuels, while moderates hinted at a rethink of the party’s climate skepticism.

“I have to say to you on climate change, it is real. We take it very seriously,” said Morrison’s deputy, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg.

Inside the vanquished Labor Party, Shorten’s defeat and quick resignation prompted an immediate jockeying for leadership, with several party stalwarts set to throw their hats in the ring.

Party officials defended their decision to set out their policies in detail — which critics said provided Morrison with too big a target and made the vote a referendum on Shorten.

At least one other group was also licking its wounds.

Usually reliable pollsters had spectacularly failed to predict the election outcome and will be picking over the numbers for days and weeks to come to see what went wrong.