In a result that confounded pundits, polls and punters, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison looks set to remain in office after his Liberal-National coalition prevailed in national elections held over the weekend. The Australian electorate opted for stability in Canberra and the center-right government’s policies will ensure that Japan has a close and predictable diplomatic and security partner.
The Liberal-led coalition has been in power in Canberra since March 2013, but it has been a tumultuous period, with the Liberal Party ousting two prime ministers before their three-year terms ended. The infighting brought Morrison to power last August, after an especially bloody battle, but it also was thought to have alienated voters.
Morrison led a minority government, and the loss of senior members, defeats in by-elections and opinion polls that showed deteriorating public support for the coalition yielded widespread anticipation of a Labor victory in Saturday’s ballot. Every opinion poll showed the government trailing Labor. At one betting agency, 70 percent of wagers favored Labor’s return to power after six years in opposition; another gambling website began to pay off Labor bets two days before the election. The death of Bob Hawke, prime minister from 1983 to 1991, considered the most successful Labor politician in Australian history, just two days before the ballot was thought to have provided a final push to return his party to power.
Voters were unmoved. Instead, the coalition prevailed in the popular vote. Local media reported that the Liberal-National coalition will win at least 77 of the 151 seats in the Lower House; the party with a majority in that chamber gets to pick the prime minister. Labor was projected to have won 68 seats, one less than the 69 it held before the elections, while a smaller party and independents were reported to have claimed six seats.
The coalition victory means that policy will continue as is. Morrison promised tax cuts — a sharp contrast to Labor’s pledge to increase social spending — and a commitment to greater job protection. That will manifest most clearly in a commitment to Australia’s coal miners, which in turn means less commitment to reducing the emission of greenhouse gases and the promotion of renewable energy sources. One of the keys to the election outcome was a strong turnout for the coalition in Queensland state, the center of the nation’s coal industry.
Those voters rallied behind Morrison for his support of the proposed Adani mine, which will be one of the world’s largest coal mines if it opens. That vote, however, should not obscure the fact that Australians identify climate change as one of the top threats facing the country, with voter support for policies addressing global warming reaching their highest level since 2007. The regional swing, in combination with a desire for a steady hand on the economy and the wooden performance of Labor leader Bill Shorten, was responsible for the coalition victory.
Two other factors are believed to have weighed heavily on the electorate. The first was the promise of continuity in economic policies. The country has enjoyed 28 years of nonstop economic expansion, and while the Reserve Bank of Australia, the nation’s central bank, has forecast a 2.6 percent growth this year, that is a drop from the 3.3 percent recorded in 2018. Liberals promised a steady and light hand on the tiller, a contrast with the bold plans that Labor backed.
The second factor is the prospect of political stability in general. Australia has had six prime ministers in eight years — seven over the last 11 — even though the governing party has only changed once during that time (in 2013). During both Labor and Liberal governments, the ruling party has tossed out its leader as a result of internecine struggles. Morrison’s surprise win should consolidate his position as the undisputed leader of the Liberals and put an end to its internal fights. Labor may continue to struggle to find consensus, however.
Morrison has also taken a harder line on China, banning the telecommunications giant Huawei from government contracts, limiting Chinese investments in Australia, monitoring its political influence in the country, and joining Japan and the United States to push the concept of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific.
While both major parties back a strong relationship with Japan, Canberra under coalition rule will likely pursue a richer and deeper security and diplomatic partnership with Tokyo.