As the opinion polls showed the gap narrowing between the major parties before the 18 May election, political scientist James Walter began to wonder if Liberal Prime Minister Scott Morrison might emerge as the winner after all.
Climate change and the environment had been named as the nation’s leading concern. Yet the polls also indicated that Labor – the party with the stronger climate policy – was losing support. What was going on?
Professor Walter says political science provides three explanations for why the Coalition won, despite presiding over what he believes has been the most ineffectual government Australia has seen since World War II.
1. Political insiders don't always know best
“Labor dreamed up wonderful schemes for addressing real challenges – inequality and climate change, for example – but didn’t know how to frame the message in a way that cut through,” Professor Walter says.
Writing more than a century ago, sociologist Robert K. Merton described how party leadership can become divorced from public opinion “and their own supporters to some extent”. It's because political leaders become preoccupied by their status and position within their party, and also become convinced that they know best.
This might be why, for instance, Greens and environmental leaders thought it was a good idea to travel up to coal country in Queensland with their campaign to shut down the Adani mine. Although the Greens had policies for how workers in the mining industry could make a transition to a carbon-free economy, this message was drowned out by the louder voices “of a small, self-righteous group who thought, because we are right, what we are saying is self-evident”.
“They were not attuned to the people they were trying to talk to,” Professor Walter says.
2. The ‘public’ does not exist
In 1925, US journalist Walter Lippmann wrote The Phantom Public, partly as a way of explaining the rise of fascism in Italy. He argued that the ‘public’ was not a single entity waiting to be tapped, but was composed of many different currents that were unstable and evolving. This unsteadiness meant even where there was a dominant ‘public’ opinion, it could be manipulated to mobilise a competing ‘public’.
“He wasn't saying that people were stupid, but even in the '20s, way before the internet, he was arguing that nobody could keep on top of all the information at their disposal, so they took shortcuts,” Professor Walter says, relying on cues from political insiders.
Although public opinion polls give the impression that the public has one prevailing point of view – say, on climate change –this can be countered by reframing the issue to encourage a competing opinion, even among the same people. The phenomenon explains why Australians re-elected a party that had failed to agree on an energy policy, even though the polls have consistently shown that most Australians also believe the government needed to act on climate change.
3. Emotion beats evidence
In 2016, a historical survey of politics and social psychology by US political scientists Chris Achen and Larry Bartels, Democracy for Realists, developed Lippmann’s argument further.
“They showed that people on the whole don’t vote by looking at the evidence – they do that only superficially. They vote because of identity and emotion,” Professor Walter says.
After losing his seat of Warringah, former Liberal prime minister Tony Abbott observed that when climate change is framed as a moral argument, Labor wins, but when it is framed in economic terms, the Coalition wins. “I think he was right about that,” Professor Walter says.
“The great success of the Morrison campaign was to turn everything into an economic issue.”
“The great success of the Morrison campaign was to turn everything into an economic issue,” he says. The economics was largely framed in emotional terms: do you trust Bill Shorten with your money? The negative campaigning from the Murdoch press and Clive Palmer’s massive advertising spend also played their part in pressing the message that the Labor leader was untrustworthy.
Although Palmer’s United Australia Party failed to win a single seat, it worked effectively for the Coalition – particularly in Queensland, where the Labor vote went backwards.
“Gina Rinehart, Clive Palmer and Adani all hold mining tenements in the Galilee Basin,” Professor Walter says. “Now Palmer has leverage over the government. If the Galilee Basin is opened up for mining, he'll get a huge benefit initially – much, much more than he spent on the election [estimated to be between $60 and $80 million]."
“Of course, it will be a disaster in the long run. They'll be stranded assets.”
What will Scott Morrison do next?
On election night, Liberal Senator Arthur Sinodinos urged the Prime Minister to listen to those Australians who voted against him, and to take constructive action on climate change.
Professor Walter argues that Morrison’s ‘miracle’ victory has given him much more authority within the party than that held by his immediate predecessors – Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott. This means, for instance, that the PM probably has enough political capital to revisit the abandoned National Energy Guarantee – a policy that was passed three times by the party room but was never enacted into policy.
But the early signs “are not promising”, Professor Walter says, citing Morrison’s declaration that the ineffectual Melissa Price would continue to serve as Environment Minister.
If the PM fails to chart a clear course, he'll likely become hostage to the same ideological divisions within the Liberal party that saw it elect three leaders in six years. Australia is also divided, Professor Walter says, between the regions and the cities – and between the inner cities and the outer suburbs.
As Labor hunts for a new leader and dissects the failure of its campaign, the Prime Minister has a grand opportunity to make his mark. Yet he's failed to articulate a clear vision for the country he now leads. So far, he's shown himself to be “a clever ad man, not a deep thinker”, Professor Walter says.