The 2019 federal election: Why did Labor lose and what next?

by Tom Bramble • Published 20 July 2019

The Coalition’s unexpected election win on 18 May 2019 has changed the atmospherics of Australian politics. The Morrison government is no longer a story of bitter internal divisions, leadership turnover, poor polling, minority government and social media gaffes. Now, according to the media and the government’s supporters, the Coalition has triumphed and has before it the prospect of two or three more terms in office, with the potential to carry through far-reaching reforms. Yesterday’s less than one-term leader, Scott Morrison, destined to go down in history as a mere footnote, is now a “messiah”, a figure who has entered the pantheon of Liberal heroes.

Explanations for Labor’s unexpected loss have come thick and fast. Deputy leader Tanya Plibersek told the ABC on election night that the ALP had bitten off more than it could chew. It hadn’t had time to communicate its good policies. Addressing the Labor caucus at its first meeting after the election, former leader Bill Shorten said that the party lost because of a big conspiracy by “corporate leviathans spending unprecedented hundreds of millions of dollars [on] advertising, telling lies [and] spreading fear”. ACTU secretary Sally McManus said the problem was a nefarious social media campaign and Clive Palmer’s advertising budget.

These are all pretty feeble explanations, suggesting that Labor lost because it encountered opposition. The policies, leadership and campaign were all fundamentally sound, but their enemies hadn’t played fair, as if elections are a university debating society.

The dominant explanation for Labor’s election defeat, however, was that Labor’s agenda was too big, too detailed and too left wing and had driven a chunk of the party’s traditional blue collar supporters into the arms of the Coalition. Resources minister Matt Canavan said that the election result was a “hi-vis revolution”: Labor might have held onto the affluent inner cities, but the conservatives had cleaned up among workers in the suburbs, the regions and the bush. The argument was also picked up in the ALP and what might be generally described as the progressive commentariat: the base had deserted the ALP. The explanations were often contradictory – that blue collar workers in the regions were stupid and had voted against their own interests, as represented by Labor’s reform agenda, or that workers were selfish, only concerned about their wallets and ignored the needs of the wider community.

The argument that workers had turned out in numbers to back the Coalition seemed to win support from a study published by the Guardian a few days after the election which showed that the Coalition won swings in electorates characterised by higher unemployment, lower incomes, lower educational qualifications and fewer migrants.[1]

In this article, I will demonstrate that much of this analysis is overblown. The election did not indicate a swing to the right in the electorate, and Labor did not lose because its program was too left wing. Labor lost because it was not bold enough, not consistent enough and was known by millions as the party that, far from taking the fight to “the top end of town”, had spent four decades kowtowing to them. Shorten’s inability to cut through at any point was symptomatic of Labor’s deeper malaise. Overall then, voters did not walk away from the light on the hill in this election. Rather, they refused to enter a dank basement with the promise only of a flickering candle.

These arguments are crucial in arming ourselves against the arguments of those who have sunk into demoralisation since the results were posted. In many cases, those most downcast are those in the unions and various campaign groups – refugees, environmental and GetUp! among others – who had thrown themselves into electioneering at the expense of action on other fronts. Not only did this not succeed in narrow electoral terms, but it also subordinated them to Labor’s campaign, rendering them passive when activism and independence from the ALP is desperately needed. This sense of despair after the election is especially misplaced given that Labor’s policies on Adani, climate change, refugees, the US alliance and more differed little from the Coalition’s. Rather than mourn the defeat of a right wing Labor campaign, left wing activists must renew our commitment to building independent organisations and movements as the only way forward for the left.

Did the electorate swing to the right?

In dealing with the argument that the election outcome signified a swing to the right, the most obvious rebuttal is that the outcome was very little different to the situation prior to the election. The Coalition gained four seats overall on where it stood on the eve of the election and now has 77 seats, as against Labor’s 68, the Greens’ one and others, five. Compared to the 2016 election, regarded at the time as a debacle for the Coalition, the Coalition now has one more MP in the House of Representatives, the ALP one less.

The outcome for the Coalition was no more impressive when it comes to votes. Although the ALP narrowly registered its lowest primary vote since 1903[2] at just 33.3 percent, the Coalition’s tally was nothing to write home about. At 41.4 percent its vote was actually down by 0.6 percent on the 2016 results and was lower than when it lost elections to Bob Hawke’s ALP in 1983 and Kevin Rudd in 2007. It suffered swings against it in 30 of its seats, losing four. And while it increased its two-party preferred vote – to 51.5 percent – this was purely off the back of preferences from minor parties.[3] Had just 2 percent of the voters switched from the Coalition to the ALP, the post-election narrative would not have been about the “hi-vis revolution” but the country’s progressive nature and its attraction to a mildly reforming social democratic agenda. Even now, the Coalition is in a precarious position on the floor of the lower house, only needing to lose two seats in by-elections to be thrust back into minority status.

Was it true that “the battlers” turned against the ALP and flocked to the Coalition? Not so. Far from turning traditional voting allegiances upside down, the election by and large confirmed them: the predominantly working class western and northern suburbs of Melbourne and the southern and western suburbs of Sydney mostly stayed solidly red. By contrast, the Liberals remain the preferred choice for the residents of the affluent suburbs of Melbourne and Sydney, with the exception of Warringah, taken by Zali Steggall, a Liberal in all but name. While some Labor heartland seats saw a drop in the party’s primary vote of 5 percent or more (for example, Calwell, Gorton and Fraser in Melbourne, Blaxland and Fowler in Melbourne, Rankin in Brisbane), no such seats ended up in the Coalition’s column.

It is true that the ALP suffered swings against it outside the inner metropolitan areas – in the outer suburbs, the regions and the bush. But simply equating that trend as “blue collar workers” or “battlers” abandoning the ALP is extremely misleading. These areas have long been dominated by the Coalition because of certain basic class features of their populations. In the absence of big workplaces with accompanying clear class differentiation, the petty bourgeoisie is more significant here than in the cities. Workers in smaller workplaces that dominate in such regions are much more likely to identify with their employers than they are with organised labour, particularly when it has been decades since the trade unions mounted any serious organising drives. Crucially, the populations of these areas are older than average, a double bonus for the Coalition given the generally more conservative attitudes of older voters and the confusion over franking credits in this election.

The result is that the petty bourgeoisie, tagging along behind the bourgeoisie, hold much greater sway in the political life of the outer suburbs and the regions than they do in the centre of the big cities. It was no accident, for example, that the mobilisation against Bob Brown’s climate convoy in Clermont in regional Queensland, which received so much press coverage, was organised not by laid-off coal miners desperate for work but by the town’s two publicans.

The term “battler”, much beloved of the media and conservative commentators, encompasses a wide array of class positions in the rural and regional areas: everyone from the farmer on a property, the mining engineer or electrical contractor with four or five staff, the owner of a trucking business with half a dozen rigs, the strawberry farmer employing backpackers and migrants and self-funded retirees, all the way through to the casually employed blue collar labourer moving from one low paid job to another, women performing home duties in blue collar households and the laid off worker in their 50s on a disability support pension. Simply establishing that swings occurred in electorates with such diverse socio-economic groups tells us almost nothing about the class dynamics going on among them.

That there was a swing towards the Coalition in electorates with lower educational qualifications on average is also not much help in understanding the class dynamics. Many older businesspeople who have inherited the family business or who built up a business employing 50 people from a one-person operation never went to university. This is particularly the case in the outer suburbs, the regions and the rural areas where educational attainment has always been lower than in the cities. Conversely, in the capital cities there are plenty of workers in their 20s and 30s who hold university degrees. A swing towards Labor in inner metropolitan electorates characterised by higher than average qualifications is no indication that Labor is now the party of “the elites”, the preferred – and politically loaded – counter position to “the battlers”.

Neither of these commonly referenced facts proves that the Liberals and Nationals made more than their normal inroads into the working class, the much more precise and useful term that Marxists use. Nor is there even evidence that electorates with lower than average incomes swung in this way, unless we know who in these diverse electorates switched to the Coalition parties. What is needed are data that track the voting preferences of individual voters, not entire electorates, if we are to understand whether large numbers of workers swung towards the Coalition.

Fortunately, the Cooperative Australian Election Survey, coordinated by Sydney University’s Shaun Ratcliff and Simon Jackman, provides just such data.[4] The results of this survey upend the narrative about the “battlers” handing victory to the Coalition. After polling more than 10,000 voters in the three weeks leading up to the 18 May poll, the authors conclude that “[t]he Coalition remains disproportionately the party of high-income business owners and the Labor party lower-income workers, the disabled and low-income parents”.[5] The demographic most likely to vote for the Coalition was those earning more than $4,000 a week who own a business or trust, 60 percent of whom gave the Coalition their primary vote. Only one quarter of those with household incomes of less than $1,500 a week, the bottom half of household incomes, plumped for the Coalition.[6] One half of those with household incomes of less than $500 a week voted Labor. Those on household incomes of less than $500 a week and receiving welfare payments of any kind also voted Labor by the same degree, with one quarter or less voting for the Coalition. Furthermore, there was little evidence of a disproportionate swing by voters on low incomes towards the Coalition at this election, although the authors suggest this finding is less definitely proven at this stage.

The Coalition parties did receive a lift in their vote from their right wing colleagues in One Nation, which stood in many more seats at this election than it did in 2016 – 50 compared to 15 – and preferenced the Coalition parties much more consistently than they did last time. This significantly increased the Coalition’s two-party preferred vote. In Queensland, for example, the LNP’s primary vote rose by only 0.5 percent. Yet its two-party preferred vote rose by 3.6 percent to 57.7 percent, its strongest lead in any state, thanks to One Nation preferences. Picking up two more seats in Queensland, the LNP now holds 23 of the 30 in the state, with Labor down to six, none outside the greater Brisbane region. In Western Australia, One Nation’s decision to run in 12 electorates, compared to none in 2016, helped the Coalition convert a 3.5 percent primary swing against them to a 1 percent swing towards them in two-party preferred .

Still, despite boosting their national primary vote from 1.3 percent in 2016 to 3.1 percent this year, One Nation did not surge forward. Its increased primary vote did not match the increased number of candidates it ran, meaning that on average its primary vote fell. This was true even in Queensland where the party’s vote overall rose from 5.4 percent to 8.9 percent. Of the 13 seats One Nation stood in at both elections in Queensland, the party polled better in 2019 in just four, on average by 2.3 percentage points, while in the remaining nine, its vote slipped, on average by 3.4 points. The party fared better in the Senate but the outcome on the floor of the upper house was worse. In 2016, One Nation swept into the Senate with four new senators; after the 2019 election the party has just two. Three years with a national stage in the Senate, with regular national media coverage, has not boosted One Nation’s electoral appeal significantly.

It seems that for now, One Nation is probably close to reaching its natural ceiling in parliamentary support since any move to run more candidates at the next federal election will take it into territory that is more unfavourable to the party, the big cities. And, with the ALP in opposition, the hard right will lack a natural enemy in government to rail against and around which it might rally supporters on an “anti-Communist” basis.

This is not to say that the election was a wash-out for the far right. Not only is the Coalition aware of its dependence in some electorates and in the Senate on One Nation, but the far right more generally had a bigger presence at this election beyond One Nation. Clive Palmer’s advertising campaign, targeting the ALP, indicated a shift to a more aggressively right wing positioning for the United Australia Party as compared to its predecessor, the Palmer United Party. Fraser Anning lost his Senate spot and his Conservative National Party only picked up a vote of half a percent in the Senate, but the former senator claims to have recruited 3,000 members to his hard right, semi-fascist party. If Anning is able to consolidate such a party, and it’s not clear how likely this is given the chronic instability that plagues the far right, this will be a new and worrying development in Australian politics. On the other hand, Cory Bernardi’s attempt to create a right wing conservative bloc failed miserably. Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives, which had absorbed Family First in 2017, scored just 0.7 percent in the Senate, half what Family First achieved in its own right at the 2016 election. Bernardi has now abandoned the project of building a new party and is set to quit parliament by the end of the year.

Another indication that the election did not indicate a shift to the right was the outcome for the Greens. While by no means achieving any significant advance, the party’s vote lifted a touch in the House of Representatives and by a more substantial 1.6 percent in the Senate. The party retained all nine of its Senators and firmed up its hold on the seat of Melbourne in the lower house where Adam Bandt scored a primary vote of 49 percent. On the longer term perspective, at 10.4 percent in the House of Reps and 10.2 percent in the Senate, the Greens are down on their peak votes in 2010 of 11.8 percent and 13.1 percent respectively, but up substantially from the 8.7 percent they scored in both houses in 2013 when, after three years supporting the Rudd and Gillard governments, the party suffered a severe reverse.

The fortunes of the Greens varied from state to state. In Queensland they polled strongly and in South Australia they benefited from the collapse of the Nick Xenophon ticket. In Victoria, however, they went backwards in both houses, chiefly due to a poor performance in Melbourne where several years of bitter infighting, combined with a stronger Labor candidate in the case of Cooper (Ged Kearney), saw the party’s primary vote drop by 10 or 20 percentage points at many booths where it had previously polled very strongly. The Greens’ lamentable efforts to break through in wealthier Melbourne electorates also fell well short. In Higgins, the party’s primary vote actually fell despite a massive injection of resources, and the party sank from second to third behind Labor. In Kooyong, the Greens ran celebrity human rights lawyer Julian Burnside, who embarrassingly turned out to be a member of an exclusive men’s club for millionaires. The primary vote rose by less than 3 points to 21 percent, well short of the party’s ambitions.

So overall it seems that the Greens have found their niche support as a progressive middle class party. Their vote now looks relatively stable and nationally distributed, even if there are no signs they are about to break through anywhere into new territory, certainly not into solidly working class electorates where they continue to poll fairly poorly. In terms of determining the fate of national elections, their main contribution is to funnel votes back to the ALP from whom in many cases their votes first came.

To summarise, the Coalition has returned to office with only a modest swing towards it, courtesy of minor party preferences. The result does not indicate that the working class has swung en masse to the Coalition. The far right had a mixed outcome but remain a concern. The slight increase in support for the Greens, alongside their inability to boost their number of seats in either house, suggests that their electoral support has plateaued.

Why did Labor lose?

If Labor did not lose because “the battlers” swung towards the Coalition, what explains its unexpected loss? Several factors contributed. The main problem was not that Labor’s platform was too left wing, but that it offered too little, was incoherent and was advanced by a party and a leader with no credibility.

Labor refused to attack the big capitalists, instead going for the middle classes with a wide suite of sometimes confusing policies. These enraged the Coalition’s base, wealthy retirees and small property investors, who were whipped to white-hot anger by the Murdoch press. If the Coalition’s base was energised, the same was not true of Labor’s, who saw little in the way of transformative change on offer through the grandfathering of negative gearing changes or cuts to something called franking credits.

The ALP made very few commitments to directly lifting working class living standards. The reforms were carefully contained. Labor offered means-tested dental care for pensioners, not folded into Medicare nor available for all. It promised a review of Newstart with no commitment to raise payments, an extraordinarily miserly approach when everyone from ACOSS to John Howard and the Business Council has supported a $75-$100 increase. Some of Labor’s policies required the cooperation of the employers, meaning that they were hostage to the bosses’ goodwill. These included reversing penalty rate cuts, when we know many employers don’t pay penalty rates in any form, and a promise of increased wages for childcare workers funded by taxpayers without any guarantee the funds would not end up in the pockets of private providers who dominate the sector. For much of the time the ALP pitched to the ruling class as much as the working class, emphasising how much its elimination of middle class tax breaks would boost the budget bottom line, the lure of billions of dollars in new infrastructure contracts and a united leadership team that could overcome the “chaos” of the Morrison government. All up, the problem was not that Labor was too bold, but that it was not bold enough.

Labor’s approach to the climate crisis was worse again. It confidently proclaimed its commitment to a faster reduction in Australia’s carbon emissions and made a series of statements trying to boost its environmental credentials. And yet it refused to oppose the Adani coal mine, and then announced, mid-campaign, its plan to spend $1.5 billion to boost fracking in Queensland and the Northern Territory, with projected environmental effects worse than the Adani mine. The attempt to have it both ways cost the ALP. If it had opposed Adani, in line with public opinion nationally and even in Queensland, it might have suffered bigger swings against it in central and northern Queensland. But a more principled stance – based on a serious program of public infrastructure development in the regions and nation-wide investment in renewables – would have indicated a more genuine and radical approach to dealing with climate change. This could have helped it pick up seats in Brisbane and other urban centres, or at least limited the swing against it. Over time it could have begun to claw back votes from the right by making an argument about the viability of a worker-friendly transition away from the carbon economy. But this would have required a break with Australia’s biggest industry, something Labor is not going to do willingly. Instead Labor’s position was correctly seen as insincere and inadequate, casting further doubt on the party’s credibility as a progressive alternative to the Liberals.

The fact that the Labor party was offering very little helps explain its abysmal vote. But not just at this election. Take out Keating’s unexpected 1993 win against John Hewson and Rudd’s 2007 victory and the party’s primary vote has been falling steadily since Hawke won office in 1983. Of the 68 seats held by the party, Labor only won 14 of them on primary votes; in the remaining 54 it depends on preferences, primarily from the Greens. The party’s steadily falling support reflects the party’s consistent record of screwing its working class support base in recent decades. Whitlam’s Treasurer Bill Hayden started this in the 1975 budget, but it accelerated under Hawke and Keating in the 1980s. The ALP has paid the price. Even on many straightforward social reforms which are no challenge to capitalist interests, most obviously marriage equality, the ALP has been pathetic, disappointing and alienating potential supporters. Even if Labor’s policies at this election appeared to represent some retreat from neoliberalism, decades of doing the opposite meant that many people simply did not believe that a Shorten government would deliver. Many more, given the widespread cynicism towards politicians today, would not have even known what Labor was offering in the first place. The absence of any sharp political polarisation at the election, with no mass struggle on the one hand or ruling class counter-offensive against Labor on the other, simply reinforced the lack of popular engagement obvious throughout the campaign.

Labor’s tailing behind the Coalition on refugees, immigration and national security in the past two decades has only helped to consolidate right wing sentiments on these questions, hurting Labor’s appeal in the long run as it loses votes not just to the Greens on its left but One Nation on its right. In blue collar areas of the electorate of Rankin in Brisbane’s southern suburbs, where Labor routinely scores a primary vote of 60 to 70 percent, One Nation secured votes of 8 to 10 percent in a string of booths and up to 17 percent in a couple, while Labor’s primary vote dropped by the same amount. In McMahon, in Sydney’s outer western suburbs, tightly held by Labor for decades, its primary vote fell by 7.4 points while the One Nation candidate, standing for the first time, notched up 8.3 percent. In the seat of Hunter in NSW, held by Labor since 1910, with the party scoring a primary vote of 60 percent as a matter of course, the swing from Labor to One Nation in some of its strongest booths was even more dramatic: in coalmining centres Cessnock and Muswellbrook, Labor’s primary vote was down by anything from 15 to 24 percent, while a first-time One Nation candidate received between 19 and 28 percent. The Hunter outcome may not be typical for NSW because the future of coal mining was central to the campaign, but the result indicates the weakness of Labor’s flanks in one of its traditional strongholds.

Finally, leader Bill Shorten personified Labor’s broader problems at the federal election. The Liberals themselves could not have dreamt up a more uninspiring figure. As a lifelong bureaucrat known for doing dodgy deals while a leader of the Australian Workers Union, and a factional power-broker during the Rudd and Gillard governments, Shorten represented all the worst and most hated aspects of the Labor party. Additionally, his Xavier College education, his Melbourne University MBA, his two marriages into blue-blood families, and his close association with billionaire Dick Pratt who helped smooth his path to power, meant that he could not convey his rhetoric about taking on the top end of town with any conviction. Indeed, his stilted speeches, achingly elongated pauses and focus-grouped slogans reflected far more than his unique lack of charisma: this was the visible manifestation of the cynicism with which he executed Labor’s tepid social democratic turn. It should be no surprise that nobody bought what he was selling.

The costs of electioneering

The decision by the unions and many campaign groups to abandon workplace and grassroots activism in favour of electioneering was the biggest overhead with the federal election. The effect was most damaging for the unions since they are by far the biggest mass organisation capable of shifting politics in Australia. For more than two years the unions threw all their resources and energy into the Change the Rules campaign in an attempt to replicate the success of the 2005-07 Your Rights at Work campaign that helped toss out the Howard government. The ACTU accumulated a massive war chest for electioneering and spent $25 million over the two-year campaign, much of it on TV and radio advertising. Thousands of unionists marched in rallies intended primarily to foster enthusiasm and recruit volunteers for the election campaign. Union staffers and volunteers spent countless hours staffing polling booths, phone banking, and door knocking in marginal seats. Meanwhile industrial action, strikes and workplace organising, desperately needed to revitalise our unions and reverse their decades-long decline, continued to be largely ignored.

Change the Rules was a blank cheque for the ALP. The ACTU made few demands on the Labor party and, after having extracted some modest commitments from Labor to abolish the ABCC, restore penalty rates, restrict labour hire and make it a little easier for unions to get their foot in the door to negotiate enterprise agreements, the unions went into bat hard for the ALP. No mention was made that these were Labor’s rules that the ACTU was now committed to change, nor that Bill Shorten was the workplace relations minister during the Gillard government when they were in force. No public ultimatums were drawn up for the Labor party to deliver on, failing which the unions would not campaign for them. Instead, at the last round of Change the Rules rallies in early May, the only message from the union leaders was that to change the rules, we had to change the government. With the unions in Labor’s pocket, the party was left completely unchallenged on its union flank.

Environmental campaign groups were no better. In December and March, tens of thousands of school students took part in school climate strikes, walking out of school to protest at their futures being destroyed by big business and government. These were the first such school walk-outs since the start of the Iraq War in 2003 and were characterised by huge energy and impressive local organising by students taking part in their first political action.

But with the election date announced, the Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC), which had done much of the behind the scenes work to make the strikes happen, decided to turn the next strike date, scheduled for 3 May, over to decentralised electorally-oriented actions outside the offices of MPs. The AYCC operates within the orbit of the ALP and for it, like for the unions, the election was the main game. The decision to suspend any serious future strikes was not the product of any assessment regarding the likely success of a third national strike, but cynically taken in order to redirect those involved into getting the vote out for the ALP. “Action” at what was called “the climate election” now took the form of volunteers doing a few stunts and handing out climate change how to vote cards. In Canberra, for example, which had seen 4,000 school students demonstrating at the second school strike on 15 March, the AYCC organised a “human chain” outside the offices of politicians in an attempt to appeal to them: turnout slumped to just 80. In Wollongong, attendance fell from 500 at a rally in the city centre in March to fewer than 100 at an action in early May which involved high schoolers lining up outside the office of local Labor representative Sharon Bird and then entering, one by one, to individually lobby Bird. In Adelaide, plans for a central rally on 3 May were shelved in favour of holding dispersed events outside the offices of politicians. The outcome of these poorly-attended stunts was demoralisation among the better school student activists who concluded from the low turnout that people no longer cared about climate change.

Stop Adani campaigning was also drawn into the election cycle. The Stop Adani groups, while not so beholden to the ALP as a semi-official Labor party front group like the AYCC, also oriented to the Labor party. In Queensland, Stop Adani showered praise on the Palasczcuk government, declaring its decision to veto a federal government loan to Adani in 2017 as a big victory for the campaign. Stop Adani in Brisbane consistently targeted the LNP in protests outside politicians’ offices, even though Labor was in office, and enthusiastically promoted even the smallest token measure by the state government. Unlike the school strikers and trade unions, Stop Adani groups were always hostile to mass mobilisation in city centre rallies, so their decision to hold dispersed lobbies of politicians’ offices in the suburbs, again focusing on Coalition MPs, in the weeks leading up to the election was hardly unexpected. In Sydney the Stop Adani groups doorknocked in Grayndler, Anthony Albanese’s electorate in the inner west, with canvassers instructed not to criticise Albanese since their aim was to win him over, against any evidence that he was open to opposing Adani. In Melbourne, Stop Adani letterboxed in the seat of Macnamara (formerly Melbourne Ports), distributing material that gave the best possible gloss to the ALP. The effect was the same as Change the Rules: the environmental groups gave Labor a free pass. The ALP was therefore under no pressure to shift position on Adani. Not even the announcement of $1.5 billion to extend fracking was enough to convince official environmental campaign groups to withdraw their support.

The issue of tailing the ALP has long been an issue for refugee campaign groups going back many years. Apologies for the ALP, despite its support for a refugee detention regime condemned worldwide, have come not just within the ALP itself but from sections of the left who regard winning over the ALP by polite lobbying as a precondition to winning any amelioration in the abusive treatment of refugees. This has led to Labor politicians being given platforms at rallies without any demands upon them to denounce party policy and, in order not to upset the ALP, Greens politicians being denied the same opportunity, despite their superior refugee policies. This same softness on the ALP was a feature of interventions by refugee groups at this election: protests were called outside the offices of Coalition politicians but not Labor’s. As Bill Shorten used every opportunity to explain how he had exactly the same policy as the Liberals, refugee groups designed how to vote material that found ingenious ways of presenting the ALP’s appalling positions on asylum seekers as substantial improvements on the status quo.

Then there was GetUp!, which mobilised thousands of its supporters to defeat a selection of right wing Liberal politicians. In the seat of Dickson in Brisbane, GetUp! organised 1,500 volunteers to try to turf out home affairs minister Peter Dutton. But few questions were put to his Labor opponent Ali France who, as soon as she was endorsed as the Labor candidate, scrubbed her social media profile of any references critical of Labor’s refugee policies. In Warringah, GetUp! threw its weight behind the campaign to unseat Tony Abbott, despite his opponent Zali Steggall’s support for tax and public spending cuts, and her promise to support a minority Coalition government if required. Steggall defeated Abbott, but drew more of her support from Labor and the Greens voters than she did from disaffected Liberal supporters. The same leakage of votes from Labor and the Greens to a Liberal in all but name was evident in Flinders, where former Liberal MP Julia Banks ran as an independent, albeit in her case not enough to beat the Liberal incumbent. Again, Labor was under no pressure from GetUp! to fight on a more left wing platform.

We can see how in all these cases, subordinating unions and campaign groups to the ALP drew them away from mobilising independent campaigns capable of winning genuinely progressive outcomes. Instead, their orientation reduced them to appendages of the ALP.

With one or two exceptions, the vast resources poured into marginal seats campaigning did not shift votes. Of the 14 seats targeted by the ACTU where the 2016 and 2019 results are comparable, Labor’s primary vote slipped by more than the national average in 10 of them. Only in Gilmore in south coast NSW, where the conservative vote split three ways, did union campaigning take a seat from the Liberals. GetUp!’s election campaign was similarly ineffective: several of its targets actually enjoyed swings towards them and none, except Abbott, lost office. Even if the unions and the various campaign groups had succeeded in throwing out Coalition politicians, however, the result would still not have been a step forward. The ALP is equally committed to boat turnbacks and offshore processing. It is equally committed to giving the Adani coal mine the go-ahead, opening up the Galilee Basin and greenlighting fracking. And the ALP proved itself to be no friend of the union movement last time it held office under the Rudd and Gillard governments. The unions and the campaign groups, however, tried their best to disguise these facts. This undermines any understanding that we need to fight the ALP as much as we do the Coalition.

Where now?

Understanding that the Coalition scratched out a fairly modest election win, that it has been returned to office with a fairly narrow parliamentary edge over its opponents and that it did not win over a new low-income constituency repelled by the prospect of a few extremely limited social democratic reforms is important in determining what comes next in Australian politics.

The argument that the Coalition’s win represented a rebuff to progressive welfare and tax reforms is convenient, quite obviously to the Coalition itself which now claims a mandate to pursue further regressive changes to income tax schedules, to cut “red tape” holding back business, to pursue a new round of anti-union laws and to give the go-ahead to the opening of new coal mines.

But it is also convenient for the Labor party which, in the weeks following the election, has shifted sharply to the right. Within the first sitting week of the new parliament it waved through the Coalition’s regressive income tax reforms and in the Senate voted for a Nationals’ motion to “support the development of the Carmichael mine project and the opening of the Galilee Basin” and against a Greens motion to raise Newstart by $75 a week. In a double snub to the LGBTI community, the ALP announced that it would work with the Morrison government on so-called “religious freedoms” legislation, which is designed to allow religious groups to discriminate against LGBTI people, and to strip out references to LGBTI policies in the party’s national platform. On refugees, home affairs shadow minister Kristina Keneally, who in 2018 had urged the Turnbull government to bring refugees held offshore to Australia, has now expressed her support for boat turnbacks and offshore processing and attacked Dutton from the right for “losing control” of the asylum seeker intake. Keneally was backed by assistant shadow minister, Andrew Giles, who in 2001 had represented the Tampa asylum seekers and in 2015 moved at the ALP national conference to reject boat turnbacks.

Labor’s shift to the right is one element of the political climate after the election. Another is demoralisation among the unions and campaign groups who see in the party’s defeat only evidence that social change in Australia is impossible and that retreat is the order of the day. This is despite the fact, as I have argued, that Labor would have followed almost identical policies to the Liberal government on climate, refugees, industrial relations and a host of other issues.

Thankfully, the belief that the election result requires several months of grieving and introspection is not universally accepted. If AYCC and Stop Adani have gone to ground, declaring that the fight over the Carmichael mine is lost, other environmental activists have stepped into the breach. Just six days after the election, 5,000 turned out on the streets of Melbourne, with more than 1,000 taking part in actions in other cities as part of the global climate strike. Two weeks later hundreds turned out again in cities around the country and on 21 June Brisbane saw its biggest civil disobedience action for many years as 2,000 anti-Adani protesters occupied the city’s Victoria Bridge and South Bank for two hours. Socialist Alternative and other organisations that had put no store in the ALP were central to organising these demonstrations, with an emphasis on mass, disruptive actions in the city centres.

It is actions such as these, with several more national mobilisations planned in coming months, that show a way forward for the resistance we need to push back against the Morrison government. Contrary to the prevailing pessimism, it is possible to fight the Coalition and win: we did it with Tony Abbott’s proposed university cuts and student fee deregulation in 2014 and we did it again with marriage equality in 2017.

The Coalition may only be two seats away from losing its majority on the floor of parliament, but simply waiting on Labor to save us is foolish. It is not just that wiping out the Coalition’s parliamentary majority may be more difficult than its two-seat margin might suggest, given its success in sandbagging several of its marginal seats at this election.[7] The main problem is that tagging along behind the Labor party has weakened extra-parliamentary campaigning and the organisations we need to build to fight for the kind of radical change necessary to save the planet, to fight for workers’ and refugees’ rights and, ultimately, to get rid of the whole damned system that has got us to this point.

[1] Nick Evershed, “The eight charts that help explain why the Coalition won the 2019 Australian election”, The Guardian, 22 May 2019.

[2] The vote for the “official” ALP was lower in the 1931 and 1934 federal elections, but if votes for the Lang Labor party are added to those of the ALP, the combined votes were higher than the united ALP received in 2019.

[3] While parties can no longer direct preferences once their vote is exhausted in the way they could until 2016, they do have influence over where their supporters place their preferences by virtue of how to vote cards. Evidently, voters are under no obligation to follow how to vote cards, but for the sake of simplicity I am assuming that the majority do in the analysis that follows: this is particularly likely in circumstances where the how to vote card is in line with voters’ own inclinations, as with One Nation recommendations that their supporters place Coalition candidates over Labor.

[4] In coming months, the results of the regular Australian Election Study led by the ANU’s Ian McAllister, the latest iteration of a survey undertaken every election since 1987, will also become available and will add much more to our understanding of the result.

[5] Shaun Ratcliff, “It’s a myth that Aussie battlers handed the Coalition its election victory”, The Guardian, 27 May 2019.

[6] The most recent ABS data indicate that median gross household income in 2015-16 was $1616 per week. ABS, Household Income and Wealth, Australia, 2015-16, cat. No. 6523.0.

[7] The Coalition parties shifted 13 of their seats from “marginal” to “safe” or “fairly safe” by the calculations of the Australian Electoral Commission, while Labor achieved this in only four cases. Of the 20 most marginal seats which would change hands on a two-party preferred swing of 3 percent or less, Labor now holds 14, the Coalition just five.

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Diane Fieldes looks at the dismal experience of the Gillard government. She argues that the formation of a minority Labor government with the backing of the Greens and populist independents did not create an opportunity for the left as many thought it would in 2010.

Our unions in crisis: how did it come to this?

Tom Bramble, drawing on decades of research and active involvement in the labour movement, argues that 35 years of passivity and class collaboration rather than an emphasis on militant, class struggle unionism is the core reason our unions are in crisis.

British Labour, Australian Labor: splits and insurgencies

In the context of the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, Tom Bramble compares the history of splits and struggles in the Australian Labor Party with those of its British counterpart.