A new Labor government, and the Liberals face an identity crisis
23 May 2022|

Australia has a new government and the climate war draws to a close.

The voters have delivered a realignment of politics as well as power.

Labor has crept back into office with a historically low primary vote. Only one third of electors made the party their first choice.

The ALP is triumphant but this is more tough win than triumph. Still, a ‘win is a win’, a pragmatic phrase for a close election that’s changed much.

Anthony Albanese is Australia’s 31st prime minister. He joins Gough Whitlam (1972), Bob Hawke (1983), and Kevin Rudd (2007), to become the fourth Labor leader to take the party from opposition to government since World War II.

After nine years in office, the Liberal Party is pushed into purgatory, losing House of Representatives seats to Labor, the Greens and independents.

Electorally, the heart has been ripped from the Libs; they’ve lost a swathe of heartland suburban seats that have defined the party. They’ve toppled from their base, symbolised by the loss of Kooyong by the deputy leader, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg. Kooyong isn’t just heartland, it’s the heart—the seat held by Robert Menzies, the founder of the Liberal Party. The  identity crisis arrives as a heart attack.

The colour imagery of the ‘teal’ independents gets it exactly—the teals merge the Liberal blue with the climate imperatives of the Greens. Thus, the teals attacked from the Liberal centre in those heartland seats as the base rose up.

In claiming victory, Albanese declared, ‘Together we can end the climate wars.’ Victory for the teals, as much as for Labor, defines the result of the war.

The Liberal history of denialism crashed into an electorate that’s decided the science is settled. The ABC’s Election Compass found climate change was the top election issue nominated by 25% of respondents.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison strained mightily to drag the Libs closer to the science side of the fight, but he becomes another political casualty of climate. On the roll of those who fell on the front line, Morrison joins Malcolm Turnbull, Tony Abbott, Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd—five prime ministers whose careers were deeply wounded and then truncated by the conflict.

The five prime ministerial casualties reflect the intensity of the climate war that has run for 15 years. Following a decade of skirmishing, date the start of major hostilities from 2007, when John Howard lost office. Howard took some wounds in the climate debate, but it wasn’t the defining issue in the defeat of his government.

Indeed, if we’d implemented the 2007 climate policies of either John Howard or Kevin Rudd (and they had much in common) we’d be much further down the road to where Australia needs to be. The climate war has sent us wandering through no-man’s land for 15 years, and the teal women have declared that we’re finished with that no-man’s stuff.

Today’s identity crisis for the Liberal Party shows how international issues have shaped and remade Australian political parties during our 120 years of federation.

Labor split three times during the 20th century—in World War I, the Great Depression, and over the challenge of communism (in Bob Carr’s vivid phrase, ‘Labor blew its brains out’). Nothing so dramatic for the conservative temperament. Instead, the anti-Labor parties spent the first half of the 20th century fusing and rebranding themselves under half a dozen party banners.

The Menzies genius—calling politics ‘both a fine art and an inexact science’—was to create a Liberal brand that’s endured for 75 years and constantly delivered power. Now the Libs must refashion their identity to save the brand.

Savour the brutal efficiency of an Australian election. Counting started as the polls closed at 6pm on Saturday. Just after 10pm, Morrison rang Albanese to concede defeat. By 10.50pm, Morrison was speaking to Australia, announcing he’d step down as Liberal leader. Fifteen minutes before midnight, to chants of ‘Albo’, the man who will serve as the 31st  prime minister fronted the cameras.

The electoral efficiency is delivered by the sturdy structures of Australian democracy—the political and policy agreements of a successful country that has much that it can agree on. That truth was reflected in the Labor–Liberal consensus in defence and foreign policy and the shared refusal to surrender to China’s trade coercion.

Almost as soon as Albanese is sworn in as prime minister today, he’ll board the plane for the Quad summit in Japan. That’s continuity in action. The Quad message to Beijing from Albanese is that China has to do the reset: we can talk after you take your hands off our throat.

Labor has embraced the AUKUS agreement Morrison created with the UK and US. AUKUS is Morrison’s defence legacy. If the nuclear submarines surface, then AUKUS becomes his monument in the same way Menzies holds ANZUS.

History should give Morrison a better score than Turnbull and Abbott in judging nine years of Liberal government. Abbott took the Libs back to office, but the party cut him down as unsuitable after only two years. Turnbull bears the scars of a leader deposed twice by his colleagues, both in government and in opposition.

Morrison confronted Covid-19, climate change and China and the new era of strategic competition.

On climate, he dragged the Libs to the point where he was talking about ‘decarbonisation’ as a positive rather than a negative, stepping beyond his performance as treasurer, when Morrison brandished a lump of coal in parliament. His achievement as prime minister was to disarm the Liberal denialism on net-zero emissions. As political performance inside the party, ScoMo nailed a political pirouette, doing bomb disposal while zooming down the mountain on one ski.

The new parliament will define the terms of the settlement in the climate war, delivering benefits that will be both domestic and international.

Join that thought about Australia’s national need and international standing to Albanese’s pledge to hold a referendum to write our First Nations peoples into the constitution, to honour ‘the oldest living continuous culture in the world’.

Change the government, change the country.