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Australian Politics, Upside-Down

eye on the news

Australian Politics, Upside-Down

A populist revolt stuns Canberra, and elites respond predictably. May 20, 2019
Politics and law

The Liberal/National Party’s election victory in Australia on May 18 was the latest electoral result to shock the punditry. Like Brexit and Donald Trump, it was a conservative victory that few expected. Voters in Queensland, Australia’s agricultural and industrial power center, turned to the LNP in support of the proposed Carmichael coal mine that would provide up to 5,000 jobs to the local economy—but which the Labor Party and Green Party opposed. Labor’s supposedly unlosable “climate change election” proved a debacle, as exit polls predicting that the party would gain up to 18 seats turned out to be wildly inaccurate. With postal votes and some others still to be counted, the LNP was poised to pick up three seats and win an outright majority in the 150-seat House of Representatives.

As they did in Britain and America in 2016, elites have cast the result as a failure of conservative voters to understand what’s good for them. LNP coalition voters were “angry,” and Prime Minister Scott Morrison used “scaremongering” to exploit the rubes (though Labor’s apocalyptic language about the urgency of reducing carbon emissions was frightening in its own right). The result has revealed that disappointed Labor supporters are plenty angry themselves ("RIP Australia" is trending on Twitter), though much of their anger is directed at Queensland voters.

Queensland locals did not take kindly to a former Green Party leader’s 400-person, 1,700-mile motor convoy from Hobart, Tasmania to the Clarmont in Queensland’s Galilee Basin to protest the new coal mine, also known as the Adani mine for the Indian company that will develop it. Some local businesses closed their doors to the “Stop Adani” caravan, and activists reported threats and hostility from locals supportive of the project. The showdown became a proxy for a larger battle between the major parties, as Labor put global warming and emissions reduction at the forefront of an ambitious policy agenda.

By contrast, the LNP coalition supports the Adani project, though the party made few other promises beyond maintaining the economic status quo—a rational approach, given that Australia has not endured a recession since 1991. The LNP proposed a 10-year tax-cut plan and assistance to new homebuyers, appealing to older- and middle class-voters. Like Trump, Morrison positioned himself as a populist, campaigning against Australia’s political class in Canberra.

Social media exploded when the outcome of the vote became certain. Some Australians abroad vowed not to come home; some who voted in support of Australia’s version of a Green New Deal proclaimed that their sympathy for farmers enduring severe drought, or for those living in economically depressed areas of Queensland, had run out. Cattlemen who lived through Australia’s repeated, severe droughts apparently did not grasp, as Melbourne artists did, that only by voting Labor could they save themselves from dry seasons and severe weather. Likewise, aspiring coal workers in the Galilee Basin who supported the Adani project clearly failed to understand that, by voting for the LNP, they were effectively supporting the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef.

Former prime minister Tony Abbott noted the realignment of the nation’s voters in analyzing the loss of his own seat in the Warringah area of Sydney. He cited the popularity of the Labor Party’s far Left and of the Greens in high-income areas, and the corresponding rejection of the Labor Party by voters in less well-off districts. Some former Labor supporters say that the party now represents an alliance of the affluent and hipster anti-capitalists; both factions despise the party’s working-class base.

The political realignment is familiar to observers of the Brexit vote and the 2016 American presidential election. The losers, again, will have to accept that persuasion is made more difficult by insisting that anyone who disagrees with them is stupid or immoral. Voters clearly rejected Labor’s our-way-or-the-highway environmental austerity. In Australia, finding common ground on these issues shouldn’t be so difficult: the Liberal-National coalition is openminded about renewable energy and has staked out moderate positions. In drought-stricken areas of Queensland, farmers have been innovative in water conservation and environmental stewardship. The way forward for Labor is to dispense with the vitriol and make a genuine effort to reach out to voters who chose economic stability over progressive extremism.

Photo by Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images

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