The Bully Versus the Bore: Australia Chooses the Least-Abhorred

In the 1990 gubernatorial contest between David Duke and Edwin Edwards, Louisiana had “the wizard versus the lizard.” Nothing so journalistically neat marked Australia’s May 21 national election, a quasi-presidential contest between incumbent Liberal Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Australian Labor Party challenger Anthony Albanese. This contest amounted to no more gripping of a contest than the Bully (Morrison) versus the Bore (Albanese). The Bore won.

Not, it has to be said, by a big margin. Neither the ALP nor Morrison’s Liberal-National Coalition succeeded in winning the 76 seats in Canberra’s House of Representatives that would ensure a parliamentary majority. The ALP could be obligated to content itself with minority-government status. As these words are being written, the counting of postal votes has yet to be finalized. But the ALP indubitably has at least 74 seats; the Coalition (which had been in power since 2013) has been reduced to 57 seats; and an unprecedented fourteen seats have gone either to minor parties or, more dramatically, to the “teal independents.”

Who are the “teal independents”? They are a broadly collegiate group of white, upper-middle-class women—the U.S.’s nearest demographic equivalent would be “soccer moms”—moved to enter political life by the Morrison administration’s incorrigible sleaze, and above all by its sheer ineptitude on climate change and public health issues. (The “teal” part of their corporate name refers to nothing more than the dominating color of their campaign literature.)

Liberal parliamentarians who had enjoyed double-digit electoral margins throughout their careers—who, indeed, had in past contests scarcely stooped to campaign at all, so confident were they of retaining their jobs—abruptly found themselves unemployed. Most invigorating among the upsets was that of Tim Wilson, two-term Liberal representative for the wealthy Melbourne seat of Goldstein and the worst sort of taxpayer-funded anarcho-capitalist, who, in 2017 (just to add to his charms), proposed “marriage” to his long-standing boyfriend during a parliamentary session.

But several other hitherto unconquerable Liberals also found themselves inundated by the teal wave: notably Victoria-based Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, long regarded as a possible future Liberal leader; Western-Australia-based Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt; and Dave Sharma of New South Wales (former Australian ambassador to Israel). Defense Minister Peter Dutton suffered a 9-percent swing against him, despite being helped by endorsements from Clive Palmer’s populist-rightist United Australia Party. Assistant Treasurer Michael Sukkar, whose constituency takes in various outer northern suburbs of Melbourne, is currently hanging on by his fingernails.

How did things go so disastrously wrong for Morrison’s Liberals? Whatever the cause of their plight, it failed to hamper their National coalition partners, who kept all ten of their own existing seats.

Certainly no overwhelming popular excitement about Albanese accounts for his electoral success. As a public speaker, he is nasal, mostly forgettable, and sometimes—not least in the campaign’s early days—gaffe-prone. In a way, though, his very absence of dynamism proved to be his best asset. Few voters loved him, but nobody hated him either, and after the COVID crises—not to mention Morrison’s ill-timed Hawaiian vacation during Australia’s January 2020 bushfires (“I don’t hold a hose,” the Dear Leader disingenuously assured interviewers)—mere failure to generate loathing worked to Albanese’s advantage.

Morrison, within months of his surprise 2019 electoral victory—which not a single opinion poll managed to predict—had already begun to dissipate his political capital. He went steadily on dissipating it. So great an embarrassment had he grown to his own side that most Liberal campaign advertising never mentioned his name or showed his visage. New South Wales’s Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, in her final speech as senator, described Morrison as “an autocrat,” “a bully” with “no moral compass,” altogether “unfit for office.” And she belonged to Morrison’s own party.

Throughout mainland Australia (that is, not including Tasmania), the voters’ fundamental desire consisted of expelling Morrison’s government by any means available: preferably without the need to resort to the ALP, but through resorting to the ALP if no other weapon showed itself. Other than aversion to Morrison, however, nothing demographically united the electoral results, which were, quite literally, all over the map.

Although the ALP expected to make gains in Queensland (its weakest point three years ago), it did no more than hold the line there, and in some electorates, its support shrank from 2019 levels. The state’s anti-Morrison protest, far from aiding the ALP, manifested itself as an extraordinarily productive campaign by the Greens, who now have at least two House of Representatives seats and who scored more than 10 percent of the national vote.

Where the ALP fared outstandingly well, surpassing its own expectations and everyone else’s, was in a state where it usually fails to gain much traction: Western Australia. Across the nation as a whole, the average swing towards the ALP was around 3 percent. But in Western Australia, it was nearly 11 percent. “States’ Rights” pride remains strong in the west—a good deal stronger than it is anywhere else in the country—and the state already had an extremely popular ALP premier, Mark McGowan, who at last year’s election walloped the Liberal-National alliance by a ludicrously large margin (53 seats to six in the state legislature!). McGowan played the States’ Rights card very cleverly and with considerable ruthlessness against Morrison during the worst of the pandemic disruptions. Morrison’s typically maladroit description of Western Australians as “cave dwellers” confirmed their worst suspicions of him.

Why did Tasmania, alone among the states, stick with the status quo? Two reasons suggest themselves.

First, Tasmania has had for the last eight years a sequence of competent, unpretentious, pragmatic, and esteemed Liberal premiers: Will Hodgman, Peter Gutwein, and (since 2022) Jeremy Rockliff. In other words, Tasmania shows that even now, Australians are entirely prepared to vote for the Liberals, on condition that they are not bunglers like Morrison.

Second, Tasmania suffered fewer restrictions and smaller caseloads during the worst of COVID than the mainland did. Its isolation, which so often in the past has hindered it economically, redounded to its benefit when a pandemic emerged.

Nationally, the ALP’s raw vote was unimpressive. Like the Liberal Party and like almost every other mainstream legislative movement in the Western world, the ALP has been losing card-carrying members (not to mention loyal volunteers for door-knocking campaigns and so forth) at a rate that as recently as the 1990s was unimaginable. Labor won office on May 21, not at all because vast numbers of people had the ALP as their first choice (in fact, only about 32 percent of people did) but because more than half of the voters had the ALP as their second choice, third choice, or fourth choice. Since Australia operates on a preferential voting system—rather than the first-past-the-post system used by Britain’s House of Commons or, indeed, the winner-take-all system enshrined in America’s Electoral College—the fact that few people actually abhorred the ALP sufficed of itself to let Albanese win.

Ever since entering parliament in 1996 as representative for the working-class Sydney seat of Grayndler, Albanese has inspired tedium. If as Prime Minister he stays tedious, he will be providing for COVID-frayed Australian nerves a balm far more laudable than the Vision Thing of many another politician.


Top: Prime Minister Anthony Albanese (Australian government official portrait photo)

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