‘Morrison’s Miracle Election’: The End of Uncertainty

In 1992, prominent Australian political commentator Paul Kelly published his seminal book, The End of Certainty, which examined Australia’s monumental economic, strategic, and political reforms in the 1980s. Kelly chose the title to underscore the enormity of the structural change the Bob Hawke and Paul Keating-led Australian Labor Party (ALP) government had made to end what had been Australia’s methodical and cautious approach to its affairs since Australia gained independence from Great Britain in 1901.

On Saturday, May 18, Prime Minister Scott Morrison pulled off one of the most extraordinary election wins in modern Australian political history that hopefully will end the uncertainty that has resulted from the constant turnover of prime ministers in Canberra over the last decade.

Already the election has entered the history books as “Morrison’s Miracle” after Morrison dispatched the main opposition party, the ALP, and its leader Bill Shorten in a victory that many believed impossible. Betting agencies had the ALP at 8:1 odds as favorites and had even started paying money out to “winners”—those who had backed the ALP—48 hours before the first vote was counted.

The ALP, rightly sensing victory was a near certainty over a period of at least 18 months, ran a campaign on big-picture policy items: climate change, an aggressive tax agenda, major changes to economic policies, and an overall message of “stop the chaos” of the past decade in Australian politics and a reset of relations with China. It was a message that fell spectacularly flat.

Morrison has now emerged as Australia’s most formidable leader in over a decade and the man most empowered to end Australia’s decade-long leadership roller coaster and provide the political stability the country craves.

Many Australian and international commentators are calling his win Australia’s “Trump-Brexit moment” and contending that the Australian people voted against the orthodoxy and demanded change to the status-quo. Commentators have made much in this election of blue-collar voters breaking for the Liberal National Party (LNP) and the educated, affluent inner-city demographic voting ALP—a reversal of the traditional base for each side, though this a trend that has been evident in Australia for some time to anyone who was watching and listening.

Commentators also point to an emerging north-south geographic divide in the national voting pattern—in this case, the LNP made big gains in Australia’s more conservative and rural north, while the ALP vote held largely solid in “the Massachusetts of Australia” and in urban areas in Australia’s major capital cities in the southeast.

But again, these Australia-U.S. analogies fall short. Due to Australia’s unique mandatory voting law, political parties must concentrate their appeal to the large center of undecided voters who make or break elections.

There is no “solid base” so to speak as in the American case and unlike the decades-long “lock” for large parts of the United States for the Republican Party (the south) or the Democratic Party (the north-east), Australia’s voting patterns and geographic strongholds for parties can and do change election by election. No Australian political leader can ever assume that a certain state is “locked in,” and nor do they. Australia’s elections are won seat by seat.

At its core, this was election about stability, not change. After enduring 6 prime ministers in 11 years, unprecedented disruption to social and demographic norms, the negative consequences of the vocal extremes on both social media and the 24-hour news channels, Australians simply became fed up; the decision to continue with the LNP is the result.

Morrison inherited the prime ministership from Malcolm Turnbull only nine months ago. Morrison came to office, like the several before him, following an internal party coup—a feature of Westminster parliamentary politics in which party leadership is decided by a plurality of the party’s parliamentary caucus. Morrison, who had not initiated the coup against Turnbull, emerged as the consensus centrist candidate among his party’s parliamentary caucus to inherit a government consumed by internal in-fighting, utterly demoralized, and trailing in every opinion poll for over two years at that point.

Turnbull himself had only come into the prime ministership in 2015 after he toppled another sitting LNP prime minister, Tony Abbott, who had only been in office since 2013.

The ALP too had their own leadership problems during their most recent period in office from 2007 – 2013. After winning office in 2007, following 11 years of LNP rule under conservative leader John Howard, new ALP prime minister Kevin Rudd ran a government more focused on passing big-ticket policy items than administrative matters. His lack of focus caused him to rapidly lost the confidence of his caucus colleagues. After a succession of poll and policy failures, he was toppled by his deputy, Julia Gillard, in an ALP leadership coup in 2010, who in turn became Australia’s first female prime minister.

After three years of Gillard, amid bitter factional in-fighting, Rudd launched a party room coup (he served as Gillard’s foreign minister) to return to the prime ministership in mid-2013, only to lose the office some three months later to the Abbott-led LNP in the general election.

Morrison’s win last week will most likely signal the end of the drama of the past decade. The Australian people have simply had enough, and the major parties know it.

Following the last change in leadership (on both sides), the ALP and LNP have tightened their internal party mechanisms for removing sitting leaders. They needed to. This reform will allow leaders to focus on policy and messaging to the electorate without the constant internal party factional management that has been the focus for too long. Importantly, it also sends a signal to the world that Australia is back in thecertainty game after its decade-long detour into near constant uncertainty.

What is next for Morrison?

First, Morrison will seek to restore faith in the Australian political system and to pursue a message of stability and continuity. He will implement his domestic agenda. Tax reform and the economy will dominate his government’s focus. Morrison will seek to reassure and to demonstrate to the electorate (and business) that his government is pro-growth and pro-export. He will reduce regulations that he has argued dampens both the export and service sectors of the Australian economy.

The Morrison government will also push for the opening of the Adani coalmine in the state of Queensland (an issue that resonated deeply with LNP voters in that state), while walking a high-wire act to reduce carbon emissions, meet Australia’s international climate commitments, and politically neutralize climate change as a domestic “hot button” issue. He will also seek to cautiously begin transitioning Australia’s coal export dependent economy to new energy sectors, recognizing the global shift that is slowly underway.

In his approach to foreign and security policy, Morrison will not make any significant adjustments to Australia’s current policy settings.

The United States will remain the cornerstone of Australia’s security, and Morrison will seek to develop and deepen personal relationships with President Trump, while avoiding megaphone diplomacy when and where Australia disagrees with the United States. This will be especially the case on the current point of difference in the alliance—the U.S. non-membership in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The Morrison government will seek to reach out to China and reset the deep freeze the relationship has been in over the past two years, but Australia will do so with a clear eye to make sure that Beijing understands Australia will not downgrade or disrupt its relationship with the United States for the sake of China.

The Morrison government will also seek to galvanize his Pacific reset strategy, which was announced in November 2018. Launched in conjunction with allies including the United States, New Zealand, and Japan, Morrison’s government will seek to further deepen ties to its near region to offset the influence of China and foster a greater community of nations in Australia’s immediate neighborhood.

Expect to see Morrison working to deepen the flourishing Australia-Japan bilateral security relationship and explore regional minilateral opportunities with like-minded nations such as India and New Zealand, while doubling down on the enormous strides in Australia’s relationship with Indonesia. Australia will also strongly pursue its bipartisan commitment to the global rules-based order via the promotion of free and open trade (including pursing a free trade agreement with a post-Brexit United Kingdom). His government will further seek to demonstrate Australia’s reliability to its alliance and multilateral commitments by maintaining its military training force presence in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Back at home, Morrison will seek to end the uncertainty that has marked Australian politics now for so long. If the past decade has taught Australia anything, it is that the world is moving faster and more rapidly than ever before.

Australians will be expecting their government to manage that change, and Australia’s friends and allies around the world will be hoping that the end of Australia’s decade-long political uncertainty has arrived.

Patrick G. Buchan is a fellow with Alliances and American Leadership Project with a focus on Indo-Pacific security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C .

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Patrick Gerard Buchan